Youth in search of a mission

insearchofmissionWhen dramatic news events occur, early reports can be riddled with errors or, by necessity, relatively shallow. Sometimes the best coverage comes days, weeks, months after the event. Los Angeles Times reporter Nicholas Riccardi had such a piece on Youth With a Mission, the group that was victimized by Matthew Murray in the Colorado shootings earlier this month. Using tons of anecdotes and analysis, Riccardi gives the reader a sympathetic look at the missionary group:

Paul Filidis thought little of Christianity as he backpacked through Afghanistan in the early 1970s, searching for top-grade hashish and Eastern enlightenment.

Then his passport was stolen and he took shelter with a group of missionaries who had moved to Kabul to help wanderers on the hippie trail. "They looked just like me," Filidis said.

The missionaries took Filidis in and helped him get a new passport. Filidis, who had believed Christianity was only for old people, eventually became a convert. He has spent the last three decades with that group, Youth With a Mission. His 20-year-old, tongue-pierced daughter, Noelle, just finished a YWAM mission to India, where she nursed sick villagers and was attacked by a mob of Hindu fundamentalists.

Apparently the group will take in just about anyone, train them and send them out across the globe. The approach drives its success but makes it vulnerable, Riccardi writes:

"YWAM has been known as a mission that believes in young people and gives them a chance," said Jarod Marshall, 32, a staffer in the Colorado Springs branch. "You believe in people, and there's a risk in that -- but it's a risk worth taking."

Youth With a Mission is considered avant-garde, on the "bleeding edge" of the evangelical movement, said A. Scott Moreau, a professor at Wheaton College in Illinois who studies mission programs.

"They are passionate, they are a bit wild," Moreau said. "A lot of agencies are wondering how they're going to mobilize this generation. YWAM has figured it out."

The article goes into the Pentecostalism of the group and its beginning, based on a vision its founder had of waves of young people crashing onto the shores of all continents. Here is Filidis describing why he returned to YWAM after time in seminary and at other missions groups:

Filidis recounted one mission that he views as emblematic of YWAM's hands-on approach -- working in refugee camps in Southeast Asia after the fall of Saigon, since renamed Ho Chi Minh City. YWAMers volunteered to take care of the latrines and spent hours standing in human excrement. A U.N. report noted the group's commitment to doing practical work, no matter how unpleasant. "I hope we never lose that," he said.

Mark Lang dropped out of college in 1983 to join Youth With a Mission. Raised in a Lutheran household, he had longed for missionary work.

"If I was going to become a Lutheran missionary, I would have had to go to four years of college and four years of seminary," said Lang, 43. "Would you like to do that or go to school for three months and go out and do something? You go make that choice when you're 18."

I really like how the last anecdote compares the missionary approaches of differing church bodies. But the emphasis in the article is on how the group's decentralized approach plays out. The group has 1,000 bases, and their only link is a three-month training course and a shared set of values. But the training course is quite the bonding experience. Missionaries in training live in dorm-like situations and spend all day every day together:

Gil Datz, the base's worship coordinator, said that the emphasis on communal learning and living means YWAMers learn a lot about their colleagues. "It means a guy like Matt cannot hide," he said.

When lone criminals commit violent attacks, communities struggle to determine why. Reporters probably can't answer such deep questions, but they can help shed light on various circumstances in which the criminals and their victims operated. This is a great example of a straightforward and illuminating account.

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