On Faith appears the first Sunday of each month.
Every year in March, members of First Baptist Church of Washington fly to Cuba to visit worshipers at a sister church in Havana and talk about their faith on the streets and in people's homes.
The week-long trip provides the D.C. congregants, who spend about $1,000 of their own money to go, with a glimpse of an impoverished world far different from the one near their Dupont Circle church. As a symbol of the strong relationship it has forged with William Carey Baptist Church in Havana, First Baptist hangs a Cuban flag over the lectern during Communion on the first Sunday of every month and sometimes presents a guest sermon from a visiting Cuban pastor.
Increasingly, churches in the area and nationwide are establishing such ties with congregations overseas, according to experts who monitor trends in missionary work. Rather than simply donating money to a denominational board to support missionaries around the world, members of these churches want to experience firsthand the rewards and challenges of community service abroad.
"When I take a group on a mission, it makes a tremendous impact, not so much on the place we go but on [our] church," said First Baptist pastor Jim Somerville. "We aren't purchasing our mission involvement and letting someone else do it. We aren't subcontracting. We're doing it ourselves. It is very inspiring."
Todd M. Johnson, director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts, said more churches are arranging their own trips for several reasons. Air travel has become cheaper and more convenient, and visits to underdeveloped countries no longer seem as intimidating as they once did. And the church-sponsored missions, which typically last no more than a few weeks, provide an exotic travel experience in a time frame that many people find manageable, in contrast to the commitment of two or three years that professional missionaries typically make.
"Local churches want to have more direct involvement. They don't want to send money and see people disappear," Johnson said.
The trips also can be viewed as a return to biblical roots as churches take on a duty that is commanded by Scripture, said Randy Shreckengast, vice president of operations at the Antioch Network. The Arizona-based nonprofit group helps establish churches in countries with few evangelical Christians and advises U.S. congregations planning foreign missions.
"It should have been a trend all along. But it became this unspoken idea that the national denominations were the professionals in missions and the church just sent . . . money. That's changing, and churches are realizing there is a responsibility and privilege to be involved in a direct way," said Shreckengast, who noted that the number of inquiries his group receives from U.S. churches has grown steadily in recent years.
Even congregants who don't make such journeys are inspired when members of their church return from a remote locale and share their stories, organizers say. If a missionary from another church talks about a recent trip, "there is a certain level of connection. But if I have worked side by side with that person and he was in our church, it inspires me to care. I am more connected," Shreckengast said.
Church members who go on overseas missions typically pay their own way or use money from church fundraisers.
The process of selecting a foreign community and launching a mission differs from one church to another. Some churches first make a general decision to get involved overseas and then proceed carefully, visiting a country several times to investigate which part of it suits them best. In other cases, the connection is quick and serendipitous; a church member might run into a pastor from another country at an international fellowship meeting, for example, and see the potential for a partnership after a few minutes of conversation.
A group from Warrenton Baptist Church in Fauquier County started going to the Haitian town of Fort Liberte each December because one of its members, Les Enterline, had a friend who was working with the pastor of a Baptist church there.
The trips, which started in the late 1990s, not only provide humanitarian aid to a destitute community but also encourage unlikely and lasting friendships, Enterline said. The Warrenton group has helped build an orphanage, construct a basketball court and run a health clinic, said Laura Hoover, 27, an elementary school teacher in Remington who has been going for several years.
Sometimes, the group's actions have unintended consequences that are reminders of the gulf between cultures, Enterline said. He recalled, for example, what happened after the clinic last year helped save the life of a 4-day-old boy born prematurely.
"We fed the baby with cornmeal in a baby dropper and were able to nurse him back to life," he said. "But recently I got an e-mail [from the clinic] saying that the family, which believes in voodoo, said many people were jealous of the help that Americans gave them and had paid a witch doctor to cast spells on the baby."
Hoover said that during visits to Jerusalem Baptist Church in Fort Liberte, she was struck by how much the community gives to charity despite its poverty. "One thing that sticks out to me is that they have a collection box, what they call a 'poor box,' " Hoover said, "and that the people who have nothing are still contributing what they have."
At Calvary Community Church in Columbia, members are trying to decide which overseas church to adopt as a partner. They have narrowed their search to India and have taken two trips there to look at possible sites for mission work.
"Five years ago, our elders prayed for the direction of the church, and we realized our vision needs to be broad. We started planning and asked, 'How can we minister effectively to Columbia and beyond?' " said Calvary pastor Jim Broomfield.
The church contacted the Antioch Network and began investigating areas in and around New Delhi, Mumbai and Calcutta.
"We would like to get a regular sustained trip and see churches planted there, but we don't want to plant a 'Calvary Church of India,' " he said. "We believe in empowering indigenous churches. The hope is that we can find the resources of ordinary people who are meeting together in a congregation and send a team to make an impact somewhere."
Fairfax Presbyterian Church undertook two missions last year. A group of men went to Honduras in the fall, delivering antibiotics, painkillers and other medicine to a mountaintop clinic and constructing a children's camp. A group of women from the Fairfax church visited a church in a small town in Guatemala last summer in an effort to embolden local women to take more prominent roles in that congregation. Both groups hope to make the trips an ongoing activity.
The women's visit was very emotional because of the huge divide of wealth and class, said Carol Barrett, director of Christian education at Fairfax Presbyterian and one of the participants.
At one point, the Fairfax members gave Guatemalan women a foot-washing -- in keeping with the New Testament account of Jesus's washing the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper -- and everyone was overcome with tears, Barrett recalled.
"They had never experienced that. They weren't used to being served," she said. "For me, it's very meaningful, to be on my knees in front of someone else. It was a humbling experience. I was crying out of joy of being able to watch them. They said they don't feel like they deserve it, and what we tried to get across is that everyone deserves this."
Stan Hastey, a First Baptist member, said that when he travels to Cuba, he is constantly pondering the ramifications of the U.S. trade embargo.
"I am keenly aware of their needs, how they are in chronic shortage of medicine of all kinds, which is directly related to our embargo," said Hastey, who is also executive director of the Alliance of Baptists, an association of churches that organize foreign missions. "I always leave there with a sense of heavy responsibility for doing what I can to change U.S. policy toward Cuba. And I leave there intensely impressed with the strength of the Cuban people."
Stan Hastey, a member of First Baptist Church of Washington, is also executive director of the Alliance of Baptists. Many churches affiliated with the alliance have relationships with churches in Cuba.
Items that Carol Barrett brought home from the mission to Guatemala include a candleholder, a napkin holder and some weavings. At one point, women from her Fairfax church washed the feet of Guatemalan women.