For Edwin Holmvig-Johnson, his first Thanksgiving as a missionary was also his first away from home.
“My homesickness had been fairly stable up until that week,” he said. “The weather was gray and it gets dark here around 4:00 in the afternoon. It was a hard week.”
Then, a package from the ELCA churchwide organization in Chicago arrived.
Edwin opened it expecting to find official forms needing his John Hancock. Instead he found a package filled with handmade cards, compliments of what is planned to be an annual event, Operation Thanks-giving, a new ELCA mission personnel support initiative.
“There were these fantastic cards and greetings from an ELCA congregation Trinity Lutheran Church in Vale, N.C., that I’d never met on the other side of ‘the Pond.’ It felt wonderful to know that I was being thought of and prayed for and made it easier to keep going,” Edwin said.
For her part, Ginger Crisman, evangelism committee chairperson at Trinity, was inspired by the idea of involving her congregation in Operation Thanks-giving.
Early in November 2009 she supplied worshipers with colored paper, crayons and pens prior to Sunday service. John Locke, pastor of the ELCA congregation, encouraged each card maker to say a prayer for the recipient of their creations.
Worshipers from age 3 to 83 put their artistic talents to use, creating about 93 cards for ELCA mission personnel and 93 cards for military service personnel.
“It was everything we hoped for,” Ginger said. “God works in big and little ways. This was a little way.”
Show the missionaries some love
Twila Schock, who directs Global Mission Support for the ELCA, knew this “little way” could have a big impact.
In 1994, Twila was a first-year missionary in Slovakia. The excitement of the assignment was wearing off by Thanksgiving, Twila recalled, when everything (language, shopping, daily routines) just seemed hard.
But a Thanksgiving care package she received turned out to the best cure for homesickness.
Twila shared her story with Sue Edison-Swift, who assisted Twila in supporting mission personnel, and that was all Sue needed to hear.
“We’ve got to show the missionaries some love,” she said, and Operation Thanks-giving was born.
Operation Thanks-giving took a page from Hand in Hand, the theme for the Global Mission Support newsletter. Card makers were asked to use their hands to draw and decorate turkeys on the cards.
For Thanksgiving 2010, 2,706 cards came in from 67 congregations, Sunday school classes, Women of the ELCA groups and individuals. That meant that 14 cards were mailed to each of the 180 ELCA missionary households.
Additional congregations chose to send cards directly to mission personnel they support with prayer and donations.
Having faith in the work that God can do
Those cards deeply touched Emily E. Ewing, a missionary in Rankovce, Slovakia, worlds away from her hometown of Vail, Colo.
“The fact that people I don’t know and who don’t know me sent me the cards was big for me,” she said. “It just shows so much faith in the work that God can do with each of us and faith in our church, as well, that they will send cards knowing that they’re going to someone who is far from home, following God’s call.
“It was really cool that so many people believe so strongly in the work God does with the church that they would send cards.”
On Nov. 15, 2009, during Sunday school at St. John Lutheran Church of Farmersville in Easton, Pa., 22 people each made three cards for mission personnel and military people serving in Baghdad.
“We often hear about the needs of military units who are deployed over the holidays. I had never considered the same type of need for mission personnel,” said Roxi Kringle, pastor of St. John.
The excitement surrounding Operation Thanks-giving was contagious. “The (Sunday school) room was buzzing by the time I got down,” Roxi said. “A couple boys asked their recipients to write back. The thank you notes the church received from Iraq had the class beaming.”
A wonderful sense of connection
Michael and Terri Church, a husband-and-wife pastor team serving as English-language mission developers in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, saw Thanksgiving arrive as they struggled to become acclimated with a new culture.
Hoping to downplay their loneliness by discounting the holiday, they decided to make Thanksgiving just another day. “Under my breath, I quoted a favorite line from (the movie) ‘Rocky’: ‘To you it’s Thanksgiving; to me it’s Thursday,’ ” Michael said.
“Friday’s mail brought our Operation Thanks-giving cards,” Michael said. “Completely unexpected, out of the blue, came these wonderful handmade cards from complete strangers in ELCA churches all over the country, reminding us that we weren’t alone and that there were people at home giving thanks to God for all their blessings — and even that we ourselves, as mission personnel, were one of those blessings. It gave us a wonderful sense of connection to our country and to our church.
“Thanks again to everybody who took part in it,” Michael added. “May God be with you all!”