Cross Purposes

Federally Funded Missionaries Threaten a Southeast Asian Culture

McDaniel says the missionaries don't do anything to help the people economically. Worse, he says, the missionaries, despite having vast financial resources, have a vested interest in keeping people poor, since desperation makes for easier converts. "You don't succeed as a missionary if you teach someone to be independent," he said. "They want to control them like a resource, like trees in a forest."

McDaniel says one of the main missionary activities, the opening of orphanages, is downright sneaky. "They work to take the children," he says. "Separate them from their parents and it's easier to convert them."

For their part, missionaries in the region describe their goals as a mix of the charitable and the heavenly.

About 20 miles outside Chiang Rai, Gary Spengler is enjoying a harvest celebration in a small Akha village of some 30 houses. The village sits in a shallow valley, where thick vegetation on the steep surrounding hills is broken only by terraced farm plots. The houses are grass and bamboo huts resting on stilts, with one or two rooms on the inside and sometimes a porch out front. Chickens cluck about. Large banana leaves, which everyone seems to be using for plates, litter the ground, perhaps soon to be eaten by the chickens.

Perched atop a small rise is a concrete church where dozens of people are attending a service conducted by an Akha pastor. Spengler is there gathering photos and video to show people back in the States. A born-again American missionary, Spengler is up-front and open when it comes to talking about his mission. "If you see a bunch of people who don't know Christianity, you reach out to them," he says, citing Bible study sessions and organizing sporting events as ways to connect with the locals. "It's not trickery. You can't force people to believe in Christ. We just wake up every day and try to help people out."

Spengler admits missionaries have made mistakes in the past, preaching to people without understanding their real needs. "They used to come with a Bible pack and leave. Now they come with a Bible pack and a hammer," he says. "But obviously we would never come if it was just to feed people. That's what the Peace Corps does."

Four years ago Spengler, his wife, Cindy, and their four children moved to Thailand from Virginia, where Gary worked in construction. The couple, both on the early side of middle age, are not the expected picture of Christian missionaries. Cindy, a former sorority girl at Auburn University, suggested going out for a beer. Gary, with his fit physique and stylish sunglasses, spoke fondly of surfing on the Florida coast. After spending three years as missionaries near Bangkok, they came to Chiang Rai last year and founded the Akha Harvest Mission. Now, Gary says, they're planning a 32-bed orphanage here, with the goal of caring for parentless Akha children and "having these kids raised knowing who Jesus Christ is."

Cindy says missionaries are of course changing the Akha way of life, but she doesn't necessarily think this is a bad thing. "Those that want to preserve culture look at things as so myopic," she says. "Culture is not static. Life is fluid, culture is fluid." She cites an Akha custom that calls for killing one baby in the event twins are born, as twins are thought to bring bad spirits into the village. "Things are not all good in an animist society," she says. "They live in fear. They don't know where they are coming from or where they are going."

And that is the primary motivation for missionaries, redirecting "lost" souls toward the pearly gates. "That is a biblical mandate," says Cindy. "Are we going to go to heaven by ourselves or are we going to see if we can bring others with us as well?"

For people who consider nonbelievers doomed to hell, separating piety from politics may be impossible. The International Justice Mission's own literature states a need for "an explicitly Christian ministry" to deal with human rights abuses. The Department of Labor, however, says IJM's religious affiliation had nothing to do with getting funded. "We would not favor a Christian group over any other," says the spokesman, noting IJM competed with several other secular agencies. "It's based on abilities, not religious content."

As for the Akha people, opinions about missionaries are, not surprisingly, mixed. Mayer, the bazaar merchant, questions the true objectives of religious conversion. She's a university student and Buddhist convert, both rare for a hilltribe member. "The missionaries import the American lifestyle into Thailand," she says. "They entice people to believe in God. I am suspect. Why do they do this? To increase American power, I believe."

Just a few tables down, 20-year-old Fon Visaluk says she respects missionaries' efforts to turn Akha people away from drinking and smoking and their push for education. She praises the missionary who has been in her village for the last decade. "In my village boys and girls don't go to school," she says. "He teaches them. All day long he's working. He's a good man."

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