A year spent in Australia when overseas mission was the plan. Months spent attempting to return to Australia amid lockdown, quarantine and other crises. If anyone needed reminding that God works through our weaknesses, it was laid out for all to see on the final day of the Church Missionary Society’s annual Summer School in Katoomba.

“Embracing weakness flies in the face of what Australia values and celebrates,” said the executive director of CMS NSW & ACT, the Rev Canon John Lovell, reflecting on the Apostle Paul’s struggles in 2 Corinthians 12 and effect of COVID on the work of the men and women the society has sent out to serve.

“Our missionaries have been wrestling with this for most of 2020, as many of you have,” he said. “As recently as yesterday I received yet another email with news of likely flight cancellations for some of our missionaries trying to return to Australia for home assignment. For a time of rest; for time with family. When we are weak, then we are strong.”

He added that some missionaries needed to pack up their lives and ministries and come home with less than 48 hours’ notice. Others, who were commissioned to go out on the field at the end of last year’s Summer School, were commissioned a second time at this year’s conference as “they have not yet been able to leave”.

“There have been some wonderful reflections and examples of what it looks like to trust God and his continued work through many difficulties, hardships and weaknesses during 2020,” Canon Lovell said.

He shared the thoughts of one missionary, who wrote to him that “I do not want to pretend that it has not been a hard year in so many ways, or that this rollercoaster of delayed travel hasn’t taken its toll on heart and mind. But I am thankful for this experience to grow me to be more like Jesus, the Son who prayed to his Father, ‘Your will be done’.”

“When we finally got out it took us two months and four days to get home, with three quarantines on the way!” 


Six cancelled flights, yet trust in God

Graham Toulmin, who served in DR Congo for a total of 34 years with his wife Wendy, said the difficulties of travel associated with COVID – which resulted in six cancelled flight bookings – made them wonder if they would ever get out of the country.

“When we finally got out it took us two months and four days to get home, with three quarantines on the way!”

Mrs Toulmin said Congo went into lockdown in March, so for some months it was impossible to travel anywhere within the country, let alone outside it. With no decent internet connection, all air travel was booked (and rebooked, and rebooked) by CMS mission support officer Geoff Dyson in Sydney – with some flights cancelled even before they were confirmed.

In the end, the Toulmins drove 500 kilometres from their home in Congo to Uganda. They quarantined in Kampala, in London and then in Australia, arriving in Canberra on November 26 on a repatriation flight organised by the Federal Government.

“We had no power over anything,” Mrs Toulmin said. “We just laughed all the time, because you can’t do anything about it.

“In those situations, you’re constantly praying. You’re constantly open and calling out to God, and that’s something I don’t want to lose... I know people do it here in crises, bushfires or sickness and so on, but we should be doing it all the time.”

She said their Congolese Christian friends were an amazing, ongoing example of how to trust God in all situations, recognising their own weaknesses and relying on God’s strength. “They taught us all the time,” she said. “We are absolutely kindergarten children by comparison. Their trust is amazing.

“Christians have begun learning some of that stuff during COVID here. I just hope they don’t lose it!”

Added Canon Lovell: “As we have heard from the missionaries themselves, they go – and we send them – in weakness. They need our prayers for them and for the people whom they go to serve. They need our care and our financial support.

“They do this in the sufficiency of God’s grace, and in the knowledge that God’s power is made perfect in weakness.”