Emotional & Spiritual Abuse of Missionary Kids
In many ways, I think emotional and spiritual abuse has had a much greater and lasting impact on my life than other forms of abuse. It’s not as easy to identify because there are so many factors and iterations of it. I originally thought that the physical distance from NTM (New Tribes Mission; now renamed Ethnos 360), and their missionaries would result in my autonomy and learning to live well. What I didn’t understand is that the abusive treatment and ideas that were ingrained into me my whole life would continue to direct my thinking and decision making, for many years to come.
I wanted so badly to be a good Christian and made great efforts to develop my spiritual life and follow the Evangelical model of sanctification through my choice of church, education, and marriage to an Evangelical. But if you’ve read any of my blog, you know that the abuse continued. I’ve also made many mistakes and had numerous failures in my personal life. I do cling to the fact that I’ve learned from those experiences and keep getting back up to try again. I share about the highs and lows here so you can journey with me and so we can help one another along the way.
I’m no expert and very much in the midst of my own journey towards healing. I’m sure my fellow MKs and those raised in repressive religious environments will have feedback. Please send me your thoughts, critical or positive!
I have already described the cultish control over adult missionaries, and the extreme control over children within NTM. One of the most abusive aspects of this system is that the mission and by extension, adult missionaries in charge of children, take autonomy from children. This starts with the first decision to join NTM, move one’s family overseas, put kids into boarding schools, rarely seeing them, and being limited in parenting decisions. As a child born when my parents were attending the NTM Bible School, I literally did not have a chance to make any major decisions regarding my own life until I graduated from high school. In some ways I was fortunate that my parents were dorm parents and didn’t live far away because I saw them more often. On the other hand, I had the daily experience of knowing I was a collateral issue because they had important work to do and I wasn’t yet out of their way attending school. As a teen, we were treated as children even though we’d long since matured. Having no real input in your life circumstances and being subjected to the whims of your caretakes is detrimental to one’s psyche.
I recall so many times when another MK was condemned publicly or when I overheard adult missionaries discussing an MK’s shortcomings. They often revolved around this idea that any adolescent in their care should be completely submissive to the teachings and directives of adult missionaries…regardless if there was a legitimate basis for those beliefs. I saw countless abuses of authority to force young adults to conform to the will of an adult missionary for no good reason other than to assuage those missionary’s egos. The overall message I learned from my time in NTM is that children should not develop their own thoughts/emotions, but always be submissive and subservient to what the NTM leadership and adult missionaries taught them. Mission agencies are not just about “sharing the Gospel,” but are microcosms in which primarily White, Anglo Saxon, Protestant (WASP) men can exert their “godly leadership,” aka, control, over a community.
As a parent, I recognize that teaching my children how to make decisions, giving them the autonomy to do so (whether I agree or like them), is important in their development. Of course, I’m referring to age-appropriate decisions, but the difference is genuinely allowing children and teens to learn these important life skills, rather than dictate everything to them. They are only 9 & 11, but it’s amazing how many ideas they have about their personal circumstances and the broader world. I’m far from perfect, but I accept their suggestions, if possible (within reason), and believe my own life is enriched through their creativity. Speaking of this, I firmly believe that problem solving, and creative thinking are actively discouraged and dismissed by Evangelical leadership because it is seen as threatening to their authority…to dare have a better idea regarding how to think or do something. This topic could be a blog post by itself…for the future.
Being dragged around, back and forth between different housing situations, different towns, different countries, and different schools as is common practice in Evangelical missions is stressful and exhausting in every possible way. The result is that I, along with all of my fellow MKs, left Panama as naïve, completely unprepared young adults. I grieve for the Lindsay that could have been if I’d had the opportunity to pursue my interests and dreams outside of the strictly curated NTM ideal of the good.
I believe the emotional and spiritual abuse was amplified by MKs being trapped on the boarding school compound where I lived because we had so little opportunity to see or hear a different message. The years in which I was able to leave the compound more often certainly gave me a little respite. But, for much of the time my entire world revolved around a school, two dormitories, limited contact with outsiders, and constant supervision by NTM missionaries. It resulted in little mental relief from what I would now call brainwashing. The overall effect was to magnify spiritual and emotional abuse.
One of the worst repercussions of the NTM brainwashing I experienced was my constant companion, guilt. I literally could find something to feel guilty about in every single situation, no matter how right my heart and intentions were, no matter how carefully and hard I work. This was a direct result of my childhood in NTM and the beliefs my parents also practiced as taught to them through the NTM training. The focus in NTM is so much on sin, repenting, performance, and forcing conformity to their view of everything, that the guilt just never seemed to leave. This is not normal. I didn’t feel guilty because I was constantly sinning and not repenting or anything along the lines that an Evangelical would typically assume, but because I was raised with no autonomy or protection from those who imposed their will and beliefs on me, every day of my existence in NTM. Having any thoughts or actions, real or perceived, that were not perfectly aligned with NTM and its missionaries resulted in punishment, making one feel guilty as if they had done wrong. Achieving peace and contentment are supposed to be fruits of Christianity, but that faith brought be the opposite results. Losing faith felt like letting go of a huge burden I had been carrying around as long as I could remember. It has taken years of concerted effort to “reprogram” myself. Now, I actually feel calm, peace, and far more joy than at any time in my Christian life.
Where to begin on this as it still takes only a matter of seconds for me to be triggered?! Everything in my life was based on people quoting scriptures to “prove” their point or teach me what I was supposed to believe or how to act. Within the Evangelical and NTM world, major emphasis is placed on one’s individual relationship with Jesus. This translated into each person being able to claim what the Holy Spirit had “revealed,” “inspired” “called,” or whatever else you want to name it, to them. It also extends to interpretation of scripture. Anyone can read scripture and decide what it means, without any knowledge of how it has been historically understood by the earliest (Orthodox & later Catholic) Christians. Why do you think there are countless denominations and Evangelical leaders? It's because they all interpret things differently, how they want to, and feel smug in knowing the truth.
In NTM, if your “revelation” or “interpretation” started conflicting with the NTM Executive Committee, then you’d be called in for a meeting and depending on your response, possibly disciplined. How is this abusive to children? It means that all of these adult missionaries and/or children (many of whom are treating you with meanness, deceit, aggression, arrogance, and any number of other negative ways) are also quoting scripture at you to justify their behavior and teach you why you are “wrong,” “sinful,” and “rebellious.” What I learned from NTM is that people can use scripture and positions of authority in combination to denigrate, mock, beat, isolate, and destroy the lives of others…with children being the most vulnerable victims.
Inappropriate Emotional/Spiritual Responsibility
There are a number of ways in which missionary children are forced to carry the emotional and spiritual responsibilities of adults. I will just name two here that I think are almost universally detrimental to MK children.
Responsibility to assist in parent’s ministry to save souls. What does this look like in everyday life? It looks like:
Making sure you behave well and are not a distraction to your parent’s ministry
Trying and /or pretending to be happy regardless of how you feel
Feeling personally responsible to “share the Gospel,” as often as possible, cultivate relationships for this purpose, and feeling guilty if not taking every opportunity or doing well at the effort.
Accepting poor treatment and conditions for fear of being responsible for ruining your parent’s ministry and taking them away from God’s calling on their live
2. Bearing the weight of financial insecurity, making sacrifices, and having no real way to make a difference. I think this aspect of mission life is often overlooked as there are many different agencies, and the level of support and standard of living varies between organizations. Within NTM, living in poverty was the norm. While many children are impoverished worldwide, the difference here is that a child’s parents have chosen to not work and earn a living, but rather to “serve” as missionaries, living completely dependent on the donations of churches and individuals. Again, what does this look like in an MK’s everyday life?
Frequently hearing from one’s parents that we don’t have enough money for food this month and are not sure how we will be able to make it. The sharing of this constant financial insecurity and feeling a part of the problem because I need to eat, and there are school fees, etc. makes one feel guilt down to your very existence.
Experiencing shame and guilt whenever asked what one’s parent’s job is because we lived on donations
Inability to relate and connect with other children in Panama and the US because living on charitable donations is not normal with white, educated parents
Feeling indebted to individuals (many we barely knew) because they supported our family financially
Feeling guilty and unworthy over any new purchase or activity paid on my behalf such as music lessons, clothes, shoes, and other basic necessities.
Almost no financial education to function as an adult as well as guilt over most purchases due to having so few resources as a child.
In short, I’ve spent every year since leaving NTM trying to recover and learn how to think, how to function spiritually and emotionally, how to make appropriate financial decisions, how to parent, how to find joy and fulfillment, and how to find out who Lindsay is, outside the NTM construct and brainwashing. It’s taken a lot of research, conversations, experiences, and therapy to assist me on the way. If you are reading this and relate to anything I’ve written, I can only encourage you to keep asking the hard questions and pursuing your journey, no matter what detractors tell you. It's possible to heal to from emotional/spiritual abuse and to move into a healthier existence.