Sorting out the mission

he said she saidThe "He said she said" story can be one of the most difficult for a journalist to root out. One side says one thing and the other does their best to contradict. The lazy reporter will do little to resolve the difference, offering little evidence and a handful of quotes that offer an equal number of lines for each side. But does that really serve the reader? Ignorant quotes by sources who don't know what they are talking about or lack the credibility to speak on the subject do little public good, but it's easy to find Mr. Other Side to spout off in support of or against a position in the name of balance. The dedicated hard-working reporter, or something along those lines, searches out The Truth, or the best version they can come up with by press time.

Such as the case in this solid bit of reporting by Chris Kraul of the Los Angeles Times. Here is the heart of the story:

Last month, Chavez ordered the expulsion of about 200 evangelical Baptist missionaries from the country's Amazon rain forest. He accused them of spying, mining, exploiting indigenous tribes and using jungle airstrips for "imperialist penetration." Last week, the missionaries were given 90 days to leave the zone.

...

Some observers see the expulsion, which targeted the Florida-based New Tribes Mission and its offshoots, as a part of a hardening attitude toward religious groups since U.S. televangelist Pat Robertson suggested in August that someone assassinate Chavez. The Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints announced last month that it had withdrawn all 219 of its U.S. missionaries from the country because of increasing delays and difficulty in obtaining or renewing visas.

Chavez has also sparred with the Roman Catholic Church. Retired Cardinal Rosalio Castillo Lara, a Venezuelan who was a confidant of the late Pope John Paul II, has accused Chavez of being increasingly autocratic.

I guess Chavez never received the memo that Tmatt has called for Robertson's excommunication. But there is something deeper to Chavez's hostility towards the missionaries. It involves the country's inability to provide basic social services to its poor. Here are those on Chavez's side:

Some anthropologists and government officials cheered Chavez's action, saying the expulsion was a welcome conclusion to a 60-year debate in Venezuela over whether the evangelicals threaten cultural diversity by forcing assimilation and modernity on the tribes, even as they deliver much-needed services.

They say the problems posed by the missionaries are not espionage or unbridled capitalism, but the religious and behavioral changes that the missionaries force on tribes in exchange for material and medical help. Those changes are destroying tribes' primitive rituals and robbing people of what the United Nations has termed world cultural patrimony, the critics claim.

"New Tribes activity amounts to cultural genocide for which the state has to share responsibility," anthropologist and former Sen. Alexander Luzardo said in an interview in Caracas, the capital.

Did Kraul bother to ask Greenwood whether they required "religious and behavioral changes" in order to receive material and medical help? And what were those behavioral changes? Last time I checked, it was the missionaries in India that fought to end the Hindu practice of sati, where the a widow would allow herself to be burned alive on her husband's funeral pyre. Kraul did part of his job and went to Greenwood and to those who support his work:

Ingrid Turon, a city council member and member of the Yeguana indigenous community in the village of Toki, six hours by outboard motorboat from here, said those who oppose missionaries want to deprive indigenous people of the advantages of modern life.

"For them, we are like animals in the zoo that people should pay to come see, so they can charge admission, publish their books and take pictures," Turon said. "They want to deny us the progress that they want, that the entire world wants."

Greenwood, the missionary, said living among the Indians as a "friend and neighbor" gives him a different -- and, he said, more caring -- perspective than that of the anthropologists who visit periodically to study the communities and their customs.

"That's where we are a little bit critical of the scientists who look on the Yanomami as a classroom project. These aren't objects -- these are people," Greenwood said. "If you have a textbook approach to them, rather than relational, the Indians suffer as a result."

Greenwood didn't deny that he wanted to teach the Indians the Bible, which has been translated to the Yanomami language, and to show them the "way of the Lord." Those teachings include discouraging Yanomami from taking alcoholic or hallucinatory substances, from committing polygamy and incest, and from engaging in inter-tribal violence.

But he insisted that none of the Indians in Cuwa were denied clothing, food or medicine for failing to follow his religious teachings.

I have trouble determining the veracity of both side's statements. Who are these people and what are their relationships to both the government and to the missionaries? There isn't enough time or space to vet either side's claims so the reader is forced to make a judgment, which usually resorts to already-established biases or perceptions.

The remaining part of the story relies on what must have been more than a couple days worth of reporting and observing the Greenwood's at work. Snippets of their daily lives seem to back up their claims that they are trying to provide basic services while sharing their faith with those in the community. While Kraul doesn't come right out and say it, the reader who finishes the piece should come away knowing that they have a better idea of the truth.

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