As airlines reduced flights and countries around the world went into lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some International Mission Board missionaries found themselves unexpectedly back in the United States.
In an email to all overseas personnel, IMB President Paul Chitwood wrote that if any felt God leading them to leave their current country due to COVID-19, “we will fully support you as you follow His direction. Moreover, [the IMB] will cover the expenses for you to evacuate your current location.”
Missionaries who temporarily relocated would “be on a temporary assignment” in the States, and the IMB would re-evaluate that status after 60 days.
“Expiring visas, closed borders and special health or family circumstances are necessitating some missionaries to grudgingly leave their places of assignment,” Chitwood said. “Trusting in the Spirit’s leading and the Father’s sovereign reign over every circumstance, we have faith that God’s mission will continue to advance, not in spite of these challenges, but because of them.”
Some missionaries were already in the States and have not been able to return overseas, while others took the IMB up on its offer to temporarily relocate.
For Mick and Dalese Stockwell, who work in Prague, Czech Republic, it was both. When the coronavirus closures began, Mick was in Prague, which was beginning to impose strict regulations, but Dalese was visiting family in the U.S., which at that point was not under restrictions.
“Toward the end of [her trip] is when all the lockdowns started happening,” said Mick, who is the IMB’s globalization catalyst for the European Peoples Affinity. In that role, he networks with missionaries and ministry partners across Europe and churches throughout the U.S.
“I already had a [work trip] planned back to the States in April, so I already had a ticket,” Mick said. “So we just decided — America hadn’t shut down at that point — why not try to get back there” to network with churches.
Like thousands of others trying to reschedule flights, getting home wasn’t simple.
“It took me several days to get a flight out of Prague,” Mick said, adding that when he did secure a flight with layovers in Amsterdam and New York, “those airports were empty — they were ghost towns.”
Since travel restrictions have continued, the Stockwells find themselves in America much longer than they had expected.
Mick, who, before the coronavirus, had several “foundational events for rolling out a new strategy” with mission partnerships this spring, had to cancel those meetings.
“I’m doing what I can,” he said. “I’ve been in touch with some partners, churches and state conventions that I’m working with. We’re doing what everybody else is doing — we’re talking by Zoom or FaceTime.”
Through Facebook, Dalese has been able to stay in touch with some women back in Prague whom she is discipling. One of those women is a new mother, and Dalese said since “she has more time and I have more time at home, [I have] been able to share some messages, some Christian music for her to have playing around the house … just kind of being a mom to her a little bit, giving some encouragement.”
During their unexpected stay in the States, the Stockwells have been able to take care of some necessary dental and medical situations, which they could not have done in Prague due to coronavirus restrictions there, and to spend time with their families.
“It has been a sweet time,” Dalese said. “We’ve gotten to see our children. … I’ve gotten to visit with my mom — well, visit with her through phone, because she’s in independent living and we can’t see her.”
Still, they miss being close to their friends and neighbors in Prague. “Missionary work is typically relational, face to face,” Mick said, pointing to the “ongoing witness with our neighbors, [and] our work with our national partners.”
Recalling their neighbors in their apartment building, Dalese said, “I think that if I was there right now, we could really have a lot more time together. … That has been kind of sad, not to be there for that.”
The Stockwells have mostly been able to stay connected with their friends and partners, but Dalese pointed out it’s difficult to meet new people via social media.
“You have to have relationships before you can connect on Facebook,” she said.
Missionaries received a follow-up message in May, according to the IMB, that having weathered the initial storm of the pandemic, the IMB would return to its longstanding process of approval for personnel evacuation and relocation — which is for field personnel to address those requests directly with their field leadership.
The Stockwells and other missionaries will return to their overseas assignments as quickly as allowed. And much of that will depend on country and region.
“Right now, we’re just starting to see a little bit of action with flights starting to resume in Europe,” Mick said. “When they lift the state of emergency and allow foreigners to fly in, we will go back as soon as we can. … We’re hoping to hear something in the next couple of weeks about that.”
While missionaries find themselves temporarily and unexpectedly in the States, the IMB has asked them to connect with Southern Baptist churches. The Stockwells credit a longstanding partnership with Houston Northwest Church, their sending church, as a significant part of their ministry. Mick described their relationship with the church as “awesome,” even through pastoral changes at the church.
Houston Northwest pastor Steve Bezner said, “Mick and Dalese are longtime members of HNW,” and, although they hadn’t so far voiced a specific need due to the coronavirus, “We love them dearly, and we help them as they ask for it.”
Mick said, “I am rooted in a very strong sending church that has stayed in touch with us for 25-plus years, and still welcomes us and still puts us in front of them.”
Churches with temporary missionary housing available may contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Joshua Owens is managing editor of the Southern Baptist TEXAN.