Missionaries From Hell — Revisited

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The picture above is from a glowing LancasterOnline article, from 2016, about a couple who sold everything to start an orphanage in Kenya.

A few years ago, while at an annual conservative Mennonite revivalist effort, specifically the youth tent meetings at Terry Hill, I was involved in a conversation with a parent who spoke of their great admiration of the missionary zeal of the younger generation. To this person, the desire to travel to exotic places, purportedly to “share the Gospel,” was proof of sincere faith and fulfillment of the great commission. But, having decided that questioning this paradigm would likely be misunderstood, I did not express my reservations then.

Since then I have written two blogs, most recently one (“Missionaries From Hell?“) as part of a series on Matthew 23 and another before that (“Missionary or Imposter?“) exploring the true meaning of a quote of a famed fundamentalist preacher, Charles Spurgeon, about Christian missionary work. In both I point out the many different motives, besides a sincere desire to reach vulnerable people, why someone would leave the comforts (and boredom) of rural American life to be with a group of ambitious (and unmarried) young people. My basic point being that missionary zeal does not necessarily mean prayer cards and world travel.

My Blindspot

However, in those prior efforts, while listing the many possibilities of corrupt motivations and relating my own experiences, not once did it occur to me to add sexual predation to the list. At the time it would have seemed a bit over the top. My simply challenging the assumption that all things done in the name of Jesus are legit service “for the kingdom” may have been enough for some to tune me out. I mean, isn’t it great that some are trying to do something, even if that effort is misguided, largely ineffective and born of suspect motives?

Yes, maybe the execution was flawed, but isn’t the road to heaven paved with good intentions?

(Or maybe I’m remembering that expression wrong…?)

Anyhow, to suggest that some are there some there in these impoverished countries as a means to prey on the vulnerable would have been unconscionable until it became otherwise. When the bombshell report of Jeriah Mast’s confessions to sexually predatory behavior, both while a missionary in Haiti and also swept under the rug at home, rocked the conservative Mennonite world it immediately reminded me of the two blogs I wrote about the potential for ulterior motives.

It makes perfect sense now and should’ve years before in the wake of the sexual abuse scandal at Penn State. If Jerry Sandusky, the founder of an organization supposedly to help disadvantaged boys, the “Second Mile,” could use his access to the university and reputation as a former coach as a means to hide in plain sight, why not a Mennonite missionary?

Except, for some reason, it was unimaginable.

My concerns expressed missed and not because they were too critical either. No, if anything, I was too gentle and generous. All cultures have their sacred cows, it is risky business trying to confront them head-on, and maybe that is what caused me to unconsciously tread lightly as not to offend. But charities and church ministries are opportunity zones for wolves in sheep’s clothing. The reality is this: The same things that draw those with pure motives to the mission also attracts those looking to exploit vulnerable people.

The Bigger Issue

It certainly isn’t just the case in Mennonite missions either. In fact, the reason I’m writing is because of another case involving a Lancaster County man, a convicted sex offender, who started an orphanage in Kenya—the man in the LancasterOnline picture. Then there is that “incredible story of decades of adultery, rape, and pedophiliac sexual abuse by Donn Ketcham” mentioned by Hans Mast in his blog. And that’s only scratching the surface, only the most current and obvious examples, and who knows what is yet to come to light.

Do we have any excuse anymore not to be aware?

We can fairly easily detect a fraud when it is not one of our own. Like the Manhattan ‘pastor’ who wrote in USA Today about her late-term abortion, had a salary of $250,000 (“plus more than $150,000 in fringe benefits”) and recently lost her job over a harassment complaint involving sex toys. Most people know to be wary of men like televangelist Kenneth Copeland, who live like celebrities and fleece their flocks for Gulfstream jets. But the truth is that these aren’t the wolves relevant to conservative Mennonite (or Orthodox Christian) sheep and we do definitely have wolves amongst us.

We were warned…

“Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock.” (Acts 20:28‭-‬29 NIV)

Perhaps the most uncomfortable truth is that we all have this potential to be the imposter or to be one who looks and acts the part of a Christian, yet is only really in it for themselves. Living the part of a religious or cultural ideal often gives you access to funding, better jobs, travel, and other opportunities. Sure, not everyone who goes abroad is a sexual predator. It is likely that this kind of abuse is the rare exception of those who travel. However, sexual predation is not the only form of exploitation.

It could be argued that populating an Instagram page with cute pictures of foreign children is more for the benefit of the one posting them. In well-funded funded Western-style missions there is also plenty of power and cultural imperialism that comes along for the ride in our missionary efforts. In other words, there are many ways that a person can be a missionary from hell.

Sir Charles is right…

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What Charles Barkley says about tribal mentality (watch the video) is spot on.  We are all susceptible to in-group favoritism, which is to prefer those we most identify with over those who we do not, and, with that, we can lose our objectivity.  Sadly, when issues are framed as ‘us’ versus ‘them’ (rather than on the basis of a careful and impartial analysis of the facts) the only result can be more polarization and division.

It is not just a matter of dividing over racial identities either.  Identities can be built around many things.  We can prefer or judge more harshly based in gender, class, education, religion, nationality, political affiliation, brand, friendship, familiarity and basically anything that can be used to create categories of people.  We don’t always side with those who are most like us either.  Regardless, who a person identifies with or against is a reflection of their own priorities and these often seemingly unconscious preferences are worth our conscious examination.

When the allegations against Bill Cosby started to become a story I was originally skeptical of his accusers.  I cringed because I had thought of him as a sort of role model of fatherhood.  I imagined his status as a wealthy celebrity may make him vulnerable to those seeking to gain financial and a sort of odd offer that could suggest a money motive behind the charges made me wonder even more.  Still, why would I assume Cosby is innocent and assume over a dozen women are guilty of trying to extort him?  It could be that I’m a man like him who would fear the same happening to me.  It could also be that the accusers are anonymous people as far as I am concerned and Cosby a public figure I thought I knew.

In contrast, a few years ago when the charges against Jerry Sandusky were made, when he was accused similarly in what became a media frenzy, I assumed he was probably guilty and without much consideration of his possible innocence.  First off, he lacked cuteness factor and, as awful as it is, appearance is a factor in our judgment of guilt or innocence. In my mind Sandusky looked the stereotypical part and that prejudice despite my knowing appearance is not evidence of guilt.  Second, despite being a Penn State fan, Sandusky was not on the coaching staff for a decade and I did not recognize him.  Besides that, his TV interview was awkward and, while actual proof of nothing but his awkwardness, it gave me the heebie-jeebies.

Black men often suffer the same image problem that causes people to be suspicious rather than sympathetic.  It is unfair, but not an inexplicable prejudice and definitely not helped when the causes célèbres are young men who died in violent confrontation.  It is not helpful to the cause of overcoming racial prejudice that solidarity centers around skin color rather than unquestionable character.  It is not fair to the vast majority of black young men for them to be lumped together with every other black young man and especially not helpful they be categorized with those involved in tragic violent encounters.

The idea that every black male is equally likely to be killed is based in an erroneous assumption that race is the only important factor in predicting outcomes.  Statistics do not tell individual stories and many factors other than race influence risk.  Factors like single parent homes, participation in gangs, drug use and many others can add to risk.  Factors like education, positive attitude, good community and others can reduce risk.  So, rather than categorize by race only (as if that’s all that matters) and feed a tribal mentality that is already too prevalent, we should look beyond as well. We should encourage unity around the ideas that reduce risk for all young men regardless of their race.

“It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.” (Eleanor Roosevelt)

A first step towards light and away from darkness is to reconsider our own tribal identity.  It may say nothing more when she does it than when I do, but I did find it interesting that Whoopi Goldberg is skeptical of the allegations against Cosby and yet did not rise to the defense of Sandusky who faced far fewer accusers.  To Goldberg’s credit, she did separate the acts of the retired coach from the Penn State community, which is more fair than demanding morally responsible and mass punishment for those who had no way of knowing.  But why do we not treat both accused men the same regardless of appearances?

But I do digress.  This is my advice for moving in the direction of light and unity beyond racial identity.  This, for those afraid of young black men, means to identify with the young black men who do not fit a violent stereotype and should not be defined by the negative statistics.  It means judging less in appearance, less collectively and more on individual merit.  For those who fear police, this means obeying the law even when in disagreement, treating officers with respect even when not understanding their requests of us and seeing them as unique people to be treated as individuals rather than as part of some monolithic thing to shower our contempt upon.

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It is the image of Devonte Hart giving a hug to Sgt. Bret Barnum that show the real path out of darkness and to light.  Let’s follow their lead and be a new tribe bigger than skin color and prejudice.  Leave fear and mistrust behind even if it makes you more vulnerable.  Give people who look different from you the same benefit of doubt you give to those who look more like you.  Be willing to go the second mile for those who seem as a threat to you and live to be a light to the world.  The world needs more hugs, fewer demands and chockholds.  We need to love all people as we want to be loved.

“If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.” (James 2:8-9)

Anyhow, this is probably as much as I want to say about racial tensions, I have probably said more than enough already and I pray my words are understood as intended.  May God bless his children of all colors, genders and social statuses with abundance of love for each other.  May we love each other as God loves us and be leaders in love rather than reactionaries in fear.  We need love and understanding beyond the tribal boundary and that which is only made possible through having the mind of God.