Their Abuse Happened over 25 Years Ago, So Why Were Those MKs Still Talking about It on the Today Show?


A group of five women, all daughters of missionaries, recently went on NBC’s Today to share their stories of sexual abuse in New Tribes Mission boarding schools. One dorm father, whom the women from Fanda Missionary School in Senegal name as their abuser, left the school in 1988. Another dorm father, named by the women from a school in Aritao, the Philippines, was removed from his position in 1993.

It’s been more than 25 years since the latest of their abuse took place, yet these women are still bringing it up. Why?

In their interview, Today‘s Kate Snow asks the five to pick a word to answer the question “What’s this about for you?”

“Truth,” they say. “Justice.”

When Snow commends them for their strength in speaking up, Kelly Emory, who is not only a victim but also a daughter of the accused abuser at her school, says,

I’m strong for the little girl that was never able to say anything, and I’m strong for her, and I’m a strong woman. And I’ll do my best to protect anybody who sees this and wants to speak out. You can come and talk to me. Come and talk to me. I will protect you.

Another of the group, Jaasiel Mashek, in an article at NBC News, says, “If we don’t speak up, it’s going to keep happening. And we’re going to pass on that mentality of covering it up to the next generation. It’s got to stop.”

That’s why they’re still talking. They don’t want it to happen again. They don’t want the rest of us to forget. They don’t want us to think that silence is a remedy.

After the interview aired, Larry M. Brown, CEO of Ethnos360 (formerly New Tribes Mission) responded with an apology and a thank you, writing,

We wish to express our deepest gratitude to these women who came forward and others who have raised awareness of abuse. It is because of their willingness to share their painful stories that . . . preventative measures have been put in place, and we want to publicly thank them.

I want to thank them, too. I know I still need to hear their voices. Their stories are not new to me, but I’d already swept them to the corners of my memory, stripped of faces and details, kept where I can know that they exist without having to acknowledge them often. But I need to remember, really remember, because otherwise it’s too easy for me to give in to my tendencies to ignore hard things, to avoid confrontation, to give the benefit of the doubt when faced with suspicious activities, to hope that things will take care of themselves, and to protect the mission. In this I’m not alone.

And sadly, children in New Tribes Mission haven’t been the only ones to suffer abuse—sexual, physical, emotional, verbal, or spiritual abuse—from missionaries. In 2008, the production company Good Hard Working People produced the film All God’s Children, focusing on accounts of abuse that took place from 1950-1970 at Mamou Alliance Academy, a Christian and Missionary Alliance (C&MA) boarding school in Guinea. The film is available online in 10 parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10.

In the following video from The Churches’ Child Protection Advisory Service (CCPAS—now thirtyone:eight), Wess Stafford, president emeritus of Compassion International, tells of his own experiences as a victim of abuse at Mamou:

Beverly Shellrude Thompson, one of several former Mamou students we hear from in All God’s Children, gives another reason for speaking out, saying that “truth-telling is an integral part of my healing, because as a child I didn’t have a voice.” In 1999, she helped launch MK Safety Net to provide a forum for MKs and TCKs to share their stories, to network, and to learn how to bring their concerns to church/mission leadership. Former Fanda students have contributed to a similar site titled Fanda Eagles.

As part of the process of addressing the problem, New Tribes Mission and C&MA have produced public reports detailing the abuse at Fanda and Mamou and examining how the organizations responded. The investigation of Fanda was conducted by GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment):

New Tribes Mission

The Christian and Missionary Alliance

Other groups, as well, have created their own reports on the abuse of children on the missions field. These include

The Association of Baptists for World Evangelism (ABWE)

The United Methodist Church

The Presbyterian Church (USA)

In calling attention to this information, I want to make it clear that I am not on a vendetta against missionary boarding schools. I know many fine people who serve overseas in such places, selflessly and righteously watching over and educating the children in their care. But while writing this post gives me pause, I am convinced that these accounts still need to be heard.

I understand that not everyone agrees. “Some,” say the writers of the Presbyterian Church report, “strongly believe that the Church would be better served if those who believe they have been abused or are aware of past abuse would keep such information to themselves.”

They then go on to present and dispute three myths:

The current mission of the church will be hurt by revelations of past abuse on mission fields.

The reputations of former missionaries, current staff, or advocates will be damaged by the investigation of allegations against them.

What is in the past is best left alone.

That is why those five women aren’t staying quiet. It’s because the truth needs to be told, and because these myths aren’t true.

(Kate Snow, et. al., “Ungodly Abuse: The Lasting Torment of the New Tribes Missionary Kids,” NBC News, February 7, 2019; Larry M Brown, “NBC Story Follow-Up,” Ethnos360, November 15, 2019; James Evinger, et. al., Final Report of the Independent Abuse Review Panel Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), PCUSA, October 2010)

[photo: “New Gallery Peckham,” by J Mark Dodds, used under a Creative Commons license]


How about a Families of Missionaries Sunday?


Last week I shared Cheryl Savageau and Diane Stortz’s tips on how to start a local Parents of Missionaries group. This week, here’s something else you can do to honor and encourage parents—and other family members—of missionaries whom you know.

Why not set aside a day each year as Families of Missionaries Sunday?

On that day your church could recognize those living Stateside who have sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters, sisters and brothers, and mothers and fathers who are serving abroad. It would be a time to honor them, show your appreciation for their sacrifices, pray for them, and give legitimacy to the grief and concern that naturally comes with having family members live far away, sometimes in non-secure areas.

Not only would this be a time set aside for FOMs in your congregation, but you could also acknowledge family members of missionaries whom you support, regardless of where those families live. And with only a little tweaking, you could include the families of other cross-cultural workers and those of military personnel serving overseas, too.

So what could you do beyond recognition and prayer? Give them a copy of Savageau and Stortz’s Parents of Missionaries: How to Thrive and Stay Connected When Your Children and Grandchildren Serve Cross-Culturally. Give them gift certificates for a nice meal out. Help them put together and ship care packages for their family members abroad. Give grandparents recordable books to send to grandchildren (and cover the shipping, too). Have a card shower for them. (Get the children’s Sunday-school classes involved in this one.) Invite the missionaries to send notes of appreciation that you can present, or have them share by video chat. Sponsor their attendance to a POM retreat, such as the one organized by the Missions Resource Network, or hold your own retreat. Bring in a guest speaker to encourage them and educate others on what they’re experiencing.

The rest is up to your imagination, but I would offer one caveat: Don’t put the family members on stage (or on a pedestal) to share wonderful stories of faith and joy. This is a day to bless them, not the other way around. FOMs already deal with the weight of unrealistic expectations—from others and from themselves— of how they should deal with their emotions. This is not a time to add to that pressure.

And finally, I even have a suggestion for when to have Families of Missionaries Sunday. How about next month? October is Clergy Appreciation Month, and while FOMs aren’t necessarily clergy, that wouldn’t be a bad fit, especially when you understand that honoring their families honors the missionaries, as well . October also presents a great opportunity to rally around FOMs before the arrival of the holidays, a time that can be extremely difficult for them. That’s why Savageau and Stortz include a chapter in their book titled “Happy Holidays? Coping with Holiday Stress.”

Of course, October is just around the corner and maybe you need more time to prepare. Not a problem. The when isn’t so important. The how isn’t so important either. What is important is the who and the why.

(Cheryl Savageau and Diane Stortz, Parents of Missionaries: How to Thrive and Stay Connected when Your Children and Grandchildren Serve Cross-Culturally, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2008)

[photo: “Eiffel Thanks,” by Lauren Manning, used under a Creative Commons license]

The Psychological Health of Missionaries—Adding to the Research

6903821997_e0a95ce498_nHere’s a quick question:

What percentage of returned missionaries and aid workers report psychological disorders during their time overseas or shortly after their return? What do you think? About a quarter, a third, half, two thirds, three quarters?

According to a 1997 study conducted by Debbie Lovell-Hawker of Oxford University, the answer is “about half.” More precisely, Lovell-Hawker’s findings show that among the returned missionaries and aid workers she studied,

46% reported that they had experienced a clinically diagnosed psychological disorder either while working overseas or shortly after returning to the United Kingdom.

Before I went overseas, I would have guessed much lower than half, but after I first heard this statistic referenced in a debriefing I attended, in my mind, the number began to grow much higher than 46%. Statistics have a way of doing that.

Lovell-Hawker’s research included 145 aid and development workers and missionaries from 62 organizations. Though not definitive, the findings are significant as a wake-up call to cross-cultural workers, sending agencies, NGOs, churches, and member-care givers. And they also can assure those repats who are struggling that they are not alone.

Other  findings include

• 18% reported that their problems developed while they were overseas—82% said they began after returning to their home country
• Depression was the most frequently reported problem, occuring in 87% of the cases
• Those who reported having psychological problems had spent significantly longer time overseas than those who reported having none

(Debbie Lovell-Hawker, “Specialist Care: Psychological Input,” Global Connections Member Care Conference, February 18, 2002)

Moving forward from this study, there are some things I’d still like to know: Has anything changed in the 26 years since the findings were published? What would the numbers be for all missionaries and aid workers, not just those who’ve returned? What would the breakdown be among those working in relief and development vs other settings, such as teaching or church planting in developed areas? Are the numbers consistent for workers returning to countries other than the UK? And what about TCKs?

The good news is that there are researchers who are working on these and similar questions.

The Research Continues

One of those researchers is Lynette H. Bikos. Lynette served as a guest editor (along with M. Elizabeth Lewis Hall) of a special issue of Mental Health, Religion & Culture in 2009, titled “Missionaries.” Lynette is director of research and professor of clinical psychology in the School of Psychology, Family, and Community at Seattle Pacific University—and she also happens to be a friend who lived next to me, on an adjoining farm, as we grew up in northeast Missouri. We’ve kept in touch over the years, and she corresponded with my family and me as she worked on her research.

The special issue includes 10 articles dealing with several aspects of cross-cultural adjustment among those whom the editors call “religiously motivated sojourners.” I’d like to highlight four of those articles:

“Social Support, Organisational Support, and Religious Support in Relation to Burnout in Expatriate Humanitarian Aid Workers”
(Cynthia B. Eriksson et al., Mental Health, Religion, & Culture, November 2009)

This assessment found that 40% of expat middle managers in an international faith-based agency were at “high risk” of burnout in one of three areas—lack of personal accomplishment, emotional exhaustion, and disconnection or distance from those being cared for—but less than 4% reported high levels of burnout in all three.

According to the authors of the study, “This suggests that despite intense work and chaotic environments a majority of workers find ways to identify accomplishments, stay connected to others in their work, and rejuvenate. Team relationships, friendships, and positive organisational support may contribute to the resilience for these workers.”

The findings also indicate that younger workers are at a greater risk of burnout, as they register greater negatives in all three burnout areas. But while age was a factor, the number of years serving with the agency was not.

“Resilience in Re-Entering Missionaries: Why Do Some Do Well?”
(Susan P. Selby et al., Mental Health, Religion, & Culture, November 2009)

The authors posed the question ‘‘Why do some re-entering missionaries do well while others do not?’’ and interviewed 15 Australian cross-cultural missionary workers to help find the answer.

All the participants were over 25 years old and had spent at least 2 out of the previous 3 years in a non-Western country. Based on their responses, the researchers divided the missionaries into two categories: “resilient” and “fragile.”

In the interviews, the eight resilient missionaries described having

• flexibility
• higher expectancy and self-determination
• denial in the form of minimization to deal with their distress
• good mental health
• more social support
• a positive reintegration
• a personal spiritual connection to God

In contrast, the seven who were considered fragile described

• less flexibility
• lower expectancy and self-determination
• less use of denial with minimization
• poorer mental health
• less social support
• difficulty reintegrating
• a decreased or fluctuating personal spiritual connection to God

It is interesting that while the results of a questionnaire measuring depression, anxiety, and stress (DASS 21) showed higher levels for the fragile group, the scale showed that only one out of the entire group (including resilient and fragile) had an actual perception of being “personally stressed.”

“Psychological Well-Being and Sociocultural Adaptation in College-Aged, Repatriated, Missionary Kids”
(Michael J. Klemens and Lynette H. Bikos, Mental Health, Religion, & Culture, November 2009)

When the researchers compared a group of MKs to non-MKs at a Christian university, they found that while both groups scored in the healthy range of psychological well-being (PWB),  the missionary kids’ scores were significantly lower.

The missionary kids’ MK status accounted for only 4% of the variance in psychological well-being but was responsible for nearly a quarter (23%) of the difference in sociocultural adaptation (SCA). In this latter area, the MKs reported the most difficulty in “taking a US’ perspective on the culture; seeing things from an American’s point of view; understanding the US’ worldview; understanding the US’ value system; and making yourself understood.”

“Curiously,” report Klemens and Bikos, “neither the age of the participant, nor the number of years abroad, nor the number of years since repatriation was related to PWB or SCA for the MKs.”

“Reduction in Burnout May Be a Benefit for Short-Term Medical Mission Volunteers”
(Clark Campbell et al., Mental Health, Religion, & Culture, November 2009)

This assessment looked at how international short-term mission trips affect burnout among volunteers.

The participants in the study, most of whom were physicians and nurses, travelled to South America for two weeks to provide medical care in a non-disaster-relief setting. Prior to their departure, the group members’ responses to questionnaires showed that they were experiencing moderate burnout. Their burnout levels were again assessed one month and six months after the trip.

“The major finding of this study,” report the researches, “is counter-intuitive: that medical personnel who are emotionally exhausted, have an impersonal response towards their patients, and lack a sense of [personal accomplishments] (moderately burned out) benefit by working hard with numerous patients in an international context.”

They found that levels of emotional exhaustion and perceived personal accomplishments showed significant improvements following the short-term trip and continued in a positive direction in the 6-month followup.


All good research builds about what has been learned before and leads to questions for new studies in the future. I join with Lynette and her co-editor in hoping that the information in their special issue of Mental Health, Religion & Culture encourages others to join in the “exploration” of the psychological health of missionaries. There is so much more to be discovered.

(Lynette H. Bikos and M. Elizabeth Lewis Hall, “Psychological Functioning of International Missionaries: Introduction to the Special Issue,” Mental Health, Religion, & Culture, November 2009)

This special journal issue also includes several articles specific to the experiences of female missionaries. I hope to discuss these in a future post.

[photo: “Confused,” by Mary T Moore, used under a Creative Commons license]