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Proper Preparation

A security professional discusses safety on short-term missions.

David Dose is the founder and president of Fort Sherman Academy, a provider of crisis support services for mission organizations and churches. RoundTripMissions.com talked to David about the need for short-term mission teams to prepare thoroughly, and how to react when the unthinkable happens.

Jesus told his disciples not to prepare anything for the road, just strike out. Is it even right to think about safety in the first place?

I do get that question sometimes. I usually ask the person, "Have you gotten yourself a book on the language?" They say "yes." So they're not relying on Jesus to make them multilingual right away. They're going to learn and prepare to communicate effectively. It's the same thing with safety and security training. You need to do what you can to be prepared.

When you go on a short-term mission trip, you've spent all that money raising support and buying airline tickets. You don't want to expend all that effort just to go just to get turned around at the airport because you said the wrong thing in Customs. What about all the people who contributed money to send you? What happened to their investment because you failed to stop and seek out some simple training? We need to rely on God, but he also expects us to use our brains and the resources at our disposal.

What safety issues do leaders of short-term missions trips commonly overlook?

They often fail to see safety as an area that requires training. I've gone on short-term missions and I've trained more than 16,000 missionaries. I'm always amazed at how we'll spend years developing our call to missions, and we'll spend months, or at least weeks, studying language and culture and what we're going to do when we get there. But I could have all the theology and all the heart in the world, but if I get turned around at the airport or I get robbed on day one and come home all the other training I've done is useless. We see a lot of groups who carefully prepare and study all the other skills they're going to need—language and cross-cultural things—but they don't often look at security. I understand that they don't want to get hung up on how scary it is, but you owe it to your supporters, and I think you owe it to the Lord as a steward of the resources you've been given.

In your training videos, you address some pretty harrowing contingencies, such as hostage situations and government detentions. Are these things that the average STM team really needs to think about?

I work with approximately 90 Christian sending organizations. We have about 16,000 graduates from our courses. Based on my research about twenty percent of the people who go out on a trip had some sort of a contingency. Of course that covers a range of incidents, everything from flood to car wreck to home invasion, to car jacking or kidnapping or jailing. Of that twenty percent, the majority would have been car wrecks or severe illness that disrupted their trip. Number two would be crime, and hijack or kidnap. But the fastest growing is incidents that are politically motivated.

Is that because of growing anti-American sentiment?

In the first two or three years I did this, I saw about five of my clients graduate, go out and get into critical incidents. But in the last three years, I'd say we're right at about 60. These days, it seems people are more willing to target westerners. Before 9/11, if you wanted to take a swing at America politically or with an act of terror overseas, you would target an embassy or a government military facility, something to make your point. After 9/11 we put billions of dollars into extra security at these facilities. We made it much harder to get to an American working in an embassy. Of course I'm all for that, but that doesn't protect short-term missionaries and long term missionaries, who by the nature of their work, are very easy to access overseas. So if you can't afford to go to America to hit your target, and you can't attack an embassy or military outpost, missionaries were just in the way. The softest target is the unarmed missionary who is less likely to have defense mechanisms. We're the slowest targets to harden, we can't reach people from behind walls, and the political situation hasn't helped.

What is a "contingency covenant?"

I'll give you the brief version. It's a code of conduct for emergencies that a team agrees on before going on a trip. The purpose of a covenant is to help teams understand and be prepared for the possibility of being held by a hostile entity. This code of conduct helps believers respond to being held hostage in a way that is glorifying to God.

If you're in the military and you're captured overseas, there are certain rules for how to behave. Of course, those rules take into account the fact that your freedom is limited. Well, for civilians, none of those rules exist. If you throw me in jail or in a back bedroom with two guards and a gun, where do I go for my guidance? In missions, some people just say, "Well, scripture tells us how to behave." But the reality is that many people won't even have a Bible with them. Plus any two people at my church, under pressure, would probably disagree about exactly how scripture applies to a particular situation.

You talk a lot about media. How can media help or hurt?

You used to have to think just about conventional media. But now you must consider any information that becomes public, including Facebook and church web pages. You need to contain how much information you're sharing so that it can't be exploited. Say you have someone on your team who is important back home. For instance, you don't want people to know that you have a former U.S. senator with 8 million dollars in the bank on your team who could pay a bribe. Or say they find out that your uncle is a Senator or someone else important. There are certain things you want to keep out of the conversation if you are threatened or detained. Someone could read it and say, "Hey, I think we'll hold him a little longer, and the price just went up."

On two occasions it was faith-based media that put out sensitive information. In these cases, nobody stopped to think about the possible repercussions of running the stories. Usually media will honor your requests to keep certain things private. A thinking media person will withhold a story if you explain what's at stake. I noticed the media carefully withheld information on that last reporter and his translator that were held in Afghanistan. They withheld that because they recognized putting out a good story would also put this man at more risk. So they held off until he was freed. But more and more have to be aware of who is writing the church newsletter, and look at the prayer requests that go out in email, and what's going up on blogs.

How can you minimize the potential dangers that short-termers pose to either indigenous Christians or long-term missionaries?

Most of my training was initially for long-termers. They loved short-termers, but were scared to death of the risks they posed. When I developed short-term training, I had several folks who came forward to help us with the production of the video because their long-termers need the short-term help, but they just couldn't afford to practice good security all year long and then have to risk everything once a year when the short termers came. When it comes to faith-based security, most people think you're just teaching people to be safe and secure. Yes, protection of personnel always important. But then you have to think about is protection of ministry, the ability to come back next year, and to protect the ministry that's already going on. If I go do my mission for a week and then say something I shouldn't have and get thrown out of the country, they may not let anyone from my church come back. What has that done to the cause of Christ?

I was involved with a case last year where a short-term team came to town, did a very good project, and then went to jail. They were the target of a law enforcement official who was a very anti-Christian and anti-Western. They put them in jail to do a little harassment and run them out of town. While they were in jail, which was just a few hours, they convinced the short-termers that they could be there for years. The threat was unrealistic, but when you're the one being threatened, it's easier to believe. Several of them immediately signed confessions in a language they couldn't read. They were all released and went home the next day. The confessions were all confessions of crimes naming the long-term American missionaries in town as the perpetrators. You know, so how do those people feel once they go home? They feel horrible. And the long-termers are still in court. It's been very expensive because the authorities had admissions of guilt from their own countrymen, who were working with their organization.

In our training, we talk about how to negotiate your way out of situations like that. In some cases, if you sign a confession, they won't release you, even though they had planned to. Suddenly they can legitimately hold you because you've confessed to the crime. That's why it's important to know historically what happens to Westerners who get in trouble with the law in a particular country. In many be that they go home in one to two days. Or maybe some disappear and are never seen again. You want to know these kinds of things before you get there.

You say, "If you want to be perfectly safe, stay at home." Is there a certain level of risk you have to accept?

Yes, I can't make all the risk go away. I can minimize risks with good planning. But God's still in charge. We live in a fallen world, so bad things still occur. If they do, you want to be confident that you've planned well and have the best response possible. You don't want to accept being a victim. At the same time you must be willing to accept some risk. This is difficult for parents, when you're taking their kids overseas. You have to say, "Mom and dad, we can't promise you an absolutely safe trip. We're going to give them the proper preparation and planning to minimize the risk. We're going to plan as best we can. But ultimately we can't make it all go away.

This article first appeared on our sister site, RoundTripMissions.com, a comprehensive online resource for churches planning missions trips.

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  • April 26, 2010