Physical abuse of missionary kids within Protestant missions was a rampant problem that numerous mission agencies have sought to hide or justify over the decades. I previously wrote about this and the excellent documentary All God’s Children which describes the abuse missionary kids (MK’s) experienced, in horrifying detail.
Those of us raised in New Tribes Mission (NTM), renamed Ethnos 360, were abused daily in a variety of ways, emotionally, verbally, sexually, and physically. While some categorize certain types of abuse as worse than others, they all cause lasting trauma and inhibit the normal development of children. Not all of us experienced all these types of abuses. We each have our unique experiences, but the overall environment was one of frequent abuse. This is compounded when the abuse is justified and considered acceptable. The child does not receive assistance, much less have a safe place to process and heal.
Views on corporal punishment, particularly in the West, have changed dramatically in the last generation. Whether raised in an NTM boarding school overseas, or in the United States, many children of the 70’s and 80’s experienced corporal punishment as a normal part of life. With increased psychological research into corporal punishment, it has become known and established fact that positive reinforcement of children is far more effective in training them then the use of corporal punishment.
This reality has become widely accepted in the West, and many parents have become more creative with discipline than the ways in which they were raised, utilizing any number of techniques such as taking away toys/possessions for a period of time, time-outs, chores, loss of privileges and such.
NTM belief on discipline was extremely literal. Bible verses were constantly quoted to us MK’s justifying the severe corporal punishment with which we were raised during our required Bible classes in school, by our dorm parents, and in the mission church services on Sundays.
As part of the NTM culture, not only were adult missionaries to be kept in line by the Executive Committee and disciplined as they saw fit, but all missionaries were responsible to discipline and make the children into perfect little Christians. There was no real separation between a family’s business and NTM control. Anyone in leadership or other adult missionaries were at complete liberty to help discipline, shun, or cast aspersions on “disobedient” children. In this way, children were constantly at the mercy of every adult in the mission agency. While not every adult abused this authority, many others did. This came in many forms such as efforts at ostracism like the EC leader who encouraged his son ( my best friend) to keep a distance from me because I was “a black sheep,” to parental advice to dorm parents and missionaries encouraging corporal punishment, to those in leadership positions within EHM or the dormitories to physically punish children.
Some verses utilized to justify this behavior include:
Proverbs 13:24 NASB
He who withholds his rod hates his son, But he who loves him disciplines him diligently.
Other verses that were constantly quoted to us include:
Exodus 20:12 ESV “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
1 Timothy 3:4 ESV
He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive,
Colossians 3:20 ESV
Children obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.
Hebrews 12:6 ESV
For the Lord disciplines the one he loves and chastises every son whom he receives.
I had never heard the word hermeneutics until I attended BIOLA University.
Hermeneutics as defined by Meriam Webster is a Noun (used with a singular verb)
1. The science of interpretation, especially of the Scriptures.
2. The branch of theology that deals with the principles of Biblical exegesis.
When we learn about literature in school, we are taught that there are different types of writing. Not all writing is meant to be read literally. There is poetry, history, allegory, plays, and much more. The reader needs to understand what type of literature they are reading to understand the intent of the author. In this way, I know that a poem isn’t meant to be read literally.
The first stated belief on NTM’s website regarding their doctrine is that they believe: “In the word-by-word inspiration, inerrancy, and final authority of the Holy Scriptures.”
Point 12 in the “What We Believe” sections say: “The historical-grammatical interpretation of the Bible,” which means they interpret each scriptural literally.
And the first of their Core Values is: “The Word of God as our final authority.”
When you take all of these beliefs and statements together, you get a clear image of how they operated. Within NTM, there was no teaching on type of literature and ensuring that one was appropriately approaching different types of scripture to understand it accurately. For this reason, verses in the Proverbs were preached to us within NTM as ultimate truth. When Proverbs 13:24 says:
“He who withholds his rod hates his son, But he who loves him disciplines him diligently.”
They took it completely literally.
The NTM teaching interpreted this to mean that adult missionaries need to spank all “disobedient” children. Otherwise, they would not be obeying the Biblical directives on raising children. There was no understanding that Proverbs is a collection of wise teachings, not meant to be 100% literal.
One MK, who was a good friend during my years in Panama, shared his story with me for the book I’ve written. While it has not yet been published, I share this excerpt to illustrate how NTM views of corporal punishment were practiced in our daily lives.
This MK suffered several incidents that NTM determined constituted abuse, but the most egregious occurred while his parents were in Chame, the rural town I which our boarding school, Escuela Hogar Misionero (EHM) was located. When he was 10 years old and living in one of the dormitories at EHM, he was the only male in the entire dorm. As such, he often felt lonely. He had two sisters who were both in high school at the time, but that did little to provide the companionship of other boys. One day, he decided to change into his gym clothes at the school so he could hang out with the other boys there instead of going back to the dormitory to change into gym clothes before class. While he knew it was a rule to change clothes at the dormitory, he decided to change at the school. When he returned to the dormitory after Physical Education class, he was questioned by the dorm Dad and admitted to changing his clothes at the school. This is how he describes what followed:
“…he became enraged. He pulled out the "paddle" which was actually the top half of a fishing pole. It was narrow on one end to create a switch-like device. He told me to take my pants down and lean over the bed. I took my position and looked back to watch the blows fall. He became so enraged. I cannot adequately explain the level of anger that was in him at that moment. He began to whip me with the narrow end of the fiberglass fishing rod. He swung it as hard as he possibly could. I know this because I was watching his face. It was contorted in the most awful way. He beat my buttocks and my legs with all the strength he could muster...I did my best not to make a sound. I would not give him the satisfaction of both breaking my body and my spirit. Boarding school affects everyone differently I suppose but there are certainly some side effects. So, as I held my breath and fought as hard as I could to keep any sound from coming out of my mouth, I saw him get even angrier. About halfway through the whipping, he was so incensed he stopped briefly and switched the pole around so that he was holding the narrow end of the fishing rod. The other end had a metal knob on it where it connects to the lower half of the fishing rod. He then proceeded to beat me with the metal knob until he was physically tired. I do not know how long he beat me… I was filled with shame and rage. I was made to take down my pants and be beaten like a dog.”
This MK hobbled to where his parents were staying, and they discovered what had been done to him. His Dad took him back to the dorm where he had to pull his pants down, yet again, and the dorm Dad confirmed he was responsible for the visible beating. The MK’s Dad spoke with the dorm Dad who as a result, never touched him again.
Based on conversations with other MK’s, beating with the fishing pole was not unique to this particular MK. Another MK confirmed he made too much noise and moved around too much, so the same dorm Dad stuffed a rag in his mouth and bound him during the beating. There are also numerous accounts from other MK’s that the previous dorm Dad used the fishing pole for discipline and the kids referred to those who he beat as members of the “tiger club” for the stripes left on them from the beatings.
My MK friend also reported excessive spanking in the next dorm to which he was assigned. As he reported:
"What I remember of my 3rd grade year is that it was the worst year of my life. Every small offense seemed to be worthy of a spanking...the results were often devastating. I often slept on my stomach because the spankings in the evening before bed were commonplace. I remember hating him. It is bad when an eight-year-old hates. Once I was spanked for goofing off during chore time. My friend and I both had casts on one arm and were trying to sweep with the other arm. We were joking and sort of swinging the broom in a circle because it was tough to sweep with one arm. This resulted in a spanking.
My older sister has told me that she used to pick up my laundry at night when I forgot so that I would not be punished for forgetting it. She told me that she found spots of blood on my underwear from time to time. I do not remember too much from that year and am not sure how frequently that happened."
As this friend questioned in his formal report, did the NTM leadership know about the violent proclivities of these dorm Dads, and if they did, what did they do? What about the MK’s who didn’t have a father who happened to be in Chame at the time of the one beating who was able to intercede…did no one advocate for them?
These are the questions and experiences that plague many of the NTM MK’s with whom I was raised. Given the frequency and severity of beatings/spankings, it is difficult to believe that the NTM Executive Committee was unaware of these occurrences and rather chose to turn a blind eye to the ongoing abuse of NTM children. And what is even more shocking is that there were no guidelines set-up to at least look like there was accountability for liability sake. This goes to show that NTM was confident in the control they had over their missionaries and families.