Inspiring Global Connections in Lithuania

by Stephanie (Coartney) Dulaney ’09

Rev. Erin Totten ’11 at the 15th century Trakai Island Castle in Lithuania.Somewhere between the campus ministry activities she loved, the spring break mission trips that left her a changed person, and the deep relationships she formed as a McKendree student, Rev. Erin Totten ’11 discovered her calling as a pastor. Now, eight years later, she is using her gifts as a United Methodist minister halfway around the world in Lithuania.

As part of the Global Mission Fellow (GMF) program, Erin is on a long-term mission in the Eastern European country of Lithuania, serving the community in and around Pilviškiai and Kybartai United Methodist Church (UMC). The GMF program sends approximately 100 volunteers between the ages of 20 and 30 all over the world for mission work that lasts years at a time. Erin is halfway through her two-year experience in Lithuania, where she leads church services, oversees two youth groups, teaches English as a second language to local adults, and has created a Nordic hiking group as part of a holistic wellness project.

Her passion for serving others through mission work began in her teen years and grew throughout her McKendree experience. Traveling with fellow students, she visited Chicago neighborhoods and the rural Appalachian communities of Virginia before venturing abroad to Costa Rica with the UMC Illinois Great Rivers Conference.

Lithuania proved to be an even bigger step of faith. In a culture where women are rarely church leaders and the language barrier is steep, Erin is stretching her own abilities while teaching others. “The most challenging thing is not being away from home for a long period of time; it’s learning the local language,” she said. “Lithuanian is a very old language. It has roots that go back to Sanskrit.” After one year, she is still working to improve her speaking skills in a new complex language.

Erin has used her unique position as a female minister to show local children and youth that women can lead churches, too. Most Lithuanians have never seen a woman pastor, so she has shared her story in elementary schools and is starting a children’s ministry at the church where she directs worship services and preaches the weekly sermon.

Not long into her time in Lithuania, Erin had to rely on the help of others when she slipped on ice and broke her wrist. “Part of the adventure was a trip to the local emergency room,” she said. “If you are wondering what the hospital looks like, it’s somewhere between the Harry Potter infirmity ward and a Soviet military hospital.” With a sense of humor and positivity that serves her well, she has learned life lessons in humility while growing her appreciation for her Lithuanian friends and neighbors.

Erin’s view of mission work has always been about building relationships rather than bringing change to the people she is serving. “I believe that we can no longer go into a community and change them for who we think they should be,” she said. “We are called to equip and to train the local leaders. When we do ministry with them, we are supporters. We are encouragers. Their culture and identity does not need changing, but we can change to adapt to the needs of others.”

She remembers how McKendree helped instill that mindset in her and prepared her to become a global citizen. “I am grateful that as a university community, we were exposed to a broad range of thinking, a broad range of community and culture,” she said. “When I worked in the Lair, I would often work with an international student. I loved being able to build a friendship and learn more about who they were. My intercultural speech communication class also brought new understanding that people are the same all over the globe. In the times I served on the alternative spring break mission trips, I was the one who was always changed.”

Midway through her time in Lithuania, Erin already knows the experience has changed her again in many ways. She hopes to show the local community the same values she learned as a Bearcat—that we are all connected as one people.