In late 2007 the Rev. Zach Drennen, at the time working as a teacher and chaplain at a school in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, decided to take a three-month, self-funded sabbatical.
But rather than hike the Appalachian Trail or climb Mount Kilimanjaro, Drennen, who was ordained an Episcopal priest in 2002, decided to spend some time with long-time missionaries William "Gerry" and Nancy Hardison in Maseno, Kenya, where they run the Maseno Mission Hospital and St. Philip's Theological Seminary.
He volunteered at the hospital and taught at the seminary, where he met Anglican Bishop Zakayo Iteba Epusi of the Diocese of Katakwa. It was through that relationship that one year later, in the fall of 2008, Drennen, by now an Episcopal Church-appointed missionary, found himself in Amagoro, a town in western Kenya near the border with Uganda, running the Elewana Education Project, a non-government organization rooted in the diocese that provides education scholarships to students and builds modern computer labs in schools throughout western Kenya. The project also connects Kenyan and American schools through interactive partnerships similar to parish-to-parish companion relationships, including organized mission trips.
"It's going on four years now … I've never held a job as long as this one. It seems to fit me like an old shoe," he said. "I feel very, very called to this."
Drennen was one of more than 300 people from 63 dioceses and a dozen countries gathered at the YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park, Colorado, Oct. 13-16 for Everyone, Everywhere 2011, a conference of domestic and international missioners and partners from across the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion.
Throughout the conference a theme developed around approaching mission from a different angle; not as "givers" to "receivers," but as seeking to build relationships and connections with others -- connections that lead to a better understanding of one's self in relationship to God.
"[Mission] is about building relationships … through relationships, each of us is able to become more of what God created us to be. Mission is an empowering ministry … you hear it all the time; 'let your light shine bright.' Together our lights shine brighter," Drennen said.
"It's really energizing and affirming to be around people who are energized by mission; mission is such a small part of the church that it can be isolating," he said, adding that the conference provided a great place to network. "Mission survives on getting people to come and visit."
In addition to fellowship and networking opportunities, the four-day conference offered opportunities to learn about topics ranging from agricultural development to fundraising for mission; and plenary speakers offered their take on mission and its changing role in the life of the church.
"Mission is who we are and what we are as Christians," said Monica Vega in a plenary session Oct. 15. "Mission is what defines the church … not the church that defines the mission … [We] tend to build relationships around sparkling moments, but we really need the other not in the light, but in the shadow -- it is in the shadow where we recognize each other."
Vega is an Argentina-born church-appointed missionary serving the Isibindi Project, which assists orphaned children living in households affected by HIV/AIDS by training child and youth care workers to care for the children in their homes, in the Diocese of Grahamstown in the Anglican Church of Southern Africa. She shared the story of an affluent lawyer she called "Tom," who had to allow himself to become vulnerable enough to see himself in another.
While on a mission trip, Tom -- completely out of his element, feeling inadequate, and relying on an interpreter to communicate -- visited a home where a couple was caring for their grandson, whose mother, their daughter, had died when the boy was young. When Tom arrived, the grandmother took out a memory box and began sharing mementos of her daughter's life. Meanwhile, the boy went outside to sit under a nearby tree. It turned out that Tom also had lost his mother when he was a boy, and it was in the eyes of the boy sitting under the tree -- eyes in which Tom could see the child's mourning for his mother -- that he also saw himself.
So often, Vega said, people embark upon mission trips with grand plans for building or remodeling something and they arrive with their hands full of things to give away and ready to get to work, but it is in the plans and the busyness of getting to work that the true purpose of mission is lost.
"Mission is not something you plan, it is about movement to go and see …. Leave your comfort zone and security and leave behind the idea of what you think mission is all about," Vega said. "The hands are for healing … go with hands open to receive. If you are holding things, you're not able to touch the other.
During an Oct. 14 reception sponsored by Episcopal Relief & Development, Bishop Stacy Sauls, the church's chief operating officer, talked about the difference between outreach and mission, sharing a personal story about "finding God in the other" from a time when he was a parish priest at St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church in Atlanta, Georgia. The church, he said, had a reputation for outreach and social justice, but Sundays, he said, were reserved for worship.
Then one Sunday after a service, a homeless man showed up at the door asking an usher if he could see the "pastor." The usher relayed the request to Sauls, who -- mind already made up, regardless of the man's request, that he would say, "no!" -- busied himself for as long as possible before approaching the homeless man. When he finally asked, "How can I help you?" the man simply said: "Pray for Hobie."
To which Sauls followed, "Who is Hobie?"
"As he patted his chest, mine was broken open," said Sauls, adding that they the prayed together for a while, until he was called away to deal with another "important" parish matter.
When he returned, Hobie was gone, as if he'd never been there at all, driving home the lesson: "People are more important than policy and mission more important than outreach. You can do a lot of outreach, but mission is about meeting Jesus," Sauls said.
Through outreach -- soup kitchens, food pantries, homeless shelters, mission trips -- the church provides its members with the opportunity to connect with others (and through them) to meet Jesus, he added.
During the closing Eucharist Oct. 16, Sauls preached a sermon, "Meeting Jesus in Mission."
The conference, which ended with an upbeat Eucharist -- including a prelude and postlude by the Kutandara Marimba Experience, a Boulder, Colorado-based band that fuses African music traditions with Latin, jazz, gospel, classical, and world folk influences -- sent out many of those in attendance with renewed energy.
"It is so encouraging and life-giving to be around people who are excited about mission," said Robin Denney, who served two and a half years as an appointed missionary in South Sudan, where she taught theology courses and trained clergy and others in agricultural development.
Upon returning to the United States, Denney returned to the Diocese of El Camino Real, her home diocese, where she is working to build an "emerging," bilingual church in Gonzales, California. (During the conference, she conducted an hour-long workshop based on a curriculum she wrote.)
Going forward, she said, she sees "mission moving toward health relationships and being a kingdom, rather than the older, paternalistic approach to mission."
My hope, she said, "is that we go out and shake things up."