- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 29, 2004

JERSEY SHORE, Pa. - Seven young adults gather for Sunday worship in a crude, two-room house fashioned from plastic sheeting and lumber that they cut themselves. Clad in shorts and jeans and clutching well-thumbed Bibles, they join in song to guitar accompaniment.

The melody drifts across the makeshift encampment where 28 students have spent two weeks, the final exercise in a training program for their exotic vocation. This is the Missions Institute of New Tribes Mission, a yearlong boot camp that’s more rigorous than the usual orientation programs for foreign missionaries, and for good reason.

New Tribes specializes in evangelism among the 3,000 indigenous groups in the world’s remotest tracts — places that remain isolated from the outside world and untouched by Christianity. Most operations are in Latin America, Southeast Asia and West Africa.

Teams of five or six missionaries leave the modern world and its conveniences behind to spend years living among tribespeople, learning their language and culture to translate the New Testament and parts of the Old Testament into languages that, for the most part, have never been written. The missionaries then teach reading and writing, and establish churches to be run by their converts.

Groups can spend 10 or 20 years, or even longer, in the same location.

Marines of the church’

“We’re way out there. We’re like the Marines of the church,” said Greg Sanford, the director of the Pennsylvania institute. New Tribes also has campuses in Durant, Miss., and Baker City, Ore.

Despite the rigors and accusations of cultural imperialism, New Tribes, based in Sanford, Fla., has assembled one of the largest missionary forces in the world — 3,200 workers in 17 countries, two-thirds of them Americans.

The group is similar to the even-larger Wycliffe Bible Translators, based in nearby Orlando, Fla., and the two agencies often cooperate in the field. Both are evangelical Protestant, and employ techniques pioneered by the late University of Michigan anthropologist Kenneth L. Pike to render oral languages into written form.

Those who enlist aren’t lured by the money. The mission’s recommended pay for a couple without children is $4,000 a month, before deductions for all benefits and business expenses. Candidates must raise that on their own through pledges from supporters. Some 20,000 U.S. congregations and thousands of individuals contributed $41 million last year, providing most of the group’s revenue.

Dangers, hardships

The work can be dangerous.

During New Tribes’ 62 years of operation, 87 missionaries have died in the line of duty, most of them in plane crashes during the early years.

The mission’s very first foray in 1943 ended disastrously when fearful Bolivian tribesmen killed all five visiting missionaries, though contact was later re-established and today one-third of these people are Christians.

Twenty-two missionaries have been kidnapped, and six of them were killed. The most recent victim was Martin Burnham, shot to death in 2002 during an attempt to free him from Muslim kidnappers in the Philippines; his wife, Gracia, was wounded. New Tribes recently intensified training in security measures and how to act if taken hostage.

“There are always concerns about safety and different diseases,” said Ruth Dickey, a recruit from Bowdoinham, Maine, who is pregnant with her first child. “You have to overcome fear with the knowledge that the Lord will take care of us.”

Another candidate, Robyn Lenz of Climax, Mich., great-granddaughter of one of the Bolivian martyrs, said that institute training built her confidence, proving that “you can do without and enjoy it,” and “make things very homelike” in the wilderness.

Students are taught how to preserve food, make bread, cut hair, weld, log, situate and frame a house, collect and treat water, as well as the mysteries of plumbing, septic systems, small-engine maintenance, solar batteries and portable generators.

“In 90 percent of our countries, you’re on your own,” said Kim Waldon, a former missionary to Papua New Guinea, who runs most of the hands-on course work.

Other institute classes, equally practical, teach time management, mediation of team conflicts, how to maintain morale and solid marriages under stress, and child-rearing in the bush. The children of missionaries typically are home-schooled in the lower grades, then attend New Tribes boarding schools.

No ‘Indiana Joneses’

Mr. Sanford, head of the New Tribes institute in Pennsylvania, interviews all incoming candidates. “I weed out as many Indiana Joneses as I can,” he explained, since lust for adventure won’t last for the long haul. Other essential traits include excellent health, teamwork skills and “discipline, commitment, initiative.”

Chats with his charges show them to be low-key and humble, yet self-assured.

The crucial aspect of the training is more conceptual — teaching how contemporary missionaries should approach cultures that are very different from their own. The heart of it, Mr. Sanford said, is distinguishing between biblical basics and the missionaries’ own Western cultural assumptions.

For instance, he spent 14 years with Venezuela’s Yanomamo Indians, who wear no clothing. Instead of changing that, the missionaries learned that people’s own traditions of modesty. Other practices violated biblical teaching, such as wife beating and killing newborn twins.

The institute trains missionaries to patiently suppress revulsion over such things and realize that changes only will occur after the people that the missionaries seek to convert become Christians.

Language barriers

Students spend two years at Bible college before the Missions Institute, and afterward move to the New Tribes Language Institute in Camdenton, Mo., where they discover how to learn new languages, transform them into written form, as did the late Mr. Pike, and translate the Bible.

“It’s a big job,” Mr. Sanford said. One language that New Tribes encountered has 14 vowels, more than double the number in most European tongues. Another has four forms of “we,” and another lacks words for “grace” and “salvation.”

Survival International, the London-based tribal-rights champion, supports “tribal peoples’ right to choose their own religions” and opposes missionaries “who force their own beliefs on others.” It says that in some cases, New Tribes has increased conflict within tribes.

But Mr. Sanford vigorously defends the missionary group’s practices. He says the missionaries help preserve tribal cultures rather than undermine them, and are humanitarians who bring literacy, basic medical treatment and other helpful knowledge to isolated groups of people.

They do, of course, import Christianity to compete with local forms of animism. On that, New Tribes says that it provides the opportunity for people to learn about the Bible if they wish, but doesn’t believe in forcing religion on anyone.

The church-relations director at New Tribes headquarters in Florida, Dave Zelenak, dismisses accusations about imposing beliefs: “They must have watched some old Tarzan movie to think somehow you come in and everybody just obeys your word. Not a chance. You have to earn respect.”

The mission makes no apologies for its traditionalist creed, including the belief that “every person is responsible to receive salvation by personal faith in the Lord Jesus Christ,” and that those who do not face “unending punishment.” Another specific: New Tribes practices only “believers’ baptism by immersion.”

While its goal hasn’t changed much since New Tribes Mission was founded by Paul Fleming, a one-time missionary to British Malaya, technology has aided its work dramatically in recent years. The time required from the original contact with a tribe through completion of a Bible translation used to be 20 to 30 years. Now, thanks mainly to computers, that has been cut in half.

Ranks thinning

On the down side, a shrinking number of Americans are willing to volunteer. New Tribes was sending some 200 new missionaries per year in the 1980s. This year, the number is 80.

Meanwhile, missionaries who joined during boom years are retiring, and the number of dropouts from the field, though small (eight families in the past three months), is increasing. Among the reasons: Need to care for aging parents back home, and a general tendency among Americans to change occupations with some frequency.

Mr. Zelenak and Paul Wyma, the member of the governing Executive Committee who supervises U.S. operations, cite other recruiting problems. For some churches, the work of missionaries is seen as less urgent these days, while parents worried about security may discourage children from working overseas.

Then there’s the lure of contemporary culture. Young Americans awash in materialism are less apt to have rural backgrounds or experience with outdoor activity and hard physical labor. For many, spending decades on a narrow-gauge task seems unpalatable.

But recruits like institute graduate Timothy Depue keep coming.

“The culture has a huge emphasis on material wealth [that] I struggle with,” Mr. Depue acknowledged, while cleaning up after a camp breakfast. “I want the sports bike and the big house. I have to contemplate every day that Jesus gave up all to do what He did.”

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