Memory Lane: 50 Years of VMM (Volunteer Mission Movement)
Born in Lancaster, into a devout Catholic family, from an early age Edwina Gateley was drawn to the commitment of the missionaries to their adopted communities and to a personal mission to “share who she is and not just what she has”, in particular with the people of Africa. Inspired by Pope John XXIII’s charismatic revision of the relationship between the hierarchy and the members of the Roman Catholic Church, Edwina became a teacher and set off on a personal mission to volunteer in Uganda. Not officially representing the church as a missionary, her experience led her, in 1969, to establish VMM (Volunteer Missionary Movement), one of the first lay missionary organisations founded after Vatican II, to recruit, prepare and send lay missionaries to serve in developing countries in communities of need throughout the world; as she had done.
Here follows an introduction to that story, of Edwina’s vision to establish VMM and to spread her mission to work with, live with, connect with, learn from and share with communities in need in Africa, Asia and the Americas. We share this story with you in celebration of Edwina, 50 years of her mission and of the amazing people who have followed, lived and shared it. Click on the pictures, pamphlets and articles, personal memorabilia kindly donated by Edwina, to look at snapshots through the decades, rekindle some fond memories and to see the fun and challenges, the seeds and growth of VMM and how lay mission has evolved to include all faiths and none.
Edwina Gateley as a Volunteer Teacher in Uganda, Building the VMM Mission
In 1964, inspired to follow a private mission to teach in Africa, Edwina left for Uganda at just twenty-one. She spent one year in a well-resourced school before leaving it to go and live in a rural community where no European had been before; adapting to the climate, living conditions, food, lack of resources and some serious challenges, scrapes and near misses. During this time, she had persuaded a small number of other teachers to follow her to Uganda, even though she had not had the support of the church to help her in doing so.
Thus, driven and committed as she is, upon returning to England on leave after recovering from a serious bout of malaria, she set about structuring the necessary, preparatory training supports for future volunteers and getting formal backing from the church for greater involvement of lay mission in work traditionally done by missionaries. However, VMM’s work would focus solely on the practical necessities of education, primary healthcare, human rights and community development, leaving evangelising aside. Edwina’s endeavours culminated, between October 1968 and April 1969, with the establishment of the Volunteer Missionary Movement.
VMM: The Early Years of Lay Mission
“People tell me I’m fantastic. But God doesn’t use fantastic, extraordinary people. He does extraordinary and fantastic things through ordinary people. If we lose sight of this, we are nothing”. Edwina, through VMM, gave ordinary lay members of the church the vehicle through which they could give a commitment to volunteer for a period of two years, many of whom repeated this call, to dedicate their efforts and themselves to work with local communities in parts of the world with little investment in infrastructure and educational and health resources or commercial opportunities. VMM’s volunteers provided the practical nous to build the capacity within the communities to develop these for themselves.
This was a new representation of ‘mission’ in the ‘developing world’ / Global South in the 1970s, which followed the inspired lead of Edwina, for whom, “there have been no flashes of light from heaven, no voices. There has simply been a steady growth in her awareness of vocation”, to spread her message and practical model through a growing number of volunteers across an ever expanding reach into new countries year on year.
In 1977 the Diocese of Westminster offered grounds in London Colney in Hertfordshire at which Cardinal Basil Hume, by now VMM patron, officially opened VMM’s own centre in 1978. This was followed in 1979 by the opening of a full-time office in Dublin and the hosting of the International Lay Missionary Conference. Establishing, running and growing VMM had been a busy, dedicated and all-consuming mission for Edwina.
VMM Comes of Age and Edwina’s Journey Finds New Expression
After a decade firmly at the helm, navigating the rise and success of VMM, Edwina took a well-deserved sabbatical to reflect on her vocation and the direction of her mission.
Her path led her to the US, where she studied for a degree in Theology and walked with, talked with and worked with homeless women and those involved in prostitution on the streets of Chicago. During this period too, Edwina took herself away from the world to hermitages in Illinois and the Sahara Desert of Algeria, where she spent a total of a year in reflection, understanding her vocation at a deeper level and putting her mission into words. After ten years heavily immersed in administration and organisation she had found the solitude and space to reconnect with the mission that bridges her to God and to people in need. She has subsequently published a number of books on this, her life, spirituality and women in mission.
VMM Retains its Mission Through the Decades and the Evolution of the International Development Sector
Without Edwina at the helm VMM has continued its work and mission since the early 1980s. Additional offices were established in the US, Scotland and Kenya, which have spread the mission of lay volunteers dedicating years of their lives living in their host communities, committed to instigating and developing the basic resources and services we all require and deserve, being built by the ingenuity and talents within the communities themselves. In 50 years of mission VMM has sent 3,000 professional, dedicated volunteers to such communities in 26 countries around the world.
Though founded as a Catholic, international development, volunteer organisation VMM has broadened its scope in line with the ecumenical message of Vatican II and a gradual, broader opening of society to the wider world and its physical representation closer to home within our own communities as we become more and more multi-cultural. No longer one religion, creed or race, all societies around the globalised world have grown to understand and embrace their multi-faceted identity. And so too VMM, “we are not now, as we once were, about the Father’s Business of building a house and preaching the Word. We are about the Mother’s Business of painfully, compassionately, comforting God’s people and sitting in the darkness waiting for the new birth”.
“That Would Be an Ecumenical Matter”
And so, VMM grew to open its arms to the wider Christian community, to other non-Christian religions sharing the same God and further, to those who have no God yet who are “people of hope”, of any faith and none, who “look beyond themselves” and believe in VMM’s values and the spiritual mission to commit their time, efforts and selves to the good of others in need; a true representation of all good-willed people, God’s or otherwise. This has become the requirement of VMM volunteers, an organisation created and inspired by a woman who saw the limitations of the traditional missionary model and broke the mould to clear a path, to encourage and support the contribution of all willing to “share who we are, not just what we have”, toward “a world where we live in the shelter of one another”.
Today, Edwina lives in the USA and is a highly regarded and sought-after motivational speaker. She has appeared on shows such as “60 Minutes” and “48 Hours” and has been enthusiastically commended by public figures such as Bill Clinton and others. She will return to the VMM fold as guest of honour and speaker at the VMM AGM, Gathering and Gala Dinner in Dublin on September 1st to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of VMM. All are welcome. For more details, see our blog post: VMM International Celebrates 50th Anniversary, and here, to get your tickets to the Gala Dinner. We would be delighted to see you there, hear your experiences and share all our reflections.