In February 2020, after months of planning and preparation, a new TLI school plant came to life in the northeast region of Brazil. No one knew it then, but humanly speaking, it was the worst possible time to launch a training school. As COVID-19 emerged on the global scene and began to wreak havoc in Brazil, this fledgling school quickly felt the impact. The school went on pause, with no clear end in sight.
Physical presence matters in ministry. In 2 Timothy 1:15-18 the imprisoned apostle Paul reflects and writes about the personal visit of a brother named Onesiphorus – one who sacrificed and risked much to visit him in his time of need. Paul writes, "May the Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, for he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chains."
Had Onesiphorus simply written a letter to Paul, it would have encouraged Paul. Instead, Onesiphorus visited Paul face to face. How much more did that revive Paul in his sufferings?
Fast-forward to late summer 2021. With pandemic numbers trending in the right direction, TLI teachers were able to return to Brazil for the first time in a year and a half. One day over lunch, near the end of our training, I casually asked our host pastor how he felt the week was going. His very personal response caught me off guard. "It's been such a difficult season for us. Church ministry has been so hard, and the school has suffered dramatically from the impact of COVID." He went on to share some of the hardships his church and the new training institute have endured. Putting his utensils down and gathering his composure, he then said, "Thank you for coming here. Your presence has been a tremendous source of encouragement to us. It's been a breath of life to our weary souls. We thank God for you and for TLI." I was humbled by their words of thanks. More than that, I was challenged by their joy and perseverance in the face of sustained hardship. The spiritual encouragement went both ways.
As I reflect on the realities of presential teaching in international contexts, on paper it doesn't add up. There are costs, logistical headaches, and other practical challenges that could be avoided, or at least minimized, by training online. But, as I was reminded on my recent trip to pandemic-weary Brazil, incarnational training matters. Some moments—moments of life-giving air—can't be shared through a screen.