What's Controversial about Missions News Reporting?
LAKE FOREST, CA (ANS - March 19, 2015) -- Having been born in Nigeria of British missionary parents, and being a professional journalist for more than 45 years, I have seen just about everything controversial about news reporting in this field.
But quite often the problem is the egos of the so-called missionaries, who often don't have any understanding of the people they are ministering to.
Clerical collars for Indian pastors
Let me take you back to 1975, when I received a phone call at the office of the London newspaper I was then working for, from a missions group asking if I would be free to make a reporting trip with one of their leaders to India, to do a write up on their work and also interview Mother Teresa - "The Saint of the Gutters" -- in Calcutta. It certainly sounded like a dream assignment for a young reporter!
I managed to get a couple of weeks off from the paper and met up with the "missionary" I was to travel with at Heathrow Airport and we flew off to Bombay, now known as Mumbai.
Shortly after we arrived and had checked into our hotel, the man proudly opened his suitcase and showed me its contents. It was packed with about 100 clerical collars that he said he planned to hand out to the Indian pastors that we met along the way. He took one of them out and showed me the detachable collar that buttons onto a clergy shirt which he showed me was fastened by two metal studs, one attached at the front and one at the back to hold the collar to the shirt.
"But," I asked, "isn't it going to be too hot here for them to wear these collars?"
"Oh, no," he replied. "You really aren't a pastor unless you wear one of these."
Nothing would deter him and, at each church we stopped at, he would proudly open his suitcase and present the bemused pastor with one of these clerical collars, and then insist that they would immediately start wearing it. With sweat pouring down their face, he would show them how it worked and then gave a huge
However, it wasn't all bad. While we were traveling by train, the ticket collector came around and the Indian man seated next to me, promptly took out a glass eye from its socket and handed it to the bemused collector.
He gazed at for a moment, and then said, "I'm sorry, sir, but we don't accept glass eyes for tickets." The poor man was ejected from the train at the next stop.
Mother Teresa "Something Beautiful for God"
When we finally arrived in Calcutta, and after witnessing the incredible sights and sounds of this city where thousands were living out on the sidewalk, we headed for the Missionaries of Charity headquarters to meet with the great lady, who was dedicating her life to the poor and downtrodden.
When Mother Teresa first came into the tiny room where we were to conduct the interview, I soon realized that that although she was small in stature -- she stood only 4-foot-11-inches tall -- she was a giant to the have-nots of life that she ministered to during her six decades on the subcontinent of India, as well as others around the world. Her friends were the starving, the dying, the poor.
As a young reporter, I immediately warmed to this gentle woman who went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize, for she had seen more poverty than anyone I had ever met. Speaking in the founding, festering slum where she made her simple home, I was surprised to hear her express pity for the "poverty-stricken West."
"The spiritual poverty of the Western World is much greater than the physical poverty of our people," she told me, as the fan whirred above us, trying to alleviate the unbearable heat of that Indian city.
"You, in the West, have millions of people who suffer such terrible loneliness and emptiness. They feel unloved and unwanted. These people are not hungry in the physical sense, but they are in another way. They know they need something more than money, yet they don't know what it is.
"What they are missing, really, is a living relationship with God."
Mother Teresa cited the case of a woman who died alone in her home in Australia. Her body lay for weeks before being found. The cats were actually eating her flesh when the body was discovered. "To me, any country which allows a thing like that to happen is the poorest. And people who allow that are committing pure murder. "Our poor people would never allow it."
And the teeming millions of the poor of the Third World have a lesson to teach us in the affluent West, Mother Teresa declared.
"They can teach us contentment," she said, her leathery face gently smiling. "That is something you don't have much of in the West.
"I'll give you an example of what happened to me recently. I went out with my sisters in Calcutta to seek out the sick and dying.
"We picked up about 40 people that day. One woman, covered in a dirty cloth, was very ill and I could see it. So I just held her thin hand and tried to comfort her. She smiled weakly at me and said, 'Thank you.' Then she died. She was more concerned to give to me than to receive from me. I put myself in her place and I thought what I would have done. I am sure I would have said, 'I am dying, I am hungry, call a doctor, call a Father, call somebody.' But what she did was so beautiful. I have never seen a smile like that. It was just perfect. It was just a heavenly gift. That woman was more concerned with me than I was with her."
Mother Teresa, who had a wonderful way of making you feel you were the most important person in the world when you were talking to her, told me of another incident.
"I gave another poor woman living on the streets a bowl of rice," said Mother Teresa. "The woman was obviously starving and she looked in wonder as I handed it to her. "She told me, 'It is so long since I have eaten.'
"About one hour later, she died. But she did not say, 'Why hasn't God given me food to eat,' and 'why has my life been so bad?'
"The torture of hunger and pain just finished her, but she didn't blame anybody for it. This is the greatness of our poor people."
Mother Teresa added: "We owe a great debt of gratitude to those who are suffering so beautifully. They teach us so much."
When I flushed as I asked Mother Teresa her age at that time, she told me: "There is no need to be embarrassed. I'm 64."
She added with a twinkle in her eye: "I'm getting old now aren't I? But it's a wonderful thing to be able to spend all those years doing something beautiful for God."
This incredible Catholic nun, revered for her tireless dedication to the world's most wretched, died on Friday, September 5, 1997 surrounded by grieving sisters of her order. She was 87 and she left this earth having done many "beautiful things" for God. What an example she was to all of us and that was the one interview I will never forget! She was loved by so many that she backed up her words with actions!
An embarressing prayer for Mother Teresa
But then it was almost ruined by my traveling companion, who had looked uncomfortable for most of the interview. He then asked Mother Teresa if he could pray for her and she agreed.
But then I was horrified when he began by saying, "Dear God, I pray that this dear woman will see the error of her ways by following the Vicar of Rome. I pray that she will repent for this and turn from her ways."
He then gave a smug smile and I wanted to disappear from the room, but Mother Teresa was as gentle as ever, pretended she didn't hear his "rebuke" and thanked us for coming.
When I recounted this incident, and the clerical collars to the mission leader, he promptly fired the man, and I was faced with what I should write up about what had occurred.
I took the easy way out and just featured Mother Teresa's inspiring interview, which I repeated each year on the anniversary of her death on my news service.
Locked up in an Nigerian jail because of an African scam artist
It was meant to be a joyful return for me to Nigeria, the land of my birth, but some 37 years ago it instead turned into a nightmare.
I was in Kenya on another missions reporting trip, and the group had asked me to take a "side trip" to Lagos to report on the story of a "converted witch doctor who had found Christ and now ran an orphanage."
I had never been back to Nigeria after we had left in 1942 when my father, Alfred Wooding, had become very sick and needed urgent medical attending in the Hospital for Tropical Diseases in Liverpool, England. So you can imagine my excitement at being back in the country of my birth.
I had stepped off the plane that had just landed at Lagos International Airport and I approached the immigration official's desk. He began thumbing through my British passport and then summoned another official to come over to talk to me.
"Why are you here?" he snapped. "I'm a journalist and I have come to write a story about an orphanage here in Nigeria."
Not realizing that at that time you were supposed to offer a bribe to enter the country, he took me away and locked me in a nearby cell.
"Why are you doing this?" I protested as the door slammed shut. "I was born in this country."
He ignored my protests and I found myself in that small cell with four Africans who looked bemused at a white man being locked up with them. I noticed that there were only four beds and there were five of us and, thankfully, one of the prisoners offered me his bed.
I had never been imprisoned before and I spent a terrible night, aware that the Nigerians were going through a period of executing prisoners by firing squad on a nearby beach and then showing it live on television. I certainly didn't want to be featured in that way on Prime Time TV in Nigeria.
I prayed harder than I had ever done before and I told the other prisoners, who were all Muslims, that I was a Christian and we spent many hours sharing our beliefs with each other.
The next morning, I was summoned before the chief immigration officer at Lagos Airport who told me that I was "not welcome" in Nigeria and that I would be deported back to Britain on the "first available flight."
Within a couple of hours, I said goodbye to my new-found friends, and was taken, a rifle butt pushed in my back, and frog-marched to the waiting plane that would take me back to Gatwick Airport, just outside of London.
I had only been locked up for one night, but I began to understand what it was like for my brothers and sisters around the world who were being imprisoned for their faith. I hadn't been singled out because I was a Christian, but because I didn't pay a bribe, but now, for the first time, I understood the horror of incarceration and what the writer to the Hebrews meant when he wrote in chapter 13, verse 3, "Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering."
There hasn't been a day since then that I haven't remembered in prayer those in prison in around the world for their faith. I wrote up this story and my case was even raised in the British House of Commons, by my local MP, Bill Molloy.
I am still hoping that one day I can safely return to the land of my birth.
When Sexual Abuse Comes to Light
One of the darkest side of missions has been how a generation of missionary kids (MK's) were sexual abused while they were overseas.
I was fortunate that my parents had to come back to the UK because of my father's illness, and so I didn't have to experience the nightmare of sexual abuse that many MKs did.
In April of 2013, MK Safety Net sponsored the first interdenominational conference for MK abuse survivors. Christianity Today attended the event in Rolling Meadows, Illinois, where 45 survivors spoke of the abuse they had experienced as young children. Several of them said they believed that just being sent to boarding school-even if a child didn't get raped or beaten-was abuse in itself. Family was "something you did on holidays, not something you were in," one survivor said. Several therapists were on hand to assist survivors.
"In these and other forums, survivors are increasingly detailing the internal, psychological, and religious dynamics of abuse. Just identifying them aids the healing process," she wrote.
For example, she added, one problem for MK's is the pervasive God-talk, Schmutzer said. On the mission field, there is no place to express doubts. "You can't ever say, 'I don't understand God,' or 'God is unfair.' In the mission context where God is the wallpaper, you aren't allowed to question-that's dissent."
This leads to an enormous amount of cynicism, Schmutzer said. "I see this in MK's at Moody who are spiritually cynical, in part because of hypocrisies they've lived close to."
"All the pieces were contorted or twisted," Lea said. "We were told we would be preventing the salvation of the people that our parents were here to save if we told the truth."
Some evangelical have asked if this should have been reported on? My answer is, of course it should. After all, when religion goes bad, lives have been at times destroyed. It's only when this topic has been brought out into the light of day, that healing can begin for the many MK's.
"The mission field can be a very dangerous place for a child," said Boz Tchividjian, founder and executive director of Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE) and one of the most vocal organizers of survivor response.
At a Religion Newswriters Association conference in 2013, Tchividjian (grandson of Billy Graham and brother of pastor Tullian Tchividjian) said he believed that U.S. evangelicals were worse than the Catholic Church in handling abuse.
"The unique dynamic of mission abuse is that it is happening to children who are already in a foreign culture," he said. Still, there are many signs that large Christian institutions are joining survivors in addressing the controversy more openly. That is good news indeed.
Short-term missions v long-term missionaries
Today, there are a plethora of short-term mission groups like Operation Mobilization and Youth With A Mission, and much of what they have done has been great, not just for the short-termers, but also for those that have found Christ through their efforts.
Some encourage summer mission outreaches, whereby mainly teenagers are taken over to an overseas country and let loose on the local community. Often they will help with construction projects and build schools and hospitals, which is highly commendable.
Of course, in many cases, they do a great job, but often when it's over, they come home, share their experiences at their church, and then promptly forget missions and go on with their lives in pursuing the American dream. So often, they notch up their trip as an "adventure" but often don't care anymore for the
people they had "ministered" to.
Others are involved in what is called Indigenous Missions, whereby they support local Christians who they say can do a much better job in sharing the Gospel with their own people, understanding the languages and cultures.
My own parents, Alfred and Anne Wooding, both spent several years before the Second World War at Bible Schools in the UK, and then my mother took a Braille course in Liverpool so she could teach the blind of Nigeria the Good News of Jesus Christ. Once they arrived in Nigeria, they then had to spend more time learning the local Hausa language, and my mother had to learn Braille in the local language. This all meant that it was several years before they could share their message with just one native.
So it is not hard to see why some critics are saying that Indigenous Missions are the way to go, but the problem with that is sometimes the locals they are supporting are less than honest and can spot a Western organization that will shell out money to them, often without proper checks of their background.
I believe that both have their place in world missions, and are an important of fulfilling the Great Commission.
How important is it for missionaries to communicate the good and the bad of their work?
Most missionaries don't realize the importance of sending regular, and honest reports back to their home church, and so the only time they get to share about their work is when they come home on a fund-raising trip. By then, they are often exhausted and just want to rest.
However, I believe that Bible colleges should have a course in media relations in which they learn how to craft their newsletters in non-Evangelical jargon and also deal with problems they are facing, whether it is with the local people or authorities, or even depression, a topic most missionaries will not deal with. It is only then that their supporters can truly understand the cost that so many of them are facing.
Some years ago, I managed to get hold of reams of notes written by my mother about her time in Nigeria, and I turned it into a book called "Blind Faith." One of the nuggets I discovered what that she would dig up babies that had been buried along with their mother, and quite often this would saves their lives. Some critics say that missionaries should never try and change local traditions, but leave the people alone to continue wwith their old ways. So, shouldn't she done that as she was changing a tradition, however awful? The answer is, of course she should have done so.
How to handle crisis situations?
I have recently been writing many stories about the Ebola crisis in West Africa, and learned of an extraordinary man called Father Themi Adams, a former Australian rock-star atheist, who found Christ and became a fearless missionary to war-torn Sierra Leone, West Africa, and is now in the center of the greatest challenge of his life. Adams, who was once a member of The Flies, that once shared the stage with The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, and now runs The Holy Orthodox Mission in Freetown, the capital city of the troubled West African nation, who is risking his own life to help the victims of the deadly Ebola in Sierra Seone.
Since February of last year, thousands have died of Ebola in West Africa - the world's deadliest outbreak to date, and yet this missionary, now in his 70s, refuses to leave his post and is constantly sending out newsletters about what is occurring all around him.
Another great example of how to deal with a crisis was the way Samaritan's Purse, headed by Franklin Graham, dealt with their own Ebola crisis, especially when Dr. Kent Brantly, 33, the doctor infected with Ebola while working in West Africa, was flown over to Emory Hospital in Atlanta, and their media department worked overtime pumping out news releases.
Another aid worker, Nancy Writebol, 59, who worked with SIM-USA, was diagnosed as having the virus as well. Both were flown back to the U.S. for treatment and are no longer contagious.
Samaritan's Purse and SIM-USA could have ducked the controversy surround the fear that Americans had for this deadly virus, but instead cooperated with the media and put on press conferences with both Brantly and Writebol in attendance.
These were brilliant examples of how to keep the media informed and it paid off because of they both were able to share the Gospel during their media appearances.
Millions were touched around the world because these two mission groups did the right thing.
Honesty is the best policy in dealing with controversy in missions. Journalists can often be a cynical bunch, but they will recognize trustworthiness when they are presented with the truth. The question is, will missions leaders do this? Will they own up when things have gone wrong, or will they continue to fan the flames of the controversies surrounding reporting on missions. It's their choice!
Note: This part of a paper that I delivered at a meeting of the Evangelical Missiological Society held at Biola University, La Mirada, California, on March 13th.
Photo captions: 1) Dan Wooding with Mother Teresa in Calcutta in 1975. 2) Dan pictured in the cell where he was held in Lagos. (Photo was smuggled out by Dan). 3) Mass executions on Lagos Beach. 4) As a baby in Nigeria, Dan with his father, Alfred Wooding in 1941. 5) Fr. Themi Adams handing out gloves at his mission in Sierra Leone. 6) Dr. Kent Brantly at work.
Note: Please feel free to re-publish this and any of our ANS stories with attribution to the ASSIST News Service (www.assistnews.net)