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Volunteers in Mission Put Faith Into Action

"No one comes down to do for us. They do with us," said the Rev. James Goodwin of the volunteers who come to work in Brazil through the Volunteers in Mission (VIM) program, sponsored by the General Board of Global Ministries, The United Methodist Church. The VIM program currently works with tens of thousands of persons serving in the United States and abroad. "They are students, doctors, nurses, retired persons from all professions, and lay people from all walks of life who want to serve Christ by putting their faith into action," said Jeanie Blankenbaker, executive staff person for the Volunteers in Mission Program.

The kind of work that is done by volunteers includes construction, painting, roofing, and digging foundations, as well as leading children's Bible classes and Bible study with youth and adults. Medical teams set up clinics in rural areas and work in existing Methodist hospitals. "All of this is at the invitation of the people we work with and in partnership with them. That's what makes our program so strong. . . . For example, the Goodwins always make sure the Brazilians work alongside of us," said Ms. Blankenbaker.

The Goodwins, full-time mission volunteers, are the Brazilian national volunteer coordinators working out of their home in Belo Horizonte, the third largest city in Brazil. The Rev. James Goodwin and Jo Ann Goodwin began their work as missionaries to Brazil in 1957 and have lived there ever since. They have met a large array of volunteers over the last forty-two years. One of the more recent ones is college student Katherine Cook.

Ms. Cook has worked as a mission volunteer each year since she turned 17. She volunteered in Brazil four times and has also worked in Guatemala and Costa Rica. Last year, she lead a group of 12 volunteers to Salvador, Brazil, to repair a church and build a parsonage on top of the church. The group lived in a "favela," or slum area, in a house that had been vacated by a family for the group's use.

"We stayed in a very, very , very, very, very small home and we had two Brazilian girls staying with us, too. At night, mattresses were spread across the room. No one got sick of each of each other, though. And the one toilet only broke a couple of times," said Ms. Cook, laughing.

The Goodwins make sure that every work team has the experience of meeting local people. Volunteers always spend the night or share a meal or cultural event with a family. "We hope they'll experience Brazilian culture," said Ms. Goodwin.

The work team usually works on a project that local people can finish. On Ms. Cook's last visit, she reported that for the local church, "We laid brick. Built walls. Stuccoed. We got a lot done in two weeks! I became the person in charge of the last group. As the youngest on the trip and a woman, that made my challenges very big. The Goodwins kept my mind at peace when things got stressful. They're incredibly patient. And it goes without saying, they love their work."

The Goodwins' plan for mission volunteers is threefold: 1. that the volunteers come to know the country of Brazil; 2. that volunteers feel God is saying something to Methodists in Brazil; 3. that volunteers feel God has something to say to them about their own lives.

As much as national coordinators plan experiences for the volunteers, unexpected and serendipitous moments always occur. For example, on her recent trip to Salvador, "We saw rainbows every other day," Ms. Cook said. On the way to the work site, at first, "The children would laugh at us when we walked by, but by the end of the weeks they would be tagging along with us," said Ms. Cook. It is memories like these that stay with the volunteers.

The Rev. Goodwin said volunteers in mission like Ms. Cook have the right attitude. He explained, "She realizes there's more to life than just making dollars."

This summer, Katherine Cook will be returning to Brazil for a year. She will live and work at the community center, People's Central, in Rio de Janeiro, teaching art in the children's program and helping out wherever needed. Her church, First United Methodist Church, Birmingham, Alabama, will fund her travel expenses. Volunteers usually pay for their own transportation, food, lodging, and materials.

And, perhaps, what is being built with the Volunteers in Mission program is more than walls and buildings. "We build the church through relationships with each other. That is more long-lasting. Every day your focus is on Christ. Most teams have at least two devotionals--in the morning and at night. You're focused on God and on God's work. Sometimes when we get back to the United States, with all we have to do, we lose focus. When we're on the mission team and are working as partners, some people say that's the way God intended us to be all the time," said Ms. Blankenbaker. The VIM program pairs volunteers with churches who are inviting mission volunteers.

Ms. Cook raves about her time in Brazil as a mission volunteer: "Of all the experiences I've had with all the people of the world, the Brazilians are the warmest and the most genuinely giving I've ever met. The Brazilians embraced us, opened their homes to us, and were never afraid to work with us and teach us," she said.

As for the Goodwins: "We're thrilled to be a part of Volunteers in Mission."

To learn more about the Volunteers in Mission program, you may call (212) 870-3825.

This General Board of Global Ministries article was first released December 30, l998.

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