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On Mission To Serve Couples Use ‘Vacations’ To Do God’s Work

Every year, Linda and Michael Cunningham spend their vacation in crude operating rooms in Africa, restoring eyesight to people blinded by cataracts.

Gail and Roger Smith have vacationed among the destitute in the Philippines, China and Hong Kong, delivering clothing and other supplies.

The Spokane couples are a new breed of Western Christian missionary.

Fewer people are becoming lifetime missionaries, but thousands are doing short-term work.

This year, the Presbyterian Church has 504 full-time missionaries - and a whopping 4,000 part-timers who spend their vacations and summers doing God’s work. Numbers are similar in other Protestant denominations.

“Everybody who calls themselves a Christian should be involved in some sort of mission work,” said Marj Carpenter of Midland, Texas, an ordained elder and expert on missionary work in the Presbyterian Church.

“It’s the last thing Jesus told us to do: Go into the world and take the Gospel to all nations.”

Mission 2000, a conference exploring the future of Christian missions, concludes today at Whitworth College.

The 150 people attending include young couples, retirees and families looking for opportunities to do missionary work. The conference highlights a variety of opportunities for Christians.

The Cunninghams created their own.

A decade ago, Michael Cunningham decided he wanted to volunteer his time performing cataract surgery on poor people. After dozens of phone calls, the doctor stumbled onto a medical conference in California about eye care in the Third World.

There, he met a surgeon from Sierra Leone, West Africa. They formed a long-distance partnership.

For eight years, Cunningham has traveled to Sierra Leone to correct blinding cataracts. His wife, Linda, has accompanied him on most of the four-week trips, and even trained herself as a surgical assistant to help him.

In Spokane County, there are 25 ophthalmologists and about 450,000 people. In West Africa, there is one ophthalmologist for 7 million people.

“It’s been a life-changing experience,” Michael Cunningham said. “Knowing what the tremendous need is there, I am unable to stop going.”

Since his first trip, many of the organizations that send out missionaries have started offering more opportunities for caring people.

As airline travel becomes easier, it’s the future of the Christian church, Carpenter said.

Also changing is the understanding of mission. It used to be that missionaries were couples who moved to remote countries to start churches. Now, it can mean building homes and schools, teaching or caring for the sick.

And it doesn’t have to be that far away. Missionaries work as close as downtown Spokane.

The Smiths, owners of Teknon Corp., began their missionary work in 1980, while visiting Christian missions they had been giving money to.

“It has forever colored what we do,” Gail Smith said of her family, which includes five grown children. “We became painfully aware of how much we focus on ourselves and what a detriment that is to the world.”

Neither family spends all their vacation time every year doing missionary work. But the time and financial commitment do eliminate other opportunities.

“I took a cruise once,” Gail Smith said. “I would never do that again, and I wouldn’t want to.”

The Cunninghams’ trips cost an average of $4,000. But they can’t imagine not taking them.

“Every time we go it makes us a little more appreciative of what we have when we get back,” Michael Cunningham said. “Once you realize what the need is throughout the world, then you can’t not go back.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo