In the wake of tighter passport restrictions, thousands of jittery missionaries-to-be added something new to their prayer lists: passport delays.
Passport offices have experienced a deluge of applications since new rules went into effect in January that require passports for re-entry after flights from Mexico, Canada, the Caribbean and Bermuda.
For churches, delays that can exceed 12 weeks have added more headaches at the height of mission trip season.
Jeremy Horneck was among the stressed. A recent graduate of Maranatha Baptist Bible College in Watertown, Wisc., Horneck learned in April that he landed his dream job – teaching English in the steamy tropics of Saipan, an island in the South Pacific.
Only two months from his June departure date, Horneck assumed he would be able to receive his passport within the normal six-week processing timeframe. This year, however, normal time estimates don’t apply. Between October 2006 and April 2007, the State Department issued 8.6 million passports – more passports than were issued in any single full year before 2003.
Just one week before his flight to Saipan was scheduled to depart, a passport-less Horneck phoned the Passport Information Center to ask about the document’s whereabouts. When it didn’t arrive as promised, he got worried.
A flurry of fruitless calls to the swamped Passport Information Center ensued, followed by urgent calls to his congressman. Four days before he left, he arrived at a Chicago passport office at 5 a.m. Nearly 10 hours later, a relieved Horneck had the little blue booklet in his hands.
Horneck isn’t alone – thousands of anxious travelers are keeping the phones ringing at congressional offices.
“Since the rules have been relaxed, it’s been about 25 (calls) a week,” said Andy Stone, a spokesman for Rep. Jerry McNerny (D-Calif.), noting the situation was even more intense before the House voted June 8 to delay the passport stipulation on air travel to Mexico, Canada, the Caribbean and Bermuda.
At Rep. Dennis Cardoza’s (D-Calif.) office, the total number of calls from concerned travelers has exceeded 1,000.
Mission organizations have also been hearing an earful. Lisa Countiss, an administrator for Adventures in Missions, fields calls from anxious parents and travelers that participate in AIM’s numerous trips overseas. This year the number of calls to her office has spiked.
Though the delays have complicated religious travel and increased costs, at least one pastor believes that the obstacles won’t affect the number of missionaries who serve.
John Bowersox, youth pastor at Spanish River Church in Boca Raton, Fla., said it would take more than passport issues to discourage the church’s annual trips to the poor areas of Cancun, Mexico.
The service trips to Cancun are very important to the youth group, he said: “People that go on those trips are by far more connected (with each other) than those that don’t.”
During this year’s service trip, 37 people traveled to minister to children and help construct walls for an open-air church. The church, which has planned such trips for years, is particularly travel-savvy. Even before the State Department required travelers to carry passports when they went south of the border, Spanish River had that requirement.
Bowersox said the additional $60-$125 cost for a passport is something his teens are prepared for. He believes the new restrictions will have a minimal effect on Spanish River’s ministry – only those teens who are late to apply might run into problems, he said.
While passport lines continue to stretch for blocks, the nightmare ended well for many missionaries. Horneck wrote from Saipan to say the passport situation was resolved – he’s already hard at work teaching English to 20 Korean-speaking students.
“I am so thankful (God) worked everything out so I could get here,” he said.