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Guerrillas for God

Inside Colorado Springs' modern day missionary boot camp



Only a few feet from a kite resting out the winter on a wired rack, an industrial-sized tub of Play-Doh and an administrative lifetime of filing cabinets, 19 Americans are squatting inside cardboard boxes, trying to make impossible decisions.

The air raid sirens, the steady ratt-a-tatt-tatt of machine gun fire, the swoosh of fighter planes and the occasional bomb have been constants for the last half-hour. The searchlights of a rebel foot patrol shines around the perimeter of the box and the group's whispering ceases.

Ten minutes before, their 14-channel UHF radio was apprehended by anti-government rebels and along with it all hope of evacuation. They are now hostages. While their children have been safely evacuated, they know nothing about the well-being of their spouses. A group of 10 fathers and mothers, and through a thin cinderblock wall another nine men and women, had each raised $1,300 to come to Colorado Springs, but none expected this.

An exchange deal with the national government -- foreigners for rebel hostages -- has fallen through. With their backs against the wall, the rebels are demanding their hostages make an immediate decision: Choose two members for execution.

Their voices can be heard through the cardboard.

"So everybody here is willing to take a bullet in their head?"

Laughter follows.

"You have a wife, you have a husband, Jim's got a family. We have no one depending on us."

More muddled conversation.

"Nobody wants to die."

'What am I doing here?'

Welcome to Mission Training International's hostage exercise, the watershed experience of a three-week missionary training program. Here, 800 missionaries a year from around the country are trained in language skills and cross-cultural preparedness to travel overseas to spread the word of Christ.

A day after the executions, Matthew Neigh presented a PowerPoint presentation to yesterday's hostages.

With its orderly bullet points, the lecture did not concern his own personal, decidedly non-simulated experience of lying face down on the floor for hours on end as he was trapped for a week in West Africa's Ivory Coast in September 2002. Ironically enough, Neigh was in the West African nation to speak at a conference about the dangers international schools faced in a time of global terrorism. When the country broke out in civil war, he and 18 others were pinned down.

Neigh outlined some of the cross-cultural transition issues that missionaries have to contend with as they traverse between their host and passport countries.

Neigh is an MK, or Missionary Kid, who spent the bulk of his childhood in Austria. He describes the experience as trying, particularly upon returning to his original home, a small Missouri farming town. Now living in Colorado Springs, Neigh trains missionaries, military and business people in issues of cultural transition. Part of his work involves teaching adults to understand that the unstable nature of their work has a lasting effect on their children.

"Children can't all see the bigger picture," he said. "When I was going through difficult times, I would ask, 'What am I doing here?' Having a 'why' allows you to go through almost anything."

Scared straight

Mission Training International's president Steve Sweatman likens its hostage exercise to a "Scared Straight" program for missionaries.

Currently, an estimated 41,000 Christian missionaries are working in 230 countries around the world, according to The Mission Handbook published by the Billy Graham Center.

According to Sweatman, the cost of sending a family of American missionaries overseas for four years is $500,000. Attrition, he claimed, is a problem. "A family returning early can [equate to] a loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars. We try and make sure we're not idealizing, not spiritualizing what will happen, 'that God will take care of me wherever I go.' No matter what, suffering is involved."

MTI's hostage exercise is designed to serve as a catalyst for trainees' mental and spiritual preparation.

It used to bother Connie Blake when she heard her hostage trainees laughing. But after talks with missionaries who had actually been taken hostage, she learned that even in the most dire circumstances humor is a coping mechanism.

She distributes two newspaper articles to the class about missionaries killed while serving in the Philippines and India.

"If you want to check out mentally and tell yourself this is just an exercise, you can," her husband calmly warned the class. "But you won't prosper."

Poorest of the poor

Colorado Springs has long been recognized as a stronghold for evangelical Christians and their various political arms. And just as these organizations have been vocal players in a domestic culture war, they're also agents in an international struggle, one waged peacefully, if not forthrightly, for the souls of the world's least evangelized people: the predominantly Muslim population of the 10/40 window.

Long a buzzword in missionary circles, the 10/40 window denotes the part of the globe between the 10th and 40th parallels that includes southern Asia and northern Africa. According to pastor Ted Haggard, whose New Life Church funds missionary organizations like Mission Training International to the tune of $2 million a year, it's the location of the poorest of the poor.

"Women are treated horribly there, the power of the state is used to promote religion more than anywhere else in the world," Haggard said. "It's the place where the ideological debate [between democracy and theocracy] is."

It's also where missionaries are being killed with ever-growing frequency. In January, three American missionaries with the Southern Baptists, the largest U.S. missionary organization, were shot and killed by an Islamic militant in Yemen.

Six weeks earlier, another American missionary, Bonnie Weatherall, was murdered while serving at a health clinic in Lebanon. She was affiliated with the Springs-based Christian and Missionary Alliance.

It's difficult to know where American missionaries are. Many, like Dan Bathchelder who works in Afghanistan, declined to be interviewed for this story.

To Monument's Tom Doyle, these missionaries are martyrs for the persecuted church, a term many evangelicals use to call attention to the plight of Christians in theocratic and totalitarian states.

A former pastor at the Tri-Lakes Chapel in Monument, Doyle assists a small church of Palestinian Christians in the Gaza Strip. His frequent travels in the West Bank and Gaza has found him within blocks of a suicide bombing, and rubbing shoulders with marching phalanxes of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Though he confesses a penchant for being in the heart of conflict, Doyle talks not of politics, but the resilience of the church members. He believes the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians can be settled not politically, but spiritually.

"Palestinian refugees, regardless of how you feel about how they got there, are hungry," Doyle said. "We want to honor their culture and bring Christ's love. We're not there to argue, but to be like Jesus and meet needs."

An American passport

However, critics contend that evangelical missionaries are hardly the innocent victims of theocratic repression. By proselytizing where it is forbidden, missionaries like former Taliban-held hostages Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer break the laws of their host countries.

By entering as aid workers, English teachers or business people, they carry out their mission under false pretenses. And by virtue of their nationality, American missionaries possess a pocket-sized piece of privilege that those to whom they minister -- and who can in some cases be put to death by their governments -- do not: an American passport.

Arshad Yousufi is a spokesperson for the Islamic Society of Colorado Springs, which runs a mosque of about 250 members. He recalls the Christian missionaries in his native Pakistan.

There, he said, missionaries seemed to focus on the lowest segment of a caste system still in place from Hinduism. "They tended not to preach to those with an education about their religion," he said.

Here in the Springs, he's confounded by the anti-Islamic salvos issued from some quarters of the evangelical community. In the months after Sept. 11, 2001, leaflets from Don McCurry of Ministries to Muslims organization came to his attention after they were distributed at several area churches.

McCurry, who served 18 years as a missionary in Pakistan and is currently based in southern Spain, runs a training institute in Colorado Springs during the summer for missionaries from 20 agencies involved in ministering to Muslims. His leaflet titled, "War and Peace in Islam" claims that Islam is not a religion of peace, but one that sanctions terrorism in its theology.

Yousufi expressed confusion as to why individuals like McCurry and Ted Haggard have not approached his organization, which runs a mosque of 250, to discuss such issues.

"They claim they're trying to reach Muslims, but they won't talk to their neighbors," he said.

Respectful of cultures

The media-induced perception of missionaries often portrays them as arrogant imperialists, as exemplified in films like The Mission and best sellers like Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible. While the past collusion between missionaries and colonialists in China, India and Africa is well documented, it's also something of which today's missionaries are painfully aware.

"I object to the use of the term 'missionary,'" said Bob Fetherlin, vice president of international ministries for the Christian and Missionary Alliance. The 119-year-old Colorado Springsbased organization has an annual budget of $19 million and sends missionaries to more than 40 countries, including the Congo and the Ivory Coast.

"We are very respectful of cultures, not a carrier of cultural imperialism," Fetherlin said. "We are in a number of nations where proselytizing is frowned upon, so we try to do our work with integrity and competency and refrain from in-your-face proselytizing. If people ask us why we're there, we feel very free to explain."

To Fetherlin, missionaries are there to "give a reason for the hope that's within us."

"Evangelism," he said, "is a loaded word."

Stan Nussbaum, chief missiologist for Springs-based Global Mapping International, explained the shift away from old models of evangelization.

"Everyone wants to get away from the colonialist model," said Nussbaum, whose organization creates software and maps for missionaries in the field. "The problem for evangelicals is that the liberals got there first."

Nussbaum sited the 1974 Lausanne conference, organized by Billy Graham, as a turning point among evangelicals from a shift from a culturally imperialistic model to a more culturally sensitive effort.

Lee Cokorinos of the New Yorkbased Institute for Democracy Studies, argues that the only reason modern day missionaries -- many of them evangelical Christians -- have changed their tune is that the colonialist model is no longer politically feasible.

Yet missionaries like Tom and Lynn Oaks

* don't see themselves as colonialists or political operatives, but "tentmakers." Tom is an agricultural scientist and Lynn a medical lab technician. When they filled out customs paperwork, projects relating to their respective professions were what they gave for entering various countries in the Middle East. And a tentmaker is just that: a Christian whose primary occupation is not evangelization, but one who uses his profession to evangelize.

"The missionary does not convert," Lynn Oaks said. "God converts. The missionary is just there to facilitate the process."

After serving eight years in Cyprus and Southern Spain, where they made frequent forays in North African countries, the Oaks moved to Monument last fall.

Over a latte, Tom Oaks recently recounted the story of a family of missionaries or "ems" as he reflexively calls them who founded a church in a Muslim country that forbade proselytizing. As was the custom, the family kept certificates for each person they baptized. One Sunday, their service was halted when the police came and arrested the entire church. The missionaries were given 48 hours to leave the country. Their congregation, Oaks said, was forced to stand outside in a compound all day with their hands up. They all received four-year prison sentences.

"This is what every missionary I know worries about the most," he said.

Not some small tribe

Whether converting or facilitating, many scholars maintain that missionaries have had little luck turning Muslims away from their faith.

Gerald Colby and his wife Charlotte Dennett, authors of Thy Will be Done: The Conquest of the Amazon, a voluminous tome chronicling American efforts to control Latin America for strategic and corporate interests, argue that "most missionaries go with the best of intentions, but they get caught up in a world they don't understand."

"Islam is not some small tribe in the Amazon; it's a world religion, it's sophisticated, it has a powerful political past," said Colby, who is currently at work on a book about the Middle East.

"They [missionaries] can paint themselves in different coats, but they're bringing Christianity into a world where for a thousand years Christians have been painted as invaders. They come with their Bibles in their hands, but to the Islamic eye what they're waving is their flag."

Like other missionaries, the Oaks concede that conversions are rare. By Tom's estimate, they typically take six to seven years. However, opportunities to dialogue with Muslims about God are plentiful.

"It's easier to talk about religion in Muslim countries than it is in the United States," Tom said. "Almost instantly, I'd be asked, 'I want to get to your country and work there. I know what it's like in your country. Why are you here?" These questions were almost always followed with, 'Are you a Christian?'

"It's actually very natural to be asked what you believe." Oaks said.

Traditional missionary practice once involved the largely ineffective public distribution of religious tracts and provoking debate, according to John Mark Terry, a professor of Christian missions and evangelism at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

What the Oaks and most contemporary missionaries practice is referred to as "friendship" or "lifestyle" evangelism, a slow process of leading by example. It's one of several different methods.

In many countries, where Christian proselytizing is sometimes punishable by death, the only legal outlet involves the establishment of hospitals, health clinics or orphanages.

Other models involve "contextualization," where missionaries adapt their message in a culturally sensitive fashion, like praying on mats and leaving shoes off in a place of worship. Some missionaries like the Arizona-based Frontiers even claim to be Muslim, as the word literally means "one who submits."

Spiritual warfare

Colorado Springs, however, is also home to another model of evangelization that has raised eyebrows in evangelical circles.

Sometimes called strategic prayer or spiritual warfare, one of its chief architects, C. Peter Wagner directs the World Prayer Center on the vast New Life Church campus in northeastern Colorado Springs.

On a Thursday morning in January, New Life Church's colossal auditorium known as " the living room" was filled with 1,000 mostly white, middle-aged women, many of them pastors from as far away as Florida. Hands were held aloft while the congregants sang and clapped to the sounds of the Worship Team, a 10-piece rock ensemble. Others danced openly in the aisles waving shiny satin flags.

This was the opening session of Global Harvest Ministries' Congress for Strategic Intercession, a three-day conference for pastors and intercessors to further their commitment to a spiritual showdown.

With his suit and tie and white racing stripe beard, C. Peter Wagner resembles a sprightly Colonel Sanders.

Wagner's opening talk concerned the role of intercessors -- individuals with an ability or aptitude for prayer -- in spiritual warfare. He peppered his lecture with pauses for the audience to take notes or to plug books by himself, his wife Doris and New Life Pastor Ted Haggard.

"Not all who prophesize have the gift of prophecy," Wagner told the crowd. "Every Christian has faith, but not every Christian has the gift of faith. "

For the last 10 years, Wagner and other Springs-based evangelicals have been crusaders for strategic prayer. It's a concept rooted in kingdom theology, which believes that the kingdoms of God and Satan are at war, and that Christians must subdue these spirits through concentrated prayer in order for God's kingdom to triumph on earth.

During the '70s and '80s, at a time when evangelical Christianity was experiencing an extraordinary upsurge, Wagner served as a missionary in South America. The author of numerous books including Breaking Strongholds in Your City and Warfare Prayer, Wagner and his wife Doris run several businesses and associations, including Global Harvest Ministries, which oversees the World Prayer Center.

Wagner's controversial approaches to Christian theology -- which involve references to military terminology -- have caused many evangelicals to distance themselves from the spiritual warfare movement. In September 2000, representatives from 30 national evangelical mission groups signed a statement calling for a halt to military rhetoric in Christian teaching.

Wagner has since changed the name of his organization from "United States Spiritual Warfare Network" to "United States Strategic Prayer Network," but continues to teach and organize what he likens to a burgeoning prayer army.

Wagner and other proponents of spiritual warfare believe that sin can fester in a region in the form of "territorial spirits." Strategic prayer, which one evangelical likened to praying by zip code, is a systematic attempt to engage these spirits, which can range from those lingering after an incident of racial violence, or a stronghold of New Age or "occult" spirituality.

The World Prayer Center sits directly across from New Life Church, and serves as a war room for strategic prayer. Inside is a chapel-like room with large bay windows and a 15-foot globe, once a monster golf ball, rotating in perpetuity. On television monitors, prayer requests emerge from around the world, ranging from a plea for an aunt undergoing hip surgery to a request for Saddam Hussein to voluntarily leave Iraq. Through the center's Web site, the goal is to coordinate prayer around the world so at any given moment, online intercessors can simultaneously unite in prayer.

"When an army goes to war, different divisions go to different fronts, each with different generals who develop their own strategies." Wagner explained to his audience. "One of the four battles I've been called to fight is the war with Islam."

A spattering of "amens" and "that's rights" erupt from the living room.

"Allah is not God! What Muslims pray to five times a day is a demonic creature," he said.

Another battle Wagner believes he has been called to fight is the war with Catholicism, which he alleged to be "an unholy covenant with the pope and involved the worship of a counterfeit Mary."

Different spiritual beings

Ted Haggard, who sits on the board of Global Harvest Ministries, claimed that he and Wagner have not discussed matters pertaining to Islam or Catholicism. As he explained to the Independent:

"I've not read or heard Peter [Wagner] talk about it, nor have we spoken privately about this subject. I do know, though, that neither Peter nor I think that the God of the Muslims is the father of Jesus. We both believe that they are different spiritual beings."

However, in the most recent Global Harvest Ministries newsletter, Wagner bolsters his anti-Islamic mission statement by citing Haggard's recent writings in Ministries Today magazine. Writes Wagner, "I agree with Ted Haggard who says, 'The sinister spirit of violence and hatred that in so many fundamentalist Muslims is indeed the attitude taught in the Quran.'"

"This is a battle we will fight," Wagner concludes.

Lee Cokorinos of the Institute of Democracy Studies has been tracking Wagner and other similarly engaged evangelicals for more than a decade. He views the relationship between Haggard and Wagner as a political partnering of a pastor with zeal and charisma, and an avuncular theologian adept in church growth.

"There's a theological vocabulary that may on the surface not look political, but that's consistent with their political aims," Cokorinos said. "What's changed is that through their parachurches and missionaries, right-wing evangelicals can now export their objectives internationally."


Before the missionaries-in-training were ushered into their hostage boxes, George Blake shared an e-mail from two Mission Training International graduates. Sent from the field, it detailed a sudden and severe act of violence perpetrated against them. "This is what we hoped we'd never have to write," the note began.

"These people sat where you're sitting now," Blake enumerated.

Ultimately, the trainees selected two members from their respective groups for execution. After the decision was made, the rebels suddenly demanded two more. The survivors shrieked from inside their boxes as shots were fired into the basement, one for each of their martyred comrades, a total of eight in all.

Of course it was only George and Connie Blake shooting cap guns into the basement ceiling.

After a lunch of hamburgers, fries, coleslaw, and sweet tea, the liberated hostages assembled for a debriefing.

"How did you handle the ambiguity of the situation?" George Blake asked. "Was it clear in your mind what to do?"

Comments from the trainees were marked by relief that their ordeal was over, but soon turned to surprising observations, including gender roles in the group's leadership. The open inquiry of the classroom stood in stark contrast to the life-and-death decisions they were forced to contemplate only an hour before.

One man reported that several of the women in his group said they would rather be executed than raped.

A woman shed tears as she recounted how in the dark box her thoughts kept returning to those for whom the situation was not an exercise.

A missionary with experience in the Caribbean said, "I thought it was good the men stepped up because if this was a real situation, I'd probably be crying in the corner."

The name of the Oaks has been changed to protect their identity and those of their fellow missionaries working in the Middle East

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