Accidental innovation

Meet some unexpected pioneers – who show us that innovation in mission sometimes “just happens” through obedience and taking the next steps that God puts in front of us.


When we talk about “pioneering” as one of the core values of Church Mission Society and describe our people in mission as pioneers, what image comes to mind? I recently caught up with some of our mission partners who wouldn’t necessarily have described themselves as pioneers, yet they have ended up trying new things and crossing boundaries in ways they might never have expected.

On moving to Ecuador in 2013, Sharon Wilcox didn’t know exactly what her work would look like, but she knew it would be as part of the Life in Abundance Foundation (Ecuador), an organisation founded by another SAMS then CMS mission partner, Jill Ball. As Jill was retiring, it was suggested that Sharon might take over leading the Foundation, working with children and young people with special needs.

Boy holding carrot in allotment
Cristian with the first fruits of the life skills programme set up by Sharon Wilcox in Ecuador

What she wasn’t expecting was to set up an independent project from scratch, helping young adults with special needs to gain life skills – yet this is how her call unfolded.

Francesca Elloway comments that she would have described a pioneer as “an intrepid person going into the unknown”. In contrast, her experience was that, after 15 years working in the Service Medical in Aru, DR Congo, she was handing over some of her work to local staff and felt the need to push some doors to be prepared to return to the UK. Having enjoyed working in palliative care earlier in her career, she undertook a distance course to refresh her skills.

Yet eight years later she returned to the UK having started a palliative care service in Aru, pioneered a collaboration between the church and medical staff and been involved in developing palliative care training across francophone Africa.

yellow walled one storey building under a blue sky
Palliative care building in Aru, DRC

Helen Burningham knew that dance was central to her call in mission and commented, “When I first left for Africa I wanted to use dance in any way possible to transform lives and bring hope.” However, on her arrival in 2013, she was very aware of her own youth and inexperience and she wondered how her call might unfold.

In 2017 SPLASH Dance Company came into being – an inclusive dance group in Kampala, Uganda, founded by Helen, in which those with and without disabilities participate together. Looking back, she notes, “I am a pioneer as I have ventured onto very recent ground, as inclusive dance in Uganda is still in its formative stages.”

So if these three didn’t set off with plans to pioneer brand new projects, what happened to bring these initiatives to birth?

Dancers in wheelchairs and colleagues raise their arms in celebration
Members of SPLASH Dance Company in Kampala, Uganda

Prologues to pioneering

In all three cases, it is clear from hearing their stories that God had been leading them to this point for some time – sometimes without them realising. Although staying in DRC to teach and establish palliative care was “not in my game plan”, Francesca’s experiences of palliative care earlier in her medical career were an important part of her journey. She acknowledges that, although her change of focus in DRC was unexpected, she “would have been happy to know that [her work] would involve palliative care in the future.”

Sharon, meanwhile, found in her first year in Ecuador that her Spanish wasn’t strong enough for her to lead the Foundation, so she worked as a classroom assistant. She explains, “During that year I began to feel that God had not called me here for three years to be a classroom assistant, though it was great fun. I had worked in England as a learning disability nurse/ residential home manager for 35 years. I know now that [God] had this planned for a lot longer than I knew about.” It was this experience that equipped Sharon for the project she was about to undertake.

Young man bent over laptop at desk
Computer studies at the life skills programme

She also comments, “God knew what was needed and when.” After accomplishing the “somewhat daunting” task of writing a life skills programme for school leavers and adults with different abilities, Sharon needed to translate the materials into Spanish. She tells me, “As I came to the end with my limited Spanish, along came another mission partner from Guatemala. She speaks fluent Spanish and English and was happy to proofread what I had written.”

Helen, already passionate about the power of dance, had encountered inclusive dance while at university and participated in training sessions before leaving the UK.

Before starting SPLASH she had been using dance in her work with CRANE (Children at Risk Action Network) in Uganda, but she described her use of inclusive dance at this stage as “small scale”. Yet her passion and opportunities to engage with inclusive dance practitioners while on home leave meant that she was being well prepared for what was around the corner.

Finding the gap

Another element that these three have in common is simply seeing the need in front of them.

As Sharon settled into her work in Ecuador, she commented that, “It quickly became apparent that there [were] no organisations offering meaningful support to young people or adults with special needs once they leave school.” As this was her area of expertise, she set about designing a project to meet that need, sure that God had called her to the area for this purpose.

Helen’s realisation was more gradual:

“When I first started out I was interested in dance and how it transforms people’s lives but had not envisaged myself specifically using dance as a tool for advocacy. Over time I saw the challenges and lack of support for persons with disabilities and the passion within me grew stronger until I could not ignore it.”

For Francesca, those she worked with flagged their need for her input: as she told two close colleagues about her palliative care studies, their questions developed from “What is palliative care?” to “Can you teach us?”

Group of approx 25 Congolese pictured out of doors
Participants at a palliative care seminar for church members in Aru diocese

Inspiration from others

Helen comments, “I have been inspired by other pioneers who have gone before me and showed me the possibilities.” This is another important theme: innovations don’t happen in a vacuum. Helen had been inspired by friends working in inclusive dance in the UK and by a number of dance groups transforming communities in Uganda. “All these groups are using their talents not for their gain but for others and this spurred me on to get out of my comfort zone.”

As she began helping the team in Aru to introduce palliative care in their context, Francesca contacted a palliative care specialist in Uganda, Dr Anne Merriman. Anne had started a model hospice in Kampala and had recognised that francophone Africa had fewer resources in terms of palliative care training. As well as providing inspiration and advice, the hospice in Uganda provided a context for some of the team from Aru to receive training and see palliative care in action.

One of the nurses she had worked with previously had left the hospital to train for ordination. He returned to a role in the cathedral, but continued some nursing work to boost his income. When Francesca told him about palliative care he responded, “I think this is what God has been preparing me to do, using both my medical nursing training and my pastoral training.” This was another moment for Francesca to step back and say, “Wow, God’s got this all planned!”

Overcoming challenges

Yet our accidental pioneers discovered the journey of starting a new thing is not without challenges.

For Sharon, there was a major setback when the Foundation – having initially approved her work on the project, provided space and invited her to stay beyond her initial term of service – went through major changes and was unable to provide what was needed for the programme to run as envisaged. Sharon concluded, “To stay would mean that I would not be doing the will of God as he had called me to do. So I resigned.”

Blue-painted building with large sign in Spanish
Hombre Nuevo en Jesucristo church provided a home for the life skills programme in Ecuador

This meant not only leaving her job, but also her flat. After conversations with a local church, however, they agreed to take on the life skills programme as a social enterprise, meaning the work could continue.

Francesca, too, faced major hurdles. The most fundamental of these was that “no one knew what palliative care was”. So there was a process of educating both medics and the local population about the concept.

After all, “doctors were meant to make you better.” There was a huge pressure to be seen to do everything to find a cure, even if that meant long and uncomfortable journeys for expensive treatment. It was quite a change to see palliative care, not as a failure, but as a way of making dying as comfortable as possible.

Yet one patient’s response to the news that nothing could be done to cure his condition was, “Thank you for telling me the truth, doctor. Now I can live.” He was freed from the need to spend his remaining time in constant pursuit of an elusive cure.

To help to resource the project, Francesca trained church workers in how to make simple but effective interventions. This spiritual and social input “helped people to feel important and valued” without further need for expensive medical resources.

Portrait shots of three women mission partners
The 'accidental' innovators: Sharon Wilcox, Helen Burningham and Francesca Elloway

Simple obedience

As I heard about how these projects unfolded, the thread running through seemed not to be extraordinarily intrepid people or complete visions of what was to come, but rather a constant obedience. All of our pioneers have been attentive to where God is at work and where he is asking them to join in.

Whether through sudden changes for Sharon, a natural season of handover for Francesca or Helen’s building sense that a new chapter was coming as “I had become a bit stuck in my work”, all three simply took the steps that God was calling them to at that moment.

Sharon sums this up: “I realise, looking back, that God always has things in hand. If we listen to him and seek to do his will, he does the rest.” So what, or who, makes someone a pioneer? In each of these stories, what shines through is God calling his people to follow him in doing a new thing, sharing the love of Jesus in word and deed.

The call in action: GIVE

Please support people in mission as they seek to obey God’s call and to equip them to pioneer new things…

Published 29 January 2019

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