Pandemic curtails mission trips, but Dominican Development Group explores ‘virtual mission teams’

This post is one in a series exploring the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on global mission. 

‘Every team scheduled from March through June has canceled,’ said Bill Kunkle, executive director of the Dominican Development Group (DDG), last week about US-based mission teams that changed their plans to visit the Dominican Republic in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Seven teams canceled their travel plans, Kunkle said, five postponed, and about half a dozen teams have not yet made decisions because their trips were planned for later in the summer.  What he calls ‘virtual mission teams’ are one avenue for continuing the outreach despite stay-at-home orders and travel restrictions.

Bill Kunkle at work in Dominican Republic.

The shift in DDG’s work, which coordinates the ecclesial, educational and medical mission outreach of eleven Episcopal dioceses in companionship with the Episcopal Diocese of the Dominican Republic, is a vivid example of how the global pandemic is affecting the global mission work of churches.

‘It’s a lot, it’s a real challenge,’ Kunkle said.  ‘From an organizational standpoint we’re safe financially because we’re supported by the dioceses.  But for God’s work in communities in the Dominican Republic it’s a challenge for how we can maintain the programs underway in the communities.’

DDG is working on a ‘mission from afar’ program, Kunkle said, where participants still minister as a team but don’t travel to the DR.  In addition to raising funds for ministry in the DR, virtual mission teams conduct the planned morning and evening devotions during the week they would have been in the DR.  They will be trying to have conversations with their Dominican companions via online platforms, though that is difficult due to lack of equipment in churches and schools, spotty cellular service and weak wifi connections in the DR.

‘The situation seems bad and negative in a lot of ways,’ Kunkle said, ‘but one of the positives is that it will connect this country and their country through electronic community.’

Not only has community development work been held back by the pandemic, but many individuals have been affected through decreased funds available for scholarships.  The finances of Dominican congregations have been affected negatively by restrictions on gathering for worship because many parishioners there make offerings only in cash and do not have checking accounts.

“There’s going to be a lot of things that change in mission work,’ Kunkle said as he pondered the future of mission after the pandemic.  ‘Things are going to be different in our country and in the DR.  A lot of good may come out of this.  Maybe we don’t need to meet in person as much.  But it does take out some of the relational side of mission.  It does harm that because it’s important to meet face to face.’

With his reduced travel schedule, Kunkle is now getting back to work on a handbook for mission teams that he began drafting five years ago.  The handbook will include resources for planning, scheduling, logistics and cultural sensitivity for both sides of the mission encounter.

The Dominican Development Group is based in Tampa, Florida.  An Episcopal Volunteer in Mission, Bill Kunkle has served as executive director since 2013.  DDG’s work is overseen by a 21-member Board of Directors chaired by the Rev. Jason Roberson of the Diocese of Virginia.

The Diocese of the Dominican Republic has companion relationships with the dioceses of Central Gulf Coast, Eastern Michigan, Georgia, Michigan, Nebraska, Northwest Texas, South Carolina, Southeast Florida, Southwest Florida, Western Louisiana, and Western Michigan. DDG serves as a clearinghouse for maintaining these relationships.

DDG is a member organization of the Global Episcopal Mission Network, which convenes mission-activist dioceses, congregations, organizations, seminaries and individuals to catalyze global mission throughout the church.

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