By Frank Decker
When the Rev. Richard Gongwer of Indiana said goodbye to his oldest son and family, including his only grandchild at the time, he didnt realize that a parenthetical comment he made would plant a seed that would continue to bear fruit more than a decade later. His physician son Cameron, daughter-in-law Anne, and their infant daughter Caylor were leaving Indiana to serve as missionaries in West Africa. Anne explains, As we were preparing to leave, Camerons dad quietly said, You know, over the years Ive noticed that the missionaries who stay a long time are the most effective.
In the days when missionaries traveled by ship, missionary service was commonly characterized by long, even lifetime terms of service. Today, however, rapid transportation and electronic communications have made the world a smaller place, contributing to a trend of shorter missionary tenures. That is why, in todays world of quick-strike missions and the perpetual quest for increasingly efficient means of sharing the gospel, I am encouraged by the example of those who go and stay for many years.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of The Mission Society. To represent the approximately 500 missionaries whom that agency has sent out, I asked Cameron and Anne to reflect on what has enabled them to serve for eleven years in a village named Ankaase, where the Methodist Faith Healing Hospital has combined a focus on faith in Jesus Christ with medical service.
In retrospect, Cameron and Anne shared that the single most important ingredient necessary to establish a solid foundation for enduring ministry is to enter that work with the attitude of a learner. The Gongwers said that listening to their hosts was absolutely essential in beginning their service. In addition to the initial challenge of learning a new language, Cameron states that instead of inserting his opinion from the perspective of an American doctor, I simply had to listen in order to understand why they did certain things differently, whether it applied to sterilization techniques, the organization of medical files, or how they set up the accounting system for a clinic. When a problem at the hospital arose, I would often go to the Ghanaian regional health officials and ask for their counsel concerning the best way to approach the issue. Likewise, as Anne became involved in literacy worka pursuit that has resulted in the training of many literacy teachers and the establishment of the Reading Town library in Ankaase she listened and subsequently relied on wisdom from methods that had previously been proven in that African context, rather than simply import her own ideas and programs into the situation.
While initiating their missionary careers with the posture of learners provided a healthy taproot for lasting ministry, the Gongwers agree that perseverance and patience enabled them to build upon that foundation. Anne states, The Ghanaians have a common phrase, exercise patience, and that as she and Cameron witnessed their hosts abiding by that axiom, it served as a great encouragement to them. Cameron adds that remembering their initial call to serve in Africa was essential in their persistence. He references J.T. Seamands definition of a call as an inner abiding persuasion that will not let you go. Thus, while facing situations (including the scarcity of resources that even the smallest hospitals in the U.S. take for granted) that could discourage the most dedicated medical technician to the point of giving up and going home, remembering their missionary call was crucial.
The Gongwers are now planning to move to the capital, which will enable their future work to have a wider scope. In the village they leave behind what is now a highly respected hospital with 65 beds and a staff they have seen grow in number from 13 to 130, including four full-time Ghanaian doctors. As they look back on the past decade they are quick to point out that the success of this ministry has been the result of collaborative efforts from many nationals and expatriots. Indeed, Cameron and Anne emphasize the importance of the deep and trusting relationships that resulted in a synergistic quality of their ministry. Anne summarizes, It takes time for people working together to gain a vision, share a vision, and grow a vision.
It takes time. There are no shortcuts to incarnational ministry. As The Mission Society moves into the next 25 years of service there will continue to be an emphasis on sending those who, like the Gongwers, seek to impartrather then importthe life-giving message of the Kingdom of God.