Features

The need for speed

International | Homespun computer network keeps missionaries in touch

Issue: "Ashcroft 2000?," Oct. 11, 1997

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.

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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.

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