Maranatha had 1,000 volunteers scheduled for trips all over the world in March and April. Julie Z. Lee, Maranatha´s vice president of marketing, explains what happened and how the organization is still working to fulfill its mission.
Question: Maranatha is an organization that sends volunteers all over the world to do construction projects that help local communities. Were you in the middle of lots of projects when the pandemic hit? Did you have to abandon some projects in the middle? Was it difficult to get everyone home?
Answer: The month of March has always been our busiest time for volunteer projects because church and school groups like to go on mission trips during Spring Break. It’s an incredible juggling act to navigate so many people in a short period of time. For our Volunteer Projects Department — both domestically and in the field — it’s all hands on deck, and they do a fantastic job.
This March, we had more than 1,000 volunteers scheduled for March and into April. Most of our teams were scheduled to go into Peru, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, and Canada. I think we can all agree that at the very beginning of March, the United States was not yet in a state of crisis or panic. So, the early volunteer groups headed out.
But by the second week, things started changing quickly, day by day. Cases and deaths were escalating in pockets of the U.S. and around the world. We were monitoring everything very closely as we knew travel could be impacted. Then on March 11, President Trump made the first big announcement regarding travel restrictions. At that point, things started changing hour by hour.
Over the next week, most of the teams ended up postponing their mission trips. However, there were some that were already overseas and a couple groups who chose to go in the days following the president’s announcement. While there were some groups that made it back home with no problems, several encountered significant challenges. Kenya announced restrictions while one team was en route; they turned around and came home without serving. There were two groups who were wrapping up their time in Peru when the country announced a near immediate lockdown. Another group was in Côte d’Ivoire, which had zero restrictions, but airlines were cancelling flights left and right — including theirs. Those last three teams had the most trouble. Our Volunteer Projects Department was working countless hours to communicate with our support staff in each country, various airlines, travel agents, and the volunteers.
In the end, everyone got home without long delays or being stuck in a country indefinitely, as some travelers have endured.
How many projects have you had to cancel? What impact does this have on those communities where the projects were supposed to take place?
To date, we have cancelled or postponed all projects in March through May — which equals about 13 mission trips (as of April 28). We’re still holding our breath for the summer season, which is also busy, and we’re watching to see what happens with the world. As you can imagine, there’s no real way to plan, but we can be prepared.
Postponing projects is painful for two groups of people: the volunteers and the local communities that would have been served. The volunteers usually spend anywhere from six months to a year fundraising and preparing for a mission trip. We help them organize and facilitate the process, but the financial and emotional commitment mostly belongs to them. For this reason, we let each group make decisions on how to move forward in the wake of COVID-19 — as long as it was physically safe, of course. Most teams chose to postpone, and it was emotionally painful for them all. But we’ve been inspired by how all the groups have rescheduled, and they are eager to get out there when the world is ready.
For the local communities, a postponed project is heartbreaking because most of them have been waiting for years for someone to help them build a church, school, or water well. Now, they have to wait a little longer. But our commitment to each community stands, and we will build for them as soon as we can.
Some of your projects in different places are still going ahead. Can you explain how you are able to do that?
What people may not know is that a large portion of our projects are built entirely by local crews without volunteer labor. We have staff in every country where we are active. For example, we have country directors that live in Peru, India, Brazil, Kenya, and so on. They connect with government officials, Adventist leadership, and local church members while also supporting volunteers during projects. We also have construction crews in every country. They travel from town to town, preparing sites for our volunteers, and finishing up what volunteers cannot do.
Currently, we’re continuing to work with our local staff wherever we can and have even received permission from local authorities as necessary. So, we are still active in Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, Zambia, India, and Brazil, where our crews are building churches and classrooms or drilling water wells. Most of the time, our projects are located in more rural areas, and crews are sheltering in place at the job sites to maximize safety.
That’s great that some of your crews are able to keep working. What is Maranatha able to do remotely? How do you feel you are still fulfilling your mission?
Yes, construction is happening in almost every country where we have projects scheduled. Our team at our headquarters in Roseville, California, is also busy, working from home.
Overall, our mission is to share the gospel by building people through the construction of urgently needed buildings. We’re still doing this by keeping connected with our wide network of supporters through increased interactions on the phone, email, and social media. We’re investing in our relationships. We’re also sharing the mission through our TV program, Maranatha Mission Stories, our new children’s program, Maranatha Kids!, and our various publications. We’re reminding people that although the world is on pause, the need for places of worship and learning and clean water still exists! And the communities in need will be even more eager to receive the help when all this is over.
Is this crisis having an impact on Maranatha financially?
It’s still early, and the impact isn’t clear yet. So far, the donations are still coming in, and we’ve seen amazing acts of generosity in the past few weeks. We’re surprised, overwhelmed, and humbled by the loyalty and faith of our donors. There have been daily prayers of thanksgiving among our staff.
Do you feel Maranatha has faced any similarly big challenges in the past?
There have been growing pains in the early days and certainly the financial crash of 2008 had an impact on Maranatha. But I believe this is the most unusual challenge we’ve faced — as is probably the case for all organizations and businesses.
Maranatha recently celebrated its 50-year anniversary. Congratulations! What do you believe are Maranatha's biggest accomplishments in its 50 years?
I’d say five decades as a thriving, not-for-profit organization is a big achievement in itself. Along the way, there have been several projects that could be categorized as a significant accomplishment — such as working in Cuba for the past 25 years or building 200 storage sheds in Paradise, California, in just three weeks. But I think the collective work is the biggest accomplishment and where we see the blessings. We’ve constructed more than 11,000 structures and 1,000 water wells in nearly 90 countries around the world. We’ve mobilized more than 85,000 volunteers.
The most inspiring thing is going back to a country where we have worked before and visiting churches and schools that Maranatha built. Recently, I was in Peru and I met several people who fondly remember Maranatha coming to their community 15 years ago. I love hearing about how that experience influenced their own faith and how the building has helped them to flourish.
How has Maranatha changed and evolved since it began five decades ago?
Maranatha started in 1969 with a few families — 28 people total — flying down to The Bahamas to build a church. From there, Maranatha was born, and small groups of people did a couple of projects a year. Then, in 1992, Don Noble, who became president of Maranatha in 1982 and is still president today, proposed an idea to mobilize 1,200 volunteers in 70 days to build 25 churches in the Dominican Republic. It was a watershed moment, and from then on everything changed — the scope and volume of projects and volunteers and a growing partnership with Adventist World Church leadership.
Today, Maranatha annually coordinates about 60 volunteer projects a year, mobilizing more than 2,200 volunteers to a dozen countries. The original staff consisted of a few people working out of a basement in Michigan. Now, we have more than 30 people working at our headquarters in Roseville, California, plus dozens of staff based around the world.
We also have an active media department that produces videos and a half-hour TV program called Maranatha Mission Stories. Plus, we’ve developed The Maranatha Channel App where you can watch videos on your phone or tablet and on Roku, AppleTV, and Amazon Fire TV. We also have a Portuguese version of the program that airs in South America. Technology has allowed us to bring the mission field into people’s homes, which has significantly broadened our base.
What did you do to celebrate this milestone?
During the year, we highlighted every decade of our history and special projects with a video series that aired on 3ABN, Hope Channel, and on our website and app.
Everything culminated in our annual weekend convention, which welcomed nearly 2,000 people, including some of our longtime volunteers and Adventist Church leaders. We had a special dinner with a program that featured some of our favorite memories from over the years. We also had a museum with artifacts and a timeline of our history that people seemed to really enjoy.
How long have you worked for Maranatha? What do you most enjoy about your job? What do you find the most difficult?
I have been working for Maranatha for a total of 13 years. The best part about the job is what I believe is the best part about Maranatha: the sense of belonging and believing in a common mission. From our volunteers and donors to our staff, everyone is committed to strengthening our communities of faith through service. This includes our communities overseas and the community we create between the volunteers on each mission trip. The faith stories I’ve encountered are impactful and moving, and I am grateful to not only be a witness to such beautiful spiritual moments but to also be changed myself. These shared experiences create very strong bonds.
The part that is most difficult is also something I enjoy: the travel. I am blessed to be able to travel the world for work and gain a perspective that goes beyond typical tourist attractions. However, as a mother and wife, it’s always difficult to be away from the family.
How do you feel this pandemic will impact Maranatha and the way that it works in the future?
This is a tough question to answer because it’s hard to know what the world will look like when we come out of this. Travel and human connection — two things at the core of our work — will likely be impacted, but I don’t know to what degree and for how long. Perhaps we will have to be more local, which we’ve already been doing in recent years by increasing our number of projects in North America — a place with great need. Perhaps we’ll have to redefine what service looks like for Maranatha. No one knows for sure. But there’s one thing I know for certain: While working at Maranatha, I’ve learned to truly trust God. Plan, prepare, and work hard. Keep focused on the mission. And let God lead.
Alita Byrd is interviews editor for Spectrum.
Photo: Julie Lee in the field in Kenya. Courtesy of the interviewee.
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