Missionaries from near and far converged on First Presbyterian Church this week for the 44th annual Bible and Missionary Conference.
The week started with church members working on 10 projects throughout the city. It will end Sunday with a speech by Don Carson, the president of The Gospel Coalition, one of the largest interdenominational Christian organizations in the country.
In between, church members and guests will have learned more about the mission field through talks and discussions with missionaries including Fenton Wright and Stephen Letchford.
Wright is the director of The Shalom Project in Memphis, Tenn. Letchford is a physician who left private practice in Evans to serve in Kenya.
On Thursday, they discussed their work and the differences and similarities in their respective mission fields.
The Shalom Project connects churches in impoverished urban neighborhoods with churches in more affluent, suburban neighborhoods, in addition to nonprofit and government agencies.
“There has been a historical pattern where there’s been photos taken, stories written, funds raised, or there’s an activity, neighborhood cleanup, turkey giveaway, and then there’s no more engagement or interaction until the next time, or the next year,” Wright said. “We’re saying, ‘This is a graduated process, and I want you to be in a relationship mindset.’ So we really promote the relationship component.”
Wright followed a winding path into the mission field. The son of a preacher, he grew up wanting to be a businessman. He earned an undergraduate degree in business and finance and an MBA in executive management.
“I had no real desire for ministry as a vocation,” he said.
He worked as a personal financial consultant during the late 1990s, then went to work for city government in a youth program.
For a brief time, he worked for Memphis Leadership Foundation, which served the needy, and was offered a position with The Shalom Project.
“I thought it was a way I could serve the city in a different way,” he said.
Letchford knew as a boy that he wanted to be a missionary after hearing the missionary friends of his father tell of their adventures during their visits.
“The coolest stories to a 7-year-old boy were the missionary doctors,” he said. “It just totally fascinated me, the snakes in the rafters while the guy was doing hernia surgery, building generators so he could have power to do C-sections at night. I had no idea what he was talking about, but it really captivated me.”
Letchford graduated from Cornell and went to medical school at the University of Texas. He moved to Augusta for his wife, Sherri’s, job and set up practice in Evans, which was just beginning to boom at the time.
All the while, though, they prepared to go into missions in Africa, where they have served in the medical field for 15 years.
When he left the United States in 1998, health care expenditures were just above $4,000 per person per year. In 2008, that figure had risen to nearly $8,500. But in Kenya, annual health care expenditures are still just at $40 per person. Taking care of grandma’s health could mean a child doesn’t go to school, he said.
“A lot of our battle is helping our colleagues learn how to provide care that doesn’t destroy this family, because they don’t have a safety net,” Letchford said.
Both said that coming from an environment filled with opportunity, whether it be from a happy home and successful medical practice or from a well-resourced church in an affluent suburb, there is a tendency to take a patriarchal view of the less fortunate.
As a doctor with a successful practice in the U.S. who grew up in a happy home, Letchford was overwhelmed when he arrived in a village where the only people who wore shoes were children in eighth grade and above, and a few adults. He said he felt overcome by need and a realization that the only difference between himself and the people in front of him were the opportunities he had been given.
He said that with a background such as his, the temptation to “be the savior with all the answers is almost irresistible.”
On a deeper, less materialistic level in Memphis, Wright said, the well-resourced suburban church is often needier than the urban church.
“The perception, especially from the suburban church, is that they need us. We’ve got to go down there and save lives and transform a community,” Wright said. “While that’s true from a material standpoint, in terms of gaining a deeper understanding of our faith, and gaining a closer relationship with God, and seeing his heart and understanding his heart for the poor and the under-resourced, and being able to participate in the process, I would say that the suburban (church) needs the urban church more in terms of development of faith and spirituality.”