The Conversion Agenda

"Freedom to convert" is counterproductive as a generalized doctrine. It fails to come to terms with the complex interrelationships between self and society that make the concept of individual choice meaningful. Hence, religious conversion undermines, and in extremes would dissolve, that individual autonomy and human freedom.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Proselytizing during relief efforts divides Christian groups

Article Published: Monday, January 17, 2005

Some say disasters such as the tsunami offer a time to answer questions; others want to focus on their acts.

By Eric Gorski
Denver Post Staff Writer

In the tsunami disaster zones of South Asia, help is on the way in the form of food rations, clothing, clean linens and words from James Dobson and the Bible about why God lets bad things happen.

The heavy presence of Christian relief groups in a region where other beliefs dominate and pockets of religious tension exist poses challenges to interfaith relations and underscores the wide range of philosophies faith-based agencies take to religion and humanitarian work.

Some U.S. groups - including the relief arms of the Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran and Methodist churches - follow a Red Cross code of conduct against furthering a particular religious or political viewpoint. Generally, these groups believe their works, rather than their words, sufficiently show how faith moves them.

Many evangelical Christian groups, which put a stronger emphasis on winning new converts, believe relief can be packaged with religion as long as immediate needs are addressed first. After all, they say, this is when people are asking life's deepest questions.

That logic motivated Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family to include excerpts from a book written by Dobson, founder of the influential media ministry, in 300,000 survival packets bound for the region.

The convergence of these opposing philosophies could lead to conflict, some relief workers say. The agencies that shun evangelization say those that follow other rules risk undermining everyone's work with locals and government officials.

It remains to be seen whether U.S. Christian relief groups will inflame religious tensions or enhance the image of Americans abroad. The Bush administration has expressed hope that U.S. tsunami relief efforts will improve relationships, especially with Muslims.

Early next month, the Rev. Drew Stephens of Riverside Baptist Church in Denver plans to lead a six-person medical team to Banda Aceh, the epicenter of the disaster in heavily Islamic Indonesia.

Though the Indonesian constitution recognizes five religions, including Christianity, the nation has been rife with violent religious skirmishes in recent years, including church bombings and fighting between Muslims and Christians.

Stephens is following the destruction to Aceh province, the only part of the country authorized to implement Islamic law. Reports have surfaced of radical Muslim groups handing out Korans with sugar and rice.

On Friday, a senior Islamic leader preaching at the province's main mosque warned foreign relief workers of a serious backlash from Muslims if they bring Christian proselytizing.

A veteran missionary, Stephens emphasizes that he puts no conditions on helping people. If the chance arises, he said, he will share what he believes is the great hope of Christianity.

"We need to be able to build a bridge to the people and their culture before there should be an expectation they want to hear what we want to share," Stephens said.

For many evangelicals, working in natural-disaster areas is an opportunity to fulfill what they interpret as "the Great Commission," Jesus' call in the Gospel of Matthew to make his message known in all corners of the world. There's disagreement, though, about drawing boundaries when calm times give way to chaos and suffering.

"It's been controversial over the years, people asking which is more important - feeding people and caring for their educational and spiritual needs, or proselytizing and bringing people to the faith," said Rick Mitchell, a vice president with Mission of Mercy, a Colorado Springs group staging tsunami relief in Sri Lanka, where it runs child-development programs. "Scripture says to me and to this organization that you can't separate the two."

While Focus on the Family is not a relief group, the ministry is seeking to raise $1 million for survival staple kits to be distributed by partner agencies and churches, said Glenn Williams, vice president of international and cultural ministry. The goal is to meet immediate needs, not evangelize, Williams said.

Even so, excerpts from Dobson's "When God Doesn't Make Sense" will be bundled with the food, water and medicine.

"You have a lot of people who have serious questions at the moment, feeling a tremendous sense of loss and asking, 'Where was God in this?"' Williams said.

The very mission of the Colorado Springs-based International Bible Society is to publish and distribute Scripture. So when the tsunami struck, the group prepared the distribution of 100,000 texts, including a book translated into Thai, "When Your Whole World Changes."

"We believe the Bible or Scripture booklets present relevant answers to problems people are facing," said Judy Billings, an IBS spokeswoman. "With the disaster, people are open to God's word. They're in a crisis."

Not all evangelical Christian groups share that view.

The child-sponsorship group Compassion International, also based in Colorado Springs, is providing emergency relief in India and Indonesia. Though the organization does not camouflage its Christian identity, neither will it be passing out religious literature, said David Dahlin, chief operating officer and senior vice president.

"People could wonder whether you have ulterior motives, that it's not a genuine compassionate response," Dahlin said. "Or they might feel as, if they are a strong adherent to a different faith, they might be reluctant to take aid. We don't want that."

Like evangelicals, Mormons have a strong missionary zeal. But the church does not send missionaries to disaster areas.

The church's relief arm works with other groups, often crossing faith lines, said Harold Brown, head of welfare and humanitarian services for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The LDS church collaborated with Islamic Relief Services to pack 70 tons of food, soap, body bags and other supplies onto an Indonesia-bound MD-11 cargo plane.

"We don't use humanitarian work as some sort of cover so we can preach the Gospel," Brown said. "We have 60,000 missionaries out in the world preaching the Gospel. We don't want to be seen as not having a clear and pure motive of helping people in need."

A similar philosophy guides Catholic Relief Services, which instructs its workers not to proselytize or convey a specific Catholic message, said the Rev. Bill Headley, counselor to the president of the agency.

"In the long run, (proselytizing) could be defeating because you're linking basic needs up with a much more thoughtful and prayerful process," Headley said. "Once basic needs are satisfied, you might find people may not stay with you as a Catholic or Christian."

The Rev. Fred and Polly Ingold, retired Methodist missionaries living in Estes Park, worked from 1969 to 1993 in Indonesia. Their goal, they said, was to forge good relationships and do what needed to be done, including developing clean-water pumps for villages that relied on river water.

When a project was finished, the Rev. Ingold spoke at a dedication ceremony. This is not Methodist water, he would say, but God's water, for all to share.

Kathryn Wolford, president of Lutheran World Relief, said organizations that strongly push a religious message risk undermining all relief groups' standing abroad, especially when diverse faiths and cultures collide.

"It can create conflict and resistance because in that kind of situation people don't necessarily distinguish one (relief) group from another," she said.

So far, few conflicts have come to light. A Virginia-based evangelical Christian charity, WorldHelp, dropped plans last week to adopt Muslim tsunami orphans into a Christian children's home after the Indonesian government protested.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations characterized the incident as confirmation that some evangelical groups hope to exploit the tragedy.

Staff writer Eric Gorski can be reached at 303-820-1698 or egorski@denverpost.com.

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