A Petri Dish for Abuse

A Petri Dish for Abuse

By Irma Emery, former MK, Quito Alliance Academy

The microbiologist wanting to grow a bacterial culture will partially fill a Petri dish with the nutrients that will make the bacteria grow quickly. Missionary boarding schools, like the Petri dish, have all the components that support the rapid growth, in this case, of child abuse. There are two components in the "Petri dish" are the missionary couple serving as house parents and a group of children sent away from home to attend boarding school. To complete the analogy, the "microbiologies" is the system that designed the Petri dish.

The Missionaries

The missionaries - how did they get there? Who are they? What motivates them? Sometime back in their history there was a time when, perhaps in the highly charged setting of a church revival service, they deeply believed that God had called them, singled them out specifically to "go to the regions beyond" to save Lost Souls for Him: a high calling indeed, a privilege not to be taken lightly. Once declared they came to be seen by those in their church as special, someone who has been chosen and, what's more, chosen by God. "Many are called but few are chosen," they heard it said. And so they did what was required of them to be accepted (chosen) by the mission board that sponsors missionaries sent to far off lands.

They did everything they had to do to fulfill the call of God. They studied, they raised money to go, they packed up what was needed to live in primitive circumstances, they might have gone to a language school to learn a new, strange language. They said goodbye to everything they had known - family, neighborhood, community, church. They made that long trip to a strange, new country where they knew no one, where customs were different and where nothing looked the same.

All this, however, was just the external - there was a strenuous inner struggle that had to be met. Along with being chosen comes a significant obligation. It was simply understood that being a missionary meant a life of sacrifice. You must sacrifice all you know for the sake of the work you have been chosen to do: save Lost Souls who would otherwise go to Hell, they were told. But, how can one make these sacrifices without resentment, without anger, without disappointment, without a feeling of having missed out on so much? There is only one way and that is a strenuous process of learning to rid oneself of desire, to rid oneself of the Self, to love "the Lord thy God" above all else to "surrender all." Such a state is not easily reached. It must be sought through long hours of agonizing prayer. Only then can one do all of these things and achieve the goal of saving Lost Souls. Compounding it all was a tremendous urgency to save those souls - time was running out - they would be lost for all eternity.

However, we are earthly beings and life rushes in, even on a remote outpost in the jungles of Africa, Indonesia or South America. Housing was needed, so the missionary may have found himself tending to the construction. The time saving conveniences of life in the U.S. were not there, so precious time was spent on the day-to-day business of housekeeping. Language study did not deliver the fluency needed to live in this new place so there was the frustration and struggle to communicate much less preach the Gospel to the Lost Souls. Even the modern missionary living in a metropolitan city in a foreign country was faced with the day-to-day distractions from the reason he or she was there. Whatever the circumstances, there was always the underlying longing, the drive to be the kind of Christian who would rise to the occasion and be able to answer the call effectively. Every day was a struggle to "surrender all."

Within the organization (mission board) who anointed the missionary and declared him or her as one of the "chosen," was a hierarchy that governed the activities of the mission. These people (mostly exclusively men) were viewed by the missionary on the front lines of the mission field as it is called, as their "elders in the Lord." The hierarchy had the overall level of those who ruled from headquarters in the U.S. and those who had oversight at the local level over the country where the missionary lived. These were the people who had achieved the highest spiritual growth and stature and they were to be obeyed. They were the final arbiters in all matters of the missionary's destiny and the judges of their spiritual standing within the church.

Missionaries, for the most part, were married couple who somewhere along the line brought children into the world. For a parent who pledged to love and serve God above all else, the birth of children must have present a special challenge. The little, round fist of your baby holding on to your finger; the soft, sweet-smelling head nestled into your neck; the little arms wrapped around your leg engender a love and tenderness like no other. That was a love that had a physical sensation - it filled the heart, the mind and the body. It was a love more easily accessed than love for, or from, an unseen God no matter how much one tried to experience it. If God's command is to "surrender all," then even love for one's child cannot eclipse one's love and devotion to God. Love for one's child may even be a part of the Self that must be sacrificed on the altar to God much as Abraham sacrificed his son, Isaac. Oh, a missionary's life was a hard one indeed!

There was an interesting and significant way of determining which particular missionary couple would be assigned to the boarding school which was set up as the mandatory place where all missionary children were sent for their education. If the missionary couple were seen to be failing at the outpost to which they were assigned (measured, presumably, by the number of Lost Souls converted and attending church), or they had failed to adequately learned the language, or their behavior was not exactly what was deemed ideal for a missionary, they were assigned as house parent to the boarding school - in short the assignment was a demotion. Not much probably needs to be said about the impact that had on the missionary couple in question. All that struggle, all that sacrifice, all that work and they were deemed to have failed. Anger - of course there was tremendous anger. Loss of control - of course there was a sense that they were not able to control their situation, their circumstances, even themselves.

The Children

The second component in the Petri dish was the child, now known as missionary kids, or MKs. The first seven years of life were almost idyllic - Mom and Dad close by, room to run and play, friends on hand. At age seven, however, everything changed. At age seven the MK was sent away to a boarding school, often several days' travel away, for nine months out of the year. Letters from home arrived but all letters back to Mom and Dad were read before they were dispatched. The seven year old had to be fully self-sufficient, able to dress him/herself, take care of personal hygiene, maintain his or her room and clothes, do homework independently while responding to bells throughout the day heralding the next required activity - meal times, classes, homework time, prayer time, bed time, lights out time. (One former MKs counts 17 bells each and every day.) Many schools limited contact between siblings. The goal was to make these little ones independent and to do so as quickly and efficiently as possible. There was not enough time to pay individual attention even to the youngest in the dormitory.

The moment of separation from parents was painful and wrenching for both parent and child. The expectation, however, was that neither parent nor child would cry. To treat the moment with sadness was taken for resistance to God's will. For the child the separation created a sense of total abandonment. For a seven year old, previously held close in a nurturing home environment, the abandonment could feel so extreme as to engender a fear for life itself - how was the child going to survive? But, survive they did, for the life force in the human being is very strong. Some children acted out by demonstrating neediness; some cried all the time; some developed a covert way to get what they needed; others simulated being strong by bullying others; some grew into the perfect boy or girl who was above reproach while suppressing all need, creativity and self-expression and others rebelled and paid dearly for it.

It is widely recognized that abuse, whether it be abuse of women or abuse of children, stems from anger/rage and the loss of control. And where does the person driven to abuse turn to vent his or her rage? Of course, to the weakest one within the household or the community - to women, the elderly and to children. The children in missionary boarding schools were especially susceptible. They were lonely, alone, unprotected, abandoned (literally not just figuratively) frightened, sad, and needy. All where probably angry at some level, recognized or not, but some acted out their anger openly. Those children were the swift and easy target for the anger of the house parents and brutalization soon followed. Children, by virtue of being children, are chaotic, noisy, exuberant and frequently test limits. That again provided sufficient excuse for the enraged house parent to bring down excessive and abusive punishment for the smallest infraction or even for no infraction at all.

But, sexual abuse - what could possibly have lead to this horrible crime? Think back for a moment to the demand to rid oneself of Self, to surrender all, in short to deny everything for the cause, even the closeness of family. The world of the missionary was one of total suppression, the demand that everything be kept tightly under control. Now look closely at that denoted servant of God who has been declared lacking, perhaps even a failure fit only to take care of children. It must have lead to a sense of total lack of control, to a feeling of sheer impotence. All around him or her were these weak children. Maybe it really did not count, maybe it was not quite the same, if that suppressed frustration found some release with a child who would not dare talk about the forbidden, dirty subject of sex. These were probably people who would never have thought of themselves as pedophiles and may not to this day. They were simply people placed in a Petri dish ideally designed to feed abuse of all kinds, physical, emotional, sexual and spiritual.

This in no way renders them not guilty. They were adults and their victims were children. They should have been able to control themselves under circumstance that felt out of control. They could have reached out to those church elders to say that something did not feel right even if they faced condemnation for their honesty. They did not and so they are culpable - guilty as charged.

The Mission Boards

There is, however, another level of guilty. It is the "microbiologist" himself - the mission board hierarchy who concocted the mixture that fed abuse who bears the largest share of the guilt. It is difficult to excuse the policies and practices as stemming from a lack of understanding. Even back in the '50s and the '60s, evangelicals claimed a corner on family values which is presumed to mean the integrity and cohesiveness of the family unit. The mission board demanded and, in those times, allowed no exception to the rule that missionaries place their children in the designated boarding school thereby severing for three-quarters of the year the family cohesiveness. They further devalued the children by establishing a practice which placed the least successful employee (missionary) in charge of the children. Perhaps there was not a great deal of understanding of early childhood development or the psychological and social needs of children, but there was not even a question raised as to whether the missionary couple had so much as an affinity toward children. Furthermore, there was no examination regarding the possible reasons for the missionary couple's failure to succeed at the post to which they had been assigned. Appointment as house parents to the boarding school was a dumping ground that allowed those in charge to not have to deal with a messy problem (and who likes messy problems).

Boarding schools in foreign missionary countries were the ideal Petri dish for abuse: angry, frustrated house parents who felt they had failed at the call of God and lost control of the situation they found themselves in dumped into the mix with abandoned, frightened, angry, defenseless children. How easy it was to beat them, sneak into their beds at night, degrade them, blame them, even convince them that God was displeased with them. And who created the toxic mix - the elders of the church themselves.


There is, however, a real problem with this analogy. Unlike the microbiologist working with a lethal virus in the relative safety of a laboratory, the missionary boarding school's "Petri dish" exposed children all over the world to a disease that would leave its mark for the rest of their lives. Abuse in childhood leaves many scars and often results in disorders of the mind and heart that are life altering. The situation did not exist as an isolated incident (as some would claim) as depicted in the documentary, All God's Children, which took place at the Christian & Missionary Alliance school in West Africa. According to MK Safety Net, an advocacy group formed by former MKs who experienced abuse in missionary boarding schools, they have received reports of abuse from no less than 22 different evangelical missionary boarding schools throughout the world.

The problem is more far reaching than exposure alone - it spawned a disease. When it was believed that anthrax had escaped the laboratory, all the forces of law enforcement were set loose to find the culprit. When evangelical missionary organizations were alerted to the expose of children under their jurisdiction to the impact of abuse suffered at the hands of their employees, the response was to "circle the wagons," protect the organization and silence the victims. To date only one, the Presbyterian Church USA, has conducted a thorough investigation and put into place measure to protect and redress situations where abuse has occurred. When forced by media exposure, the Christian & Missionary Alliance, conducted an inquiry into the misdeeds in West Africa but has turned a deaf ear to reports by MKs from its other schools.

The Aftermath

So what of the victims of the putrid boarding school "Petri dish?" Where are they? What about their lives? For the most part their stories go untold. The consequences manifested in broken lives, failed relationships, dysfunctional families, bad life choices, undeserved guilt, physical symptoms, and secret agony have not been measured. A fortunate few have exposed their wounds in the safety of a therapist's office and may have found healing, but that has not been an option for most.

The damaged done by this Petri Dish for Abuse unleashed on children of missionaries as well as on their parents cries out for healing and redress. Where, we wonder, are those so called "Elders of the Church," those who by virtue of their high level positions in the church, have set themselves up as the arbiters of God's will on earth? Why do they turn their faces away from us? Why do they remain silent?

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