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    Controversy and converts

    By CURTIS KRUEGER, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published January 31, 2002

    SANFORD -- For the New Tribes Mission based in this town north of Orlando, the losses have been agonizing, tragic, but not completely unexpected.

    First came the sad conclusion last year that three of its missionaries -- including Rick Tenenoff, who grew up in St. Petersburg -- had been murdered by rebels in Colombia. He had been missing nine years.

    Now, the mission's leaders are pressing to find Martin and Gracia Burnham, two other missionaries who were kidnapped last May in the Philippines. They remain missing.

    While they stress they do everything possible to keep their 3,500 missionaries safe, people at New Tribes also are quick to admit danger is inherent in their work: spreading Christianity to small, remote tribes, most of whom have never developed a written language.

    It's a truth that became evident just one year after New Tribes' founding in 1942, when Bolivian tribesmen killed five members of the fledgling group. And also in 1950, when 15 people died in a crash in Venezuela aboard the mission's DC-3 airplane, the Tribesman. And later that year, when several more died in the Tribesman II, which crashed into Mount Moran in Grand Teton National Park.

    "Yeah, there's some danger involved," said Cam Hurst, 46, a second-generation New Tribes missionary who joined at age 20 and works in Bolivia. "But to us it's worth it, because of who Jesus is."

    At the moment, it's the Burnhams who are facing this danger most intensely. The couple from Kansas was kidnapped last May when a group of 20 attackers stormed a resort where the missionaries were uncharacteristically taking a vacation. A Philippine television interview showed the two saying they were desperate for help.

    An Islamic group called the Abu Sayyaf is being blamed for the abduction. Now, U.S. troops have arrived in the Philippines to advise the local military how to respond to the Islamic rebels, a threat that has taken on new significance for U.S. policymakers since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

    On Monday, Mary Jones, sister of hostage Gracia Burnham, pleaded for mercy.

    "We have seen their pictures on various news broadcasts and we see how emaciated, tired and weak they are," Jones said in a radio interview in the Philippines. "We are all very afraid of what might happen to Martin and Gracia. They have three children who are very frightened and need them very much."

    As they wait, the missionaries at New Tribes are continuing their work in 27 countries, including 19 where the mission has established "tribal churches."

    In an era when transcontinental flights are common, international e-mail is virtually free and every crag of the Earth's surface has been mapped through satellite imagery, it may sound futile to look for "unreached people."

    But in cultures without a system of writing, no one has read the Bible. New Tribes says Christianity has never been successfully introduced to thousands of these small, isolated ethnic groups around the world. New Tribes and other mission groups are trying to change that.

    Their work is bound to raise issues of cultural sensitivity, because the missionaries seek out remote peoples with the express purpose of changing their religious views.

    "How can you say your God is the right God? Well, that's what Christianity is all about," said Scott Ross, an attorney and missionary who is New Tribes' house counsel.

    In his office at New Tribes headquarters, Ross displays lethal-looking handmade arrows, a ceremonial spear and ornamental pig tusks, mementos of his own years in the field in Papua New Guinea. These days he also keeps maps of the Philippines and Indonesia, with each tribal mission marked, as the staff continually evaluates safety in those two hot spots.

    New Tribes was founded by a small group of men in 1942 in Chicago as a nondenominational Protestant mission.

    The group came to downtown Sanford in 1977 and bought the old Forest Lake Hotel, a sprawling white building once owned by the New York Giants baseball team, and moved its headquarters there. There's a chance several other training facilities around the country will be consolidated in Central Florida as well, Ross said. The mission lacks an endowment but collects its roughly $40-million budget through networks of churches and individuals, Ross said.

    Over the years, Christian missions have created controversy as well as converts. At times missionaries have actively worked to Westernize and modernize other cultures, sometimes destroying native peoples' long-held traditions.

    At New Tribes, missionaries acknowledge they are seeking to change peoples' religious beliefs but say they are sensitive to other cultural issues.

    Paul Wyma, 56, says he was drawn to work with the Ayore Tribe in Bolivia because "these are people who had no opportunity to worship a loving God. These are people who worshiped a bird. Actually a nighthawk."

    Wyma comes to mission work naturally; he has spent 33 years in Paraguay, Mexico and Bolivia, and now coordinates the mission's Latin American operations. He stressed the mission does not seek to eradicate the culture of tribal peoples.

    "Anything that is not in diametric opposition to what the word of God teaches, then we do everything we can to support and encourage the whole rest of the culture."

    Hurst, who will return in May to work with Quechua Indians in the Andean foothills of Bolivia, provided a concrete example. It's well-known that indigenous people there chew the coca leaf, which comes from the plant used to make cocaine. Chewing the leaf serves as a refreshment or stimulant.

    "I leave it up to the believers themselves," Hurst said. "Some of them chew it and some of them don't. I don't have a problem with it one way or another."

    Unless, he said, people chewed coca leaves in traditional, non-Christian religious practices. He would counsel against that.

    New Tribes missionaries commit to years of work. They live with tribes, working on development projects as well as the language, each day typing new words into laptop computers loaded with language acquisition software. "Planting" a tribal church takes 25 years.

    Once the language is understood and has been given a phonetic alphabet, New Tribes will print New Testaments in the tribe's native language. During the years of study and work, missionaries also tell Bible stories, starting with Old Testament lessons and building up, over a matter of years, to the story of Jesus.

    From the outset, missionaries at New Tribes have faced danger. The second 1950 airplane crash claimed the life of Paul Fleming, one of New Tribes' founders, and one of its driving forces. Earlier he had written:

    "After all, what does it matter to us if we give our lives in years of fruitful service to the Lord Jesus or give them in death? Whatever may be His way, we must be prepared to say 'God's way is my way.' "

    In brochures and a Web site (www.ntm.org), New Tribes also commemorates Tenenoff, the man who grew up in St. Petersburg, and the two other missionaries captured along with him in 1993: Dave Mankins, originally from Jacksonville, and Mark Rich, a third-generation missionary who generally called Florida home. The three were captured in Panama and later taken to Colombia. Evidence indicates the three were alive 11 months later, but eventually killed by the rebel group that had taken them.

    After the conclusion last year that the three men had been slain, Geri Cox, mother of Rick Tenenoff's widow, Patti, said the years since 1993 had been "really tough, being a single mother. . . . She has spent an awful lot of time trying to get her husband home, or trying to learn his fate."

    Wyma acknowledged such incidents affect other missionaries. After the three were kidnapped in 1993 and taken to Colombia, New Tribes pulled back its mission work there, reducing it to a small effort based in large cities.

    "Some families made their evaluations and said, You know what? We just can't live under this kind of pressure."

    For others, Wyma said, "it has only reinforced their desire to continue."

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