Partners in Pain

Agencies cooperate to help workers in harm’s way

by Lee Cuesta

Early this summer, the government of a limited access country forcibly evacuated a team of twenty missionaries. Some of them had only hours to pack their belongings. Then they were searched, and many items were taken away, including their Bibles and computers. While being held and questioned in police custody, they saw their national colleagues being put into prison. As a result, the missionaries experienced “a serious amount of emotional pain and trauma,” according to Beth Raney, a counselor with Heartstream Resources, who assisted with their debriefing. So their mission gathered the whole group together for two weeks in a neighboring country, where they met with Raney and another professional counselor.
This incident is only one in a long line of similar events. A few years ago, missionaries in a West Africa country were caught in the middle of a civil disturbance lasting two weeks. “Hundreds of people were killed, and villages were burned down for tribal reasons,” says Heartstream’s Dr. Larry Dodds. “A lot of the missionaries were threatened because of who they were working with.” Although one agency provided some help for their missionaries following that crisis, the others received none.
Dr. Dodds and his wife, Lois, arrived on the scene three months later and met with 35 people, representing ten different agencies, to help them process their feelings of grief and guilt. “Basically, we were validating a lot of things they were going through,” Dodds explains. “(We told them,) this is how normal people handle abnormal circumstances. You’re OK.”
More and more, mission agencies are calling upon professional counseling resources, like Heartstream, to assist them with crisis intervention. Bruce Swanson, director of CB International’s missionary development department, calls this kind of partnership “a trend.” It is becoming increasingly necessary, and therefore more prevalent, in light of modern realities. He states: “We strongly believe that we’ve got to be partnering with other people to adequately meet the needs of missionaries in these harder places of the world.”
Last year, for instance, as a result of the political crisis in Albania, several agencies joined hands to form a trauma team that met with the evacuated missionaries in Greece. Swanson mobilized this team by calling upon his network of contacts in the area of member care. Among those involved were Rita and Dr. Steven Williams, who head the Barnabas Zentrum center in Austria, and Dr. Louis McBurney, with his wife, Melissa, of Marble Retreat, who serves on Barnabas Zentrum’s board of directors. Also involved were the European leader of a Brazilian Baptist mission agency, along with one of CBI’s European field leaders.
During that one-week period in Greece, Dr. McBurney says, they held individual appointments for 12 people, plus one group session. He recalls, “There were several of the missionaries that we talked to who were having a lot of guilt feelings about having left Christian friends and converts. And the range of feelings can be very broad. Not everybody felt guilty about leaving; some felt just relieved and thankful to get out. Others wondered if it was all right not to feel guilt.”
Six weeks afterward, according to Swanson, many of the missionaries stated that they wouldn’t have remained on the field if the trauma team hadn’t come to debrief and help them gain a correct perspective on the events. He adds: “The timing of it was perfect; it was right in that window when Critical Incident Stress Debriefings (CISD) are supposed to happen.”
Today, Swanson helps coordinate the development of a new team, which is another key example of agencies cooperating to provide member care. It’s an emerging Mobile Member Care Team (MMCT), whose board of advisors currently includes Laura Mae Gardner (Director, International Member Care for Wycliffe); Harry Larson (missions pastor in Escondido, Calif.); Kelly O'Donnell (with YWAM, and coordinator of the European Member Care Coalition); John Powell (co-founder, Mental Health and Missions Conference); Glenn Taylor (Missionary Health Institute, Toronto); and Swanson himself. This list, Swanson says, is “soon to be broadened to include European mc (member care) folk and, hopefully, African-based mc people.”
They envision a “member care SWAT team. We’re going to focus on equipping people for crises and responding to crises,” says Swanson. For instance, the team’s new leader held a Crisis Response Training seminar in Tutegny, France, in October.
The MMCT’s leader is a doctor who previously was responsible for a crisis response unit. She states, “We had a very exciting inter-mission meeting about the MMCT” in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, in August. “God's clear leading at this time seems to be toward placing the first MMCT in West Africa in 1999,” according to Swanson.
The MMCT also wants to become “a focal point, a coordinating clearinghouse” for the global, yet informal, network of crisis intervention resources. Awareness of this network is particularly important for smaller agencies, which often have personnel on hazardous fields, but are the least equipped to handle crises. And crises demand quick response. Even the larger agencies are “outsourcing” this ministry rather than retaining qualified, in-house staff.
Besides the resources already mentioned here, other professional services include Link Care Center on the west coast; Tuscarora Resource Center in Pennsylvania; Narramore Christian Foundation; and Crisis Consulting International, which specializes in crises requiring negotiation, including kidnappings and hostage situations. Wycliffe also sponsored a “Member Care in Crisis Situations” workshop in Dallas recently.
Wycliffe’s Steve Burgess manages another important resource: an Internet website called Missionary Care “that may soon fall under the covering of the WEF Mission Commission's Member Care Task Force,” Burgess says. The site’s address is: . There, various categories are available, such as Areas of Care; Resources; Models; Issues; and other links.
Finally, other helpful resources are government services, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). FEMA provides programs that include the EMI (Emergency Management Institute) and PT&E (Preparedness, Training & Exercises). Its website address is: .
As FEMA declares, “Disaster: it strikes anytime, anywhere. It takes many forms. It builds over days or weeks, or hits suddenly, without warning.” The consensus of member care professionals is that crisis situations are becoming more prevalent, as frontier missionaries find themselves “in harm’s way,” or tentmakers are deployed in closed countries. The need for crisis intervention will continue to accelerate merely due to the world’s increasing instability. Therefore, the key to successful response in future crises will be cooperation. Swanson says, “The more we can promote cooperation in these arenas, the better off we’re going to be, especially as people are going into these more ‘chew ’em up and spit ’em out’-type areas of the world.”

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Copyright © 1998 by Lee Cuesta

This article was written on assignment for Pulse, and was published on February 19, 1999.