- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 2, 2004

JERSEY SHORE, Pa. — Seven young adults gather for informal Sunday worship in a rude, 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.

“Lord, reign in me, reign in your power, over all my dreams, in my darkest hour …”

The melody drifts across a surrounding makeshift encampment where 28 students have spent the past two weeks, the final exercise in a unique training program for the most exotic vocation imaginable.

This is the Missions Institute of New Tribes Mission, a yearlong boot camp that’s far 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 thus 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 in order to translate the New Testament and parts of the Old Testament into tribal languages, most of which have never before been reduced to writing. The workers then teach reading and writing, and establish churches to be run by tribal converts.

Groups may spend 10 or 20 years or even longer, in the same location. Think of it as career-length “Survivor” — only for real, as opposed to reality TV.

“We’re way out there. We’re like the Marines of the church,” says Greg Sanford, the sophisticated but plainspoken director of the Pennsylvania institute (there are also campuses in Durant, Miss., and Baker City, Ore.).

Despite the rigors and outsiders’ 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 nations. Two-thirds of the missionaries are Americans.

New Tribes 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 staunchly evangelical Protestant, and employ techniques pioneered by the late University of Michigan anthropologist Kenneth L. Pike to render oral languages into newly written form.

Enlistees 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 mission’s revenue.

The work can be dangerous. During New Tribes’ 62 years of operation, 87 missionaries have died in untimely ways, the vast majority 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 a third of the local people are Christian.

Twenty-two missionaries have been kidnapped, with six killed. The latest victim was Martin Burnham, who was fatally shot 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,” says recruit Ruth Dickey 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 a Bolivian martyr, says institute training built her confidence, proving “you can do without and enjoy it” and “make things very homelike” in the wilderness.

Students are taught about food preservation, breadmaking, haircutting, welding, logging, how to situate and frame a house, collecting and treating water, and 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,” says Kim Waldon, a former missionary to Papua New Guinea who runs most of the hands-on coursework.

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. Missionaries’ children typically receive home schooling for the lower grades, then attend New Tribes boarding schools.

Mr. Sanford carefully interviews all incoming candidates. “I weed out as many Indiana Joneses as I can,” he explains, since lust for adventure won’t last for the long haul.

The crucial aspect of the training, Mr. Sanford says, is distinguishing between biblical basics and Western cultural assumptions.

For instance, he spent 14 years with Venezuela’s Yanomamo Indians, who did without clothing. Instead of changing that, the missionaries learned the group’s own traditions of modesty. Other practices violated biblical teaching, such as wife beating and killing newborn twins. The institute trains missionaries to realize that changes will only occur after individuals become Christians.

Students spend two years at Bible college before the Missions Institute, and afterward move to the Language Institute in Camdenton, Mo., where they discover how to learn new languages, fabricate them Pike-style in written form and translate the Bible.

“It’s a big job. It’s a killer,” Mr. Sanford says. One language New Tribes encountered has 14 vowels, another has four forms of “we” and yet another lacks words for “grace” or “salvation.”

Survival International, the London-based tribal rights champion, and many academic anthropologists criticize incursions by missionaries. Survival supports “tribal peoples’ right to choose their own religions” and opposes missionaries “who force their own beliefs on others.”

But Mr. Sanford says the missionaries help preserve tribal cultures rather than undermining them, and are humanitarians who provide literacy, basic medical treatment and other helpful knowledge.

The church relations director at New Tribes headquarters, Dave Zelenak, chuckles at 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.”

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