Exposing Religious Abuse
Updated: Sep 3, 2020
I grew up in the 1980’s and 1990’s in a rural Panamanian town named La Paz de Chame. My parents worked with New Tribes Mission (now renamed Ethnos 360 after so many accounts of child abuse emerged). I lived at the NTM boarding school on a fenced and gated compound. Nearly everything in my life was controlled by the NTM executive committee in Panama, to whom my parents reported, and by other NTM missionary teachers and dorm parents. They had a communal parenting style in which any missionary could accuse a child of a real or perceived, “sin” and the child would nearly always be punished. Adults were not held accountable if it was discovered that they had lied or been mistaken about their accusations. Thus, many lived on power trips, abusing those of us trapped at boarding school on the compound.
Growing up, I hated the culture of control and abuse the pervaded every aspect of my life, and constantly dreamed about when I would be old enough to get away. What I did not anticipate was just how long- lasting or deep the trauma of growing up in a quasi-cult with constant brainwashing and punishment would be. It also left me woefully unprepared for life outside of NTM.
Despite returning to the US, getting my BA and MA in Political Science, I still had the mind of an individual, trapped in a patriarchal and judgmental worldview. So, while I was finally “free,” the battle to discover myself and extract myself from the all-pervasive control of the Evangelical world has been a monumental feat…only made possible through the support and input of many dear friends and mentors.
My dream since graduating from BIOLA University in 2004 was to write a book about child abuse within NTM and to bring accountability to the agency. During my university years, I had reconnected with a childhood friend who shared about horrific abuses that he personally suffered and the stories of many other Mks with whom we were raised. Over the next decade, reports of rampant child abuse in NTM mission fields around the world started to emerge. This was a pivotal moment for many of us MKs because it not only affirmed our memories of the dangerous and abusive teaching and behavior with which we were raised, but placed our story at the Panama boarding school, Escuela Hogar Missionero (EHM), into the broader context of NTM missions.
In 2009, two NTM female MKs, Bonnie and Kari, founded a website named Fanda Eagles to expose the abuse that they and many others had suffered at NTM’s boarding school in Sengal, Africa. As these pioneers started to share about the sexual abuse they endured, many others came forward sharing their own accounts of abuse both in Senegal and at NTM boarding schools worldwide. For a number of years, the Fanda Eagles site is where most of us tracked news regarding NTM’s response to the victims, followed the initial investigation into the Fanda boarding school, and the consequent investigations into NTM boarding schools all over the world.
My school in Panama, EHM, was one with numerous reports of abuse form MKs, so came under investigation. The initial investigation and report were buried by NTM executives, and the independent team fired after completing the report under dubious accusations. NTM lawyered up with attorney Theresa Sidebotham who “finished” the report. Needless to say, the final report minimized NTM culpability and we later found out that NTM also withheld hundreds of pages of incriminating documentation from the first team of investigators. (Much more on this in future posts!).
I finally started writing my book with the intention to include not only my story, but those of my fellow MKs who were willing to share their stories publicly. I learned that while many fully supported bringing accountability to NTM, they also continued to suffer after-affects. Many MKs worked hard to progress to more stable lives, overcoming addictions, depression, suicide attempts, and some undergoing extensive therapy. I ploughed ahead with my own story, incorporating a few of my friends’ stories with permission, and documentation from a group of former NTM missionaries and MKs who generously shared their experiences, advice, and helped proof portions of my book relating to NTM for accuracy.
Somehow, I had always compartmentalized the childhood NTM abuse as completely separate form the broader Evangelical world, and that is why I attended an Evangelical University, married an Evangelical, attended Evangelical churches, and allowed my entire worldview, political/social/moral beliefs to be directed by American Evangelicalism. Through the process of writing the book, I finally started connecting the many dots of abuse throughout my life…and they had one PRIMARY source….white, Evangelical, men.
BEFORE you stop reading here, let me explain. NTM was run by all men…I believe all white as well. The churches I attended allowed only limited serving roles for women, and men were the pastors, teachers, and had final authority on scriptural interpretation and theology. The large international NGO for whom I worked for 8 ½ years was led by all white, mostly Evangelical men. They eventually gave token positions to 2 women just prior to my departure. I experienced blatant discrimination at this NGO, to the extent of the promotion policy being re-written to ensure I had to get 5 promotions to attain the same title that my white, male colleague has just received, despite me having a degree in my field of work (he didn’t) and several more years of experience with the NGO. I was finally pushed out under false pretenses, by a group of older white men, who later confided that the real reason was my “ not being spiritual enough.” That was followed by an effort made by the interim president of the NGO to slander me to an influential individual in Washington, DC…presumably to ruin my career. And then there was my abusive marriage, and not a single Evangelical male…who knew something was terribly wrong in our relationship, would intervene to help me and my children.
I finally realized that it was the toxic worldview and beliefs that empowered Evangelical men to behave in these ways, and which afforded almost NO accountability for a wide range of abuse…spiritual, emotional, sexual, physical, power of their position, and so much more.
As I started putting the pieces together and talking about it, I met others who shared stories with this common theme of religious control and abuse. And it was not just confined to one religion. I heard stories of abuse from within Scientology, Jehovah Witnesses, Mormons, and Muslims. There was a common thread throughout…one of control and frequent abuse that particularly targeted women and children. My conclusion is not that religion is bad. But I wholeheartedly believe that many individuals abuse faith and their positions of influence in faith communities to feed their own desires and prey on the most vulnerable.
To be clear: this is not an anti-Evangelical blog. My personal experiences all occurred within that context, but religious abuse is widespread throughout different faiths worldwide. This is not an anti-faith blog either. Many of my family members and dear friends are individuals of deep faith. The point is to expose religious abuse, regardless of where or why it happens, and to encourage change to prevent its continuation. My aim is not to denigrate any faith or faith practitioners.
My book is nearly complete, and I hope to someday share happy news of a publication contract. In the meantime, I decided to start a website to share my thoughts and as a place for individuals impacted by religious abuse to dialogue. I’m sure there are other communities and forums for this, but if you want to learn more about how prevalent religious abuse is in our society, things you can do to expose it, and to help hold perpetrators accountable, then this is a home for you. I hope you will subscribe to my mailing list, shoot me a note telling me what you think, and share any tips of news stories that should be included. Please also consider sharing my site with your friends and family.
Holding perpetrators and abusive entities accountable is important, but the MOST IMPORTANT thing we can do is to support victims of abuse, many who are STILL TRAPPED in dangerous situations. I hope my writings and this community, as it develops, will be a support system to those who don’t know how to move forward, how to escape, or how to overcome the constant guilt that is so often wielded against those who try to leave religious abuse.