Child Casualities of the Good News

A remarkable letter of apology, signed by the chairman of the board of directors of the Christian & Missionary Alliance, was printed in the February 2009 issue of Alliance Life, the denomination’s official magazine. The board acknowledged “its deepest regrets for the significant trauma” experienced by vulnerable children of missionaries, and apologized contritely for decades of failure by Alliance leadership to recognize, acknowledge and stop abuse at the Alliance’s mandatory boarding schools for missionary children. After decades of damage control, and attempts to sweep the scandal under the rug, the new board has courageously (and biblically) come clean.

“With sincere remorse,” the letter states, “we acknowledge that some MKs [missionary kids], now adults, suffered physical and sexual abuse, molestation and exploitation at the hands of dorm parents, teachers, peers and other missionaries.” It also confesses that further injustice was perpetrated against whistle-blowers: “We acknowledge and apologize to the courageous individuals who initially brought to light the reality that abuse had occurred . . . but were not given a sympathetic hearing.”

I remember well the pictures forty years ago of two hundred stressed-out children, under escort by armed American soldiers, being loaded onto US military transport planes. It was Dalat, Viet Nam in the late 1960s and the children were being evacuated from a residential school for MKs then threatened by an encroaching North Vietnamese offensive. In the end the entire school was relocated to the more secure Malaysian resort town of Penang where it remains today.

An often-overlooked feature of the modern Protestant missionary movement, something a present from its beginnings two centuries ago, is boarding schools for the children of cross-cultural evangelists. The telling feature of those photographs of the airlift out of Viet Nam was that there were no parents in sight. This is the silent scandal of modern missionary endeavor. Children, as early as six or seven years of age, have been growing up in the surrogate care of “dorm parents” and other educational staff and volunteers serving with various missions.

I’ve personally attended countless missionary recruitment meetings, and know that a willingness to give up one’s children for the sake of the cause was considered the supreme test of one’s consecration to God and his call. Such children could have been allowed to grow up in their own families, and been educated at local international schools, or, where those were unavailable, home-schooled by a competent parent. But most mission leaders ruled out these options. It was important to have both parents devoted full-time to The Cause, they reasoned, and not distracted by domestic duties of this magnitude. There were also top-down mandates to ensure that all parents, even those with good local options, sent their kids off to the missionary residential schools, to ensure a sufficient mass of students to make each school cost-effective. The urgency of global evangelism was believed to trump all lesser considerations of family responsible and child welfare.

Missionary kids led a charmed life in one sense—cosmopolitan, multilingual, and at ease with international travel. But a disproportionate number also seemed to struggle later on with attachment issues, with unresolved feelings of abandonment, defective God-images, and too commonly, disturbing memories of mistreatment and abuse while their parents were too far away to know or help.

Numerous grown-up missionary kids have tried to get their sponsoring denomination to investigate these personal stories, and to address the systematic causes of them. But their complaints were typically ignored or suppressed. They were viewed as threats to global evangelization—their allegations products of over-stimulated imaginations, or possibly even manifestations of sinister spiritual opposition to the advance of the Gospel.

This festering wound in the history of missions is a reminder of how easily pragmatic reasoning can corrupt endeavors undertaken with the best of intentions. When the end justifies the means, and even the most vulnerable among us are sacrificed for a greater goal, tragedy inevitably ensues. The church is to do more than herald the gospel; it is to be a city set on a hill, a community that gives, by its distinct way of doing life, some clues to the social dynamics of the coming Kingdom of God. The official letter concludes by asking forgiveness from all who suffered from its incompetent and insensitive oversight in the past, and offers an open door to any victims who may wish to discuss or report such matters in the days and years ahead.

This painful letter of apology is already a testimony to the healing power of confession and repentance. It marks a new beginning for Alliance missions—one characterized by honesty, courage and compassion rather than evasiveness and ideology. The publication of this cathartic one page document, drafted in an obvious spirit of true humility, may prove to be one of the Alliance’s finest hours.

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