Canon Maria Tjeltveit
Church of the Mediator, Allentown
And after they had appointed elders for them in each church,
with prayer and fasting they entrusted them to the Lord
in whom they had come to believe.
Paul and Barnabas’ first missionary journey was not easy (Acts 14). They were first greeted warmly in Iconium; then run out of town. They went to Lystra where, because they healed a crippled man, the people confused them with the Greek gods, Hermes and Zeus. But those who were angry with them from other cities followed them, incited the people to stone Paul, and left him for dead. The apostles went to Derbe and then retraced their steps, visiting the congregations they had started, appointing elders for each church. When they reached Antioch, Syria, they shared what God had done in opening a door to the Gentiles.
A number of churches in our diocese were started by missionaries. The earliest missionaries were from the Swedish Lutheran Church, which worked closely with the priests from England. The London-based Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Lands (SPG) sent missionaries before the Revolutionary War. Other, homegrown, missionaries followed. The official name of our Church is the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church. So, while Paul and Barnabas may have been the first missionaries, they were far from the last.
St. Thomas’ Church, Morgantown, was established by Thomas Morgan in his will, written in 1740, also giving land for the church. When a church building was finally built, an Irish missionary with the SPG served the church, preaching his first sermon in 1765. After the Revolutionary War, when SPG had withdrawn its missionaries, the church was served, for a time, by a German Calvinist minister. Although it was a mission church, it started a school that was open to all children and eventually became the public school.
St. Thomas had a celebration of its 275th anniversary in December. This is the second oldest church in the diocese, and it is served by one of the youngest priests in the diocese. Her recent blog about ministering to millennials shows that the church’s focus is on the future.
You don’t normally hear about horses in parish histories. But a description of St. John’s, Hamlinton (now Hamlin) says that services in one of the mission churches connected with St. John’s were suspended “because of the want of a horse” (Diocese of Harrisburg and Bethlehem, 1909, p. 477). It makes you think how challenging it could be for early missionaries to travel from place to place as they ministered in situations like the 7 congregations in the mission field of which St. John’s was a part. The Missionary in charge of this field served through most of the 1870’s until his death. The following decades of St. John’s were not easy, with periodic services provided by a General Missionary, an Itinerant Missionary, and various clergy, and lay leaders. It is likely that it was the “elders” of the parish who kept things going.
St. John’s today is served by a Lutheran pastor. No longer in a mission field with other Episcopal churches, St. John’s works ecumenically, sharing services during Holy Week with neighboring congregations. Perhaps working together ecumenically, as happened before the Revolutionary War, is the strategy for the mission field now.
What might it mean to be a missionary today?