Amid the heat, dirt, despair-a privilege

Special Report | Missions work in the post-9/11 world is more difficult, but the rewards remain

Issue: "Global shame," June 15, 2002

In churches across America, summer has become synonymous with short-term missions trips. Security precautions and lengthy lines at airport scanners (bring something to read) aren't seriously dampening enthusiasm for part-time-and first-time-missionaries.

Overall groups are more cautious. But interest has not waned. Southern Baptist International Mission Board president Jerry Rankin reports a 28 percent rise in missionary appointments this year. Southern Baptists commissioned the largest number of new missionaries ever-124 full-time overseas workers-two months after Sept. 11 and have appointed 121 since.

At Wycliffe Bible Translators, linguists have set a goal to reach three regions of the world with Bible translation help by 2025: remote South Pacific islands, in some cases reached only by radio; mainland Asia; and parts of central Africa and Nigeria. Three thousand language groups in those regions do not have Christian Scriptures, the organization reports. Satellite communications and computer technology make it easier to keep track of the progress.

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But they are no replacement for native speakers. In the Solomon Islands, eight local translators worked with two Wycliffe workers to complete the New Testament on the Ontong Java atoll in a project that took nearly 10 years. Out of it grew not only Bible literacy, but also a school system for students to practice their newfound written language.

But as computer-age tools, communication, and travel savvy bring agility to the business of spreading the gospel everywhere, challenges for mission workers are more complex.

Two kidnapping cases of Christian workers are intricately tied to the U.S. war on terrorism. Martin and Gracia Burnham, longtime workers with New Tribes Mission, have just passed the one-year mark in captivity in the Philippines. Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer were held by the Taliban, along with six other aid workers from the German-based relief group Shelter Now. The group was released outside Kabul shortly after American forces attacked Afghanistan.

Abu Sayyaf rebels kidnapped the Burnhams from a resort (along with 18 others) while they were celebrating their 18th wedding anniversary. Others in the group have been freed and one American was killed, but the Burnhams and Filipino nurse Deborah Yap have continued to be held-despite a deployment of 1,000 U.S. Green Berets sent to the area to assist Filipino troops in a search for the rebels. Highlighting the strategic importance of the Burnhams' case, the United States last week offered a $5 million reward for information leading to the capture of their captors.

Mission organizations are trying to adjust to the terrorist threats. New Tribes Missions has diverted some of its own staff, along with outside experts, to a full-time "crisis management team" and has printed over half a million fliers in attempts to locate the Burnhams. "As the day closes here in the USA, the team's counterparts in Manila, Philippines, begin their day. We are literally working around the clock, 24/7, for Martin and Gracia's release," read a recent update from New Tribes chairman Oli Jacobsen.

Some groups are leaving behind even the word "mission" and other buzzwords that provoke Islamic radicals and others. Some countries are quicker to welcome "humanitarian workers" than they are to admit "missionaries" or "church workers." Many groups have swapped explicit names for their acronyms, like Christian Literature Crusade, which has become CLC International.

For all the challenges, the rewards of being there are age old. "May I say that amidst the heat, the dirt, and the despair," writes longtime physician Richard Bransford from Sudan, "I felt very often how privileged I was to be allowed by God to be used of Him there. We did share simple messages of salvation with many of the people, but how many really, really understood we will never know. God will know."


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