The dangers of mission work

Over the years, I have made a number of trips south of the U.S. border with short-term mission groups, both with my church and as a reporter for The Associated Press and The Christian Chronicle.

Two years ago, while visiting San Diego, I spent an afternoon in Tijuana, Mexico, interviewing church leaders about drug-gang violence curtailing mission trips by many U.S. groups. (For some reason, my wife was not particularly pleased that I brought my middle child, then 11, with me on that assignment.)

Given my personal experiences in Mexico, news coverage of an American missionary's slaying in northern Mexico this week captured my attention. The tragic death of Nancy Davis has generated quite a bit of media attention, particularly here in the Southwest. The first-day reports that I read Thursday were pretty straightforward (see stories from CNN, Reuters, the San Antonio Express-News and the McAllen Monitor).

The top of CNN's initial report:

(CNN) -- An American missionary was fatally shot in Mexico on Wednesday, police said.

The preliminary investigation indicated that Nancy Davis, 59, and her husband were traveling on a Mexican highway near the city of San Fernando, Mexico, when they were confronted by gunmen in a black pickup, the Pharr Police Department in Texas said in a statement. San Fernando is south of the border city of Reynosa in Tamaulipas state.

"The gunmen were attempting to stop them and the victims accelerated in efforts of getting away from them," the police statement said. "At a certain point the gunmen discharged a weapon at the victim's vehicle and a bullet struck the victim Nancy Shuman Davis on the head."

Davis' husband, identified as Sam Davis by family friends, drove their truck "at high rate of speed" to the Pharr International Bridge, which crosses the Rio Grande. Nancy Davis was taken to a hospital in nearby McAllen, where she was pronounced dead about 90 minutes later.

I did not expect the breaking-news coverage to reflect a key issue for many churches in this part of the country: the safety of sending short-term mission groups south of the border over spring break -- which is about six weeks away. But I wondered if follow-up stories might explore that angle.

In Googling for such reports, I noticed that The Dallas Morning News' Texas Faith blog asked its panelists on Tuesday -- a day before the missionary's slaying -- how religious groups might make a difference along the border if it's too dangerous to send volunteers there. Godbeat pro Sam Hodges noted:

Suncreek United Methodist Church of Allen was one of the few local congregations still sending mission teams to the violence-torn border area of Mexico. But even Suncreek recently called off a trip to Ciudad Juarez, due to killings in the area where Suncreek volunteers build cinder block homes for poor families.

My own church has a 2o-plus-year relationship with small congregations in remote mountain villages in the state of Taumaulipas. Before the drug war escalated, we'd send a long line of white rental vans through the border crossing in McAllen and drive to our church's tent city in the mountains to conduct vacation Bible schools, build concrete floors and feed entire villages. At its height, the trip drew 150-plus students and families who'd make the pilgrimage each spring break. Two years ago, the border violence prompted my church to cancel this trip. Last year, a smaller group returned. This year, the trip is still planned -- although headlines and reports from border-area Christians prompt constant reassessment of the threats and opportunities.

One question for my church -- and for others -- is whether Christian groups are a target. In the case of the slain missionary, it appears that the gunmen may have targeted the couple because of their pickup truck. The Associated Press reported:

Pharr police said the couple's 2008 Chevrolet pickup is the kind of heavy-duty, high-profile truck prized by cartels, and that it's likely the reason the Davises were targeted. Damage to the truck's quarter-paneling suggests the gunmen tried to ram them, Pharr police Chief Ruben Villescas said.

AP did not tackle the mission-trip angle but did delve into the faith-related question of why Davis and her husband risked their lives despite knowing the dangers:

Joseph Davis said his mother loved music, and could compose songs and lyrics in minutes. But he said she loved the work she did most of all.

"Time after time, what made her the happiest was seeing somebody hit their knees and come up forgiven for whatever they've done -- murder, rape, the smallest sin," Joseph Davis said. "She'd come home so happy. She'd say, 'Well, we stole another one from the devil today.'"

I was pleased to see that the San Antonio Express-News recognized the significance of the mission-trip issue and tackled it in its second-day story, as did the local paper, the McAllen Monitor. The Express-News even quoted Rick Owens, a missionary with whom I spent a week in Mexico in 2008:

Rick Owens, a missionary who lives in New Mexico, spent 23 years working in Mexico, much of it near Monterrey, like the Davises. Owens said he stopped accompanying volunteers into Mexico after a trip to Monterrey last spring when masked gunmen raided a hotel near where the group was staying.

Owens said he still travels to Mexico and helps build churches, but said most of the volunteers he would take aren't aware enough of their surroundings to be safe in the country. Missionaries -- and visitors from the U.S. in general -- used to be off limits, Owens said. But the chaos caused by unchecked cartel violence has changed that.

One line in the San Antonio story did give me pause:

The couple labored for 30 years planning churches in northeastern Mexico, and while touring the U.S. churches that supported them last year they talked about the dangers of working in a country torn by cartel violence.

Planting churches would be the more common description of those starting churches. I wonder if the reporter was not familiar with the term planting and thought his sources said planning. In either case, it's an excellent report that does a nice job of scaring away potential religion ghosts.

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