Volunteer Missionary Movement Founded 1969:
Establishing Lay Mission Volunteer Training & Support
It all began in 1968, when a young, inspired, school-teacher, who had set off on her own initiative to volunteer in Uganda in 1964, returned to England with the realisation that, just as the missionaries who had long been volunteering their skills and service overseas required training and support, so too did those among the laity who wished to volunteer their skills and service overseas.
After an initial placement in an established mission in Uganda, Edwina Gateley had asked the bishop to relocate her to an isolated, rural community, which would be in greater need of hers, or any services. While experiencing great freedoms and joys from living amongst and learning from her new community and making a real, visible contribution to improving and empowering the lives of marginalised people; as well as sharing in the similar experiences of a small band of intrepid volunteers whom she had convinced to follow her on their own missions overseas, she also came to see the hardships and felt the wearing effect of the workloads and expectations which were put on just one person in each of these situations. In so doing, Edwina saw how lay volunteers in such placements needed a training and support organisation for themselves.
So, Edwina started to organise and after 18 months of considerable effort, disappointment and determination to sell her idea, she was successfully granted the financial support that she needed from the Catholic Church to move into 1 Victoria Road, Mill Hill, London and establish the Volunteer Missionary Movement on 17th April 1969, to do just that. She busily set about designing her trainings and after some further months of preparation, in October 1969, 21 volunteers of VMM Volunteer Group 1 were sent to Burundi, Ethiopia, Malasia, Malawi, Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia. This was then soon followed by Group 2, which sent VMM’s first volunteers to Cameroon, Ghana and Rodriguez Island in Mauritius.
We are delighted to share with you here, a celebration in pictures of the leadership and charism of Edwina, 50 years of her mission to work with the most marginalised communities around the world, and the amazing people who followed as the first wave, and successive waves, of VMM Volunteers who joined her and their new communities to live and share it. Edwina Gateley is renowned as a poet, theologian, artist, writer, and lay minister. She is a single mother and has been described as a modern day mystic and prophet. To learn more of Edwina’s motivations and volunteering experiences which lead her to found the Volunteer Missionary Movement you can follow the link to read an article with original news clippings, VMM pamphlets, and some of Edwina’s personal memorabilia from the inception of VMM.
The First Lay Missionaries Go Overseas
Inspired by the revision of the relationship between the hierarchy and the members of the Roman Catholic Church which followed Vatican II in the mid 1960s, and then with the formation of a purpose-made lay missionary volunteer organisation, the numbers of applications came thick and fast and soon VMM was sending professional volunteers on two-year placements to Africa, Asia and the Americas. Like Edwina, volunteers were sent individually to projects to work with partner organisations or to start projects of their own from scratch.
Before deployment overseas new lay missionary volunteers would undergo four weeks of an immersive, residential training course in Oak Lodge, North London, to prepare them for the culture shock and the pressure that would be upon them, as they would be taking the lead, or were sometimes the only professionals in their field, on the project they were assigned to, for example teaching, nursing, construction. Returned VMM volunteers fed into the training of the next cohort of recruits and some did so by staying and living in residence in Oak Lodge and being a constant source of knowledge and experience to new volunteers, ensuring that they would have the best preparation as possible before their departure. This closeness, focus and intense learning environment helped to forge an exceptionally strong organisation and cement a real bond of family among these early pioneers.
Yet, even with all this preparation, while on placement the realities of separation from home, kith and kin was real and much effort was made to have regular VMM gatherings in the field; bringing together volunteers from surrounding regions to a central location to debrief, deflate and relax from the pressures of their work. In addition, ever hands-on, practical and innovative in the spirit of Edwina, modern 1960s technology also lent its hand to allow busy volunteers to record their thoughts and messages for loved-ones at home (see picture above right).
Lay Missionary Volunteering Makes News
VMM was one of the very first organisations to send lay missionaries overseas and this innovation stirred attention within congregations and generated media coverage for these young adventurers and envoys.
The opportunity for ordinary lay people in the late 1960s, to experience community life of another, distant culture and share their skills with people who would benefit from them, while learning and sharing each other’s knowledge, outlooks, traditions and teachings, was an exceptional draw and within two years VMM had its 100th volunteer. This rapid ascent of VMM ensured its success and Edwina and these early pioneers inspired successive waves of the laity who wished to share of themselves through the volunteering ethos. 50 years later we are still sending volunteers to communities and organisations in the Global South, following the partnership model of the Missionary Approach to Development.
This is just a brief look at the first couple of exceptional and formative years of VMM. There are many more tales to tell and photos to share from all the other volunteer groups who followed in the subsequent decades, which you can read in future posts here as we continue this year of celebration. Memories from 50 years of VMM volunteers’ experiences, insights and adventures are captured in the book ‘VMM Stories‘ which was launched at the inaugural 50th anniversary celebration Gala Dinner, held in Dublin last September. Celebrations began early to commemorate the meandering, yet persistent endeavour of founder Edwina Gateley to get the backing and financial support to launch VMM; a task which began to take root and gain traction in October 1968.
To continue our celebration, and calling on all returned VMM volunteers and friends of VMM in any capacity, we invite you to Save The Date of September 9th to join us in Liverpool to share our appreciation of Edwina and all of our almost 3,000 professional volunteers who have shared their time, sweat, tears, talent and “who they are, not just what they have“, with countless communities, in over 30 countries across the globe over five decades of the committed, volunteer mission to share “a world where we live in the shelter of one one another“.
50th Anniversary Celebrations: Save The Date – September 9th 2019
Further details will follow shortly, but reserve the date, September 9th, and come join kindred spirits of old and new friends in a celebration of a wonderful family of people. This is a perfect opportunity to remember a magical time of sharing and learning in your life and to share and hear the life-changing and life-affirming experiences and memories of being a volunteer with VMM. Such accounts can be found in the ‘VMM Stories’ book. For a taster of what to expect, have a look at Marie O’Meara’s memories from VMM Volunteer Group 1, in her VMM story, ‘Early Days‘.
Given that many of our volunteers were on placement before the age of email, and their physical address may have changed over the years, we ask your help to reconnect with VMM volunteers from the early groups, and all volunteers from all VMM Volunteer Groups throughout the five decades of “working together in a divided world”. We would really appreciate any help you can give to help us reach out and invite as many people as possible to participate in these celebrations. We would also wish to invite you to subscribe to our newsletter and keep in touch with what VMM is doing now and where we are going in the future. Indeed, if you would like to share your VMM memories and photos with us and the wider VMM family, we would be delighted to hear from you. You can email us at: or follow us, message and keep up-to-date on social media, on our Facebook and Twitter pages. We look forward to hearing from you and seeing you at the festivities to celebrate 50 fantastic years and to welcome in 50 more!