in Green Bay, Wis. - Missionaries rely on the perennial array of homegrown innovations to get their job done where they are called, which usually happen to be places that have not met the late 20th century. At a recent exhibition in Green Bay, Wisc., put on by JAARS, the aviation support arm of Wycliffe Bible Translators, one volunteer rep demonstrated a hand-cranked cassette player. Another showed how a windshield wiper motor converted into a makeshift generator could be capable of neutralizing snake-bite toxins with its low-current, high-voltage charge.
While onlookers gawked at the gizmos or took a turn at cranking out baroque scores like so much homemade ice cream, a nearby computer station sat thoroughly alone. Part of a demonstration set up by a local mission network service, it proved so everyday for most people as to be overlooked. Smack dab in the middle of the computer age, technology-literate youngsters and oldsters are more apt to be fascinated with quainter gadgets.
Computers may be no longer revolutionary, but their availability and speed is nonetheless just beginning to reshape the landscape of the mission field. When Mission Aviation Fellowship came under attack in Zaire early this year, e-mail contact kept pilots and mechanics connected to MAF headquarters until they could be evacuated. Areas lacking hard-surface roads, indoor plumbing, and even electricity enough to run a cassette player can be tethered by a copper wire to the outside world.
Only a few of the mission-minded recognize the potential in this digital awakening. These usually combine a hacker's flair with a passion for evangelism to launch World Wide Web pages and electronic mail or list services that combine homegrown with high-tech. Three years ago this rare combination prompted David Hatch, a pastor with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, to launch an electronic prayer chain for missionaries. The subscriber-based service, called Speed the Need or STN, relays missionary news, prayer requests, and emergency needs both physical and spiritual.
"I like the idea that we can change the future," Mr. Hatch says. His motive got a dramatic test during STN's first days in 1995, when he received an e-mail message concerning missionaries in Kazakhstan. Three-year-old Nathan Beahler, son of the missionaries, had fallen into boiling water and the Beahlers could not find medical care.
Mr. Hatch got in touch with a Lutheran missionary in Kazakhstan who knew an American doctor nearby. Within minutes of the accident, the doctor showed up at the Beahlers' doorstep with a life-saving intravenous solution. The boy healed, and so did his parents' resolve. They had been discouraged in their work but decided to remain afterwards because of the support they sensed back home.
"Ever since then, checking the mail has become very important," said Mr. Hatch. "There might be something with a life in the balance."
STN's stock in trade is its round-the-clock coverage. Mr. Hatch and three members of Our Saviour Lutheran Church serve as "dispatchers," hewing to a serious schedule of monitoring e-mail, other mission networks, and news wires from the World Wide Web . They send out daily reports divided into news items and prayer requests directly from missionaries (complete with sample prayers to help subscribers take the task seriously). They also relay needs for cars, radio equipment, or other hard-to-find necessities on the field.
Their vigilance has produced a track record. When fighting broke out in southern Albania last March, STN had relayed an eyewitness report from missionaries under gunfire before either the Voice of America or BBC World Service aired their own special reports.
From Zaire, STN carried news from Berean Mission's Jim Lindquist, who sent news of refugee movements and rebel attacks via his computer terminal in Katshungu long after Red Cross and United Nations personnel had been evacuated from nearby areas last January.
Mr. Hatch, a self-professing gadget lover who is also a ham radio operator and a bread baker, culled from the web a passenger list of Flight 800 before Associated Press posted one on its newswire. On the morning of this month's plane crash in Indonesia, he was again plowing the web for a list: "Any missionaries on board?" he wanted to know.
Like other computer-based enterprises, STN works a lot like the man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz. Prodigious output belies scant human resources. A main computer in Mr. Hatch's basement is connected to a server in Chicago. Dispatchers work off home computers that feed into the main computer. One dispatcher, Bob Valesano, is a utility-company retiree who does part of the year's work from his mobile home in Florida. Another, Beth Bretzman, is a housewife and mother who works from her Green Bay kitchen.
Two more church members are in training as dispatchers, but Mr. Hatch confesses that the vision for the service catches slowly. Even with an evolving training center housed in the youth pastor's garage-complete with a dozen donated terminals, an LCD panel attached to an overhead projector, and a projection screen-few members of the church understand the scope of the service performed by the desktop equipment. So Mr. Hatch is patient about the lack of interest at the recent JAARS event. "We aren't the big deal; it's what's going on out there," he says, motioning toward the mission field.
STN subscribers include missionaries representing a cross-section of denominations and agencies. A significant portion are from Wycliffe and its related agencies, since STN began just after the kidnapping of Wycliffe missionary Ray Rising in Colombia, who was released last year after his abduction by guerrillas three years ago. Pastors, missions committees, and growing numbers of journalists-including the editor of a Toronto newspaper and Christian Broadcasting Network-are signed on. The service is free.
Mr. Hatch stopped publishing the number of STN subscribers after it topped 700-to avoid "the braggart factor," he says, and because he's actually a little disappointed. Growth, he says, is steady if not heady.
Other services also report incremental growth while acknowledging that many computer-savvy Christians have yet to catch on to the practical advantages of real-time contact with servants in far-away places.
Mae Robinson was converted to the cause about the time STN began. At a local missions conference, the Oostburg, Wis., resident picked up prayer cards for 80 missionaries and vowed to start writing to and praying for them. She began the vocation with long-hand letters and an extensive collection of manila folders, but found that eventually she was sending mostly postcards. Now, she says, 60 percent of her subjects have e-mail accounts, and her correspondence with them takes more the form of conversation.
"They can send me a prayer request for that day, I can read it and pray for them in real time, and sometimes hear from them about God's answer the same day," she said.
Mr. Hatch is keen on the growth of mission-mindedness through computer access, but cautious about all its forms. Most networks are "unmoderated," which means that if anyone posts a message, everyone on the list gets it. This, he says, can lead to the rapid spread of misinformation and can put missionaries in danger. Dispatchers for STN are trained and tested in filtering what comes in. Requests for money are automatically returned. Names and places are removed if there are questions of safety. And dispatchers are asked to develop a sixth sense about fakes.
Mr. Hatch recently tested the dispatchers with an urgent e-mail message from the Philippines. It reported a Catholic church "under siege" by street rioters and a heavy toll of injuries. "'Under siege' is strong terminology," he said, and it tipped him off. After checking wire services and with other missionaries in Manila, he concluded it was a fraud. The other dispatchers caught on, too, a reminder that even the wonders of computing need to be covered with common sense.