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China Bound


May 11, 2004
- by Dan Dyck


Phil and Julie Bender

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Winnipeg, Man. — A fondness for connecting with congregations and a fervor for the missional church vision are just two reasons Phil and Julie Bender are preparing to serve with Mennonite Church Canada Witness in Chengdu, China.

In his work as pastor, teacher, and former mission worker, Phil has built many relationships with congregations in Ontario and Manitoba. He has taught at the Elim Bible Institute in Altona, Man. (1976-88), and with his wife, Julie, served a term as missionaries in Ghana. The couple then co-pastored in Ontario, first at Zurich Mennonite Church and most recently Hamilton Mennonite Church.

Phil says that returning to Ghana for a visit in 2002 rekindled an appetite for another international adventure. In taking an assignment in Chendu, he will be able to return to his love of teaching by helping Chinese students learn English, and at the same time follow a passion for experiencing other cultures. But Phil is quick to point out the core attraction of this assignment: “To work at embodying the gospel through a presence ministry, which we’ll need to do in China since we can’t go in there overtly as missionaries, is appealing.” Julie adds, “The missional concept of the church is very important to me and if I can help to communicate some of that back to North American churches, that will be a joy.”

Julie, with her masters of social work degree and her gifts of gifts of counseling, mentoring, and spiritual direction, will be pastoral care provider for China Educational Exchange teachers – a possibility that has interested her for some time. “I was aware of this position, even when we lived in Ghana, and I had thought even then sometimes, ‘That would be a very interesting job to have.’”

Recently the couple hosted an international university student from Chengdu in their Hamilton home. The relationship they built during her stay will result in a ready-made set of connections in Chengdu. This experienced has helped shape what the Benders look forward to during their time in China.

Their desire to use using their pastoral gifts is inspiring. They want to relate to students who ask questions about meaning in life. Julie thrives on building personal relationships. “Give me someone face-to-face and take off your mask and let’s talk about what’s really important here,” she says, smiling.

The couple knows that talking about God in a culture that has little almost no biblical foundation or Christian language will be a challenge. Knowing they are remembered and prayed for by friends and congregations back home will be an important part of their daily walk in Chengdu, but they also note that they want to give something of their experience back to the church.

“We’re grateful for the opportunity to represent Mennonite Church Canada in China, and are looking forward to helping the Canadian Mennonite (church) learn a little bit more about how the Spirit is working in China,” said Phil.