Colombian Violence is Forcing Ministries to Re-Think Plans

Monday, January 15, 2001

Some Groups Consider Leaving the Country Because of Increasing Danger to Missionaries
by Deann Alford

AUSTIN, Texas (Compass) -- Amid Colombia's rising tide of violence between rebels, paramilitaries and the nation's army, its people need help and encouragement more than ever. But the danger has forced many international ministries working in the country to re-think plans or even consider pulling out.

Perhaps no other evangelical ministry in Colombia has been hit harder by the violence than New Tribes Mission (NTM). In January 1993, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas kidnapped Mark Rich, Dave Mankins and Rick Tenenoff near Panama's border. The mission is still trying to learn what happened to the men, whom the U.S. State Department believes are dead.

In January 1994, the FARC kidnapped Steve Welsh and Timothy Van Dyke. The two died in a mid-1995 battle between FARC forces and Colombia's army. In the mid 1980s, FARC guerrillas snatched NTM's Paul Dye, Steve Estelle, and Tim and Bunny Cain and their airplane. The missionaries were held for two months before guerrillas released them.

NTM has taken its 14 missionaries from remote areas and moved most of them to Bogota, where they still try to work on translating the Bible into indigenous languages. "Informants" from the target people groups where the missionaries used to live now help by traveling to the cities where the translators have moved.

But times have changed. When missionaries first became kidnap targets, the guerrillas were somewhat isolated in Colombia and not a widespread threat, said NTM spokesman Scott Ross. "Now they're all over the country," he said.

"Over the next few months, we're going to be looking at whether we even want to leave the few that we have in Colombia," Ross said. "With the peace process collapsing and renewed fighting, it's deteriorated to the place where we have to consider whether it's good management to have our people there anymore.

"We don't want to disappoint missionaries there by asking them to leave the country, but we're going to keep a very close eye on the security of our folks, and they very likely will have to pull out. The risk is just so high anymore in Colombia."

Ross said that some people groups spill into neighboring countries and that some missionaries may be able to move out of Colombia and still be able to work with the same groups. But the guerrillas are crossing into other countries, too, making those border areas increasingly more dangerous. Should the missionaries leave, many people groups deep in Colombia's heart will simply be abandoned.

NTM has launched training programs around the world for national believers in volatile areas to continue the ministry, even in the absence of North American missionaries. One such program is in Colombia.

"It doesn't do away with dangers the Colombian Christians are facing, but there may be some additional reason the Westerners are targeted," Ross said. Many missionaries fear that with the approval of $1.3 billion in U.S. military aid to fight drug trafficking in Colombia -- and guerrillas involved in it -- FARC guerrillas will make good on their threats to target Americans.

NTM isn't the only group changing plans in the wake of kidnappings. The last straw for the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) in Colombia was the 1994 snatching of missionary Ray Rising from SIL's translation center in Lomalinda, about 150 miles southeast of Bogota. Guerrillas had overrun that area, so about a year after Rising's abduction, SIL closed the Lomalinda center.

"We're pretty much confined to city operations," said Dave Underwood, SIL's area director for the Americas.

But for safety's sake, and to keep some presence in Colombia, the organization has opted to be quiet about what it's now doing. "To be perfectly frank, we're not talking about it because it's not particularly safe," Underwood said.

Rising's abduction ended almost three years after his kidnapping when the radio specialist was released unharmed. Almost 20 years ago, however, the now-defunct Colombian rebel group M-19's kidnapping of Chet Bitterman ended weeks later with the SIL translator's death.

Missionaries from the United States and Europe are especially vulnerable as leftist rebels widely regard them as "imperialists" who are spreading a message that counters their own. That's one reason why SIL has set up a training program for its work to go on through national workers.

"We're definitely interested in training Colombians to be involved in Bible translation, but we're doing that all over the hemisphere, so it's not unique to Colombia," Underwood said.

While the danger is relatively less in Colombia's cities, none are havens. Christ for the City International (CFCI) director Chip Anderson said that an increase in guerrilla activity caused his organization to draw up contingency plans for its five national and two American missionaries in the cities of Cali, Medellin and Armenia.

"There have been visits by FARC intelligence officers to evangelical missionaries threatening them if they don't leave the city," Anderson said. In just three months, guerrillas have closed in on Medellin and now control areas up to the outskirts of this city of 3 million. If CFCI's workers receive serious threats, plans call for moving the ministry to Bogota, Anderson said.

Latin America Mission's 60-year presence in Colombia spans the turbulent 1940s and 1950s, years of fighting known as "La Violencia." Now it has 13 missionaries in Colombia's cities, including Bogota, Medellin and Cartagena. Whether LAM workers stay or flee is left up to the workers themselves, said its president, David Befus.

"We are conscious of the dangers and take all precautions," Befus said. "We are also responding to God's call. We do not make anyone go there who does not want to. We do not take anyone out who wants to stay. We allow new people to go if that is their call."

Training advisor Nick Woodbury said that LAM's workers have had "nothing out of the ordinary" happen in recent years while serving on staff. All LAM missionaries work in cities, where danger from common criminals, rather than guerrillas and paramilitaries, is still the greater threat. "It isn't any more of a problem than in the past," he said. "Everybody's trying to be prudent. They keep low profiles, are cautious and continue ministering."

Those precautions can seem stifling. "The (LAM) short-term missionaries there felt like prisoners because you can't go out into the street like you could if you were in any other city," Woodbury said.

But taking the usual precautions, such as flying rather than traveling highways between cities, doesn't guarantee safety, as Grace Morillo learned the hard way. Morillo, who recently joined LAM's staff, was on a flight in April 1999 bound for Bogota when rebels with the National Liberation Army (ELN) hijacked the plane. Guerrillas held her for two months before releasing her. She wasn't targeted for kidnapping because of her faith, Woodbury said. She was "in the wrong place at the wrong time" when the ELN commandeered the commercial airliner for its cargo of hostages.

He said that while Christians feeling called to serve in Colombia should be mindful of the situation, he hopes that fear doesn't deter them from ministry there.

"I would hate to see Colombia abandoned at this time," Woodbury said. "This is the time when pastors and Christian leaders there need encouragement."

Copyright © 2001 Compass Direct News Service. Used with permission.