Shorter terms, bigger dangers mark missionaries' careers

Ill-prepared short-timers are at risk

others work in unstable Muslim areas

January 19, 2003|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

As a preacher's kid growing up in rural Virginia, Rob Moor was fascinated by the foreign missionaries who visited his father's church with their stories of exotic lands and harrowing adventures as they risked their lives spreading the Gospel.

Now Moor tells his own tales, of aiding Rwandan refugees within earshot of the gunfire of civil war, of living in the African bush with Masai tribesmen in Tanzania.

"I have one of the most exciting jobs in the world," said Moor, 47, who, with his wife, Lisa, has served for the past 13 years as a Baptist missionary. "My job is sort of like Indiana Jones, the Crocodile Hunter and Billy Graham all rolled into one."

His job is also becoming one of the most dangerous.

In the past two years, American missionaries have been gunned down in the Philippines, Lebanon and Yemen.

A plane with missionaries mistaken for drug traffickers was shot down by the Peruvian military, killing a woman and her infant child. And missionaries detained by the Taliban in Afghanistan made headlines before they were rescued by American special forces.

Experts point to two reasons for the increased danger: Missionaries are increasingly going into areas, particularly politically unstable Muslim countries, where any activity promoting religious conversion is prohibited.

And instead of the traditional missionary whose commitment is open-ended, a rapidly growing number are short-timers who don't know the language or culture in a nation that may be hostile to Christianity.

While U.S. Catholic missionaries and Mormons are a major presence around the world, the ranks of missionaries from mainline Christian churches have been surpassed by Americans sent abroad by evangelical denominations such as the Southern Baptists or by nondenominational evangelical groups. More than half of the U.S.-based mission agencies identified themselves as evangelical in a 2000 survey.

The 10/40 Window

Spurred by what Christians call "the Great Commission," the command from Jesus to preach the Gospel to all nations, evangelical Christians have been increasingly targeting what they have dubbed the "10/40 Window," a geographical swath that includes the countries that lie between the latitudes 10 degrees and 40 degrees north, from West Africa to East Asia - an area that includes most of the world's Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists.

"The so-called 10/40 Window, and other regions around that window, are the last frontier," said Gary Baldridge, who coordinates missions for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. "They contain the people groups, tribes, whatever, who have had the least opportunity historically to receive a traditional Christian witness."

The push to send missionaries to the 10/40 Window began in the mid-1980s and escalated with the approach of the millennium. The Southern Baptist Convention's International Mission Board, for example, has about 30 percent of its 5,487 missionaries serving in the 10/40 Window, up from about 1 percent 15 years ago.

While American missionaries make up only 10 percent of those worldwide, missions officials say they are the most threatened, particularly since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Officials expect the threat to increase, especially in the Muslim world, as the United States prepares for war against Iraq.

"The radical Muslims do see Christianity as the nose in the door," said Jonathan J. Bonk, executive director of the Overseas Missions Study Center and editor of the International Bulletin of Missionary Research. "It's the nose of the huge juggernaut they see as Western decadence. Local culture is demasculated, and the ground is prepared for whatever the West wants to do."

That was apparently the motive of the Muslim gunman who walked into the Baptist hospital in Jibla, Yemen, on Dec. 30, cradling a gun as if it were a baby before opening fire, killing three medical missionaries and wounding a fourth.

The hospital had been the target of threats over the years, and the alleged assailant told authorities after his arrest that the Americans were preaching Christianity and that he wanted to "cleanse his religion and get closer to God."

Some missionaries have complained that evangelical leaders including the Rev. Jerry Falwell, Franklin Graham and Southern Baptist Convention President Jerry Vines have disparaged Muslims.

"We are not sure if you are aware of the ramifications that comments that malign Islam and Muhammad have not only on the message of the gospel but also upon the lives of our families as we are living in the midst of already tense times," a group of Southern Baptists working in Muslim countries wrote to church leaders in a letter made public last week.

Short-term stays

The hazards of missionary life may also be increasing because of the rapidly escalating numbers of Christian groups and local churches that are sending abroad short-term evangelists, some for as little as a week, others for a few months.

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