Monday, February 6, 2017

Runaway Radical: The Stories You Can't Tell In Church

"Runaway Radical" book cover. Image source.
[content note: spiritual abuse]

The book Runaway Radical: A Young Man's Reckless Journey to Save the World, by Amy Hollingsworth and Jonathan Hollingsworth, tells the story of how Jonathan left college at the age of 20 and moved to Cameroon to work at a missions agency. He planned to be there for one year, but things went very badly and he ended up coming back to the US after only 4 months, with his mental health and his faith in ruins. This is a true story. (Amy is Jonathan’s mother; they wrote the book together.)

I 100% recommend this book to anyone who has been part of radical Christian missions culture. Jonathan’s story is so important because it’s the kind of story you never hear in church. It’s the kind of story we’re not really allowed to tell.

First I’ll summarize the story. There is a movement, especially strong with college-age evangelicals, which teaches we need to follow Jesus by being radical, by making huge sacrifices, taking massive risks and then watching as God turns them into miracles. In this ideology, if you want to be the best Christian you can be, you move to Africa. You give everything up and go live with the poorest of the poor. You show them God’s love. You learn to rely on God when you are in need.

I know all about this ideology. I’ve heard it preached explicitly- especially at Urbana conferences. We’ll talk about it more in another post next week. Anyway, that’s what Jonathan believed, so he raised money and moved to Cameroon, in West Africa, to work at a missions agency. They told him he would be teaching guitar lessons to children and helping to build a church and bakery.

But it turns out the missions organization was SHADY AS HELL. Here’s a bit from Amy’s journal, before Jonathan left for Africa:
We found out yesterday that the workers who are building the church in Cameroon are waiting for Jonathan to arrive (and even give him a day to recover!) before laying the foundation stone. (page 80)
This was completely false. Just after Jonathan arrived, the rainy season started. It rained for 3 months. Just like it does every year. So no, they didn’t start construction, and they KNEW they weren’t going to be starting construction then. And school let out for the summer, so he couldn’t teach guitar lessons. They had promised he would be working on these different things, but that was a lie.

And it got worse. Jonathan soon found out that the church there was really into "prosperity gospel" ideology. Apparently, in African Christian culture, it’s normal for pastors to be rich and tell their congregations to keep giving more and more money and God will make them rich too. Here’s an excerpt from page 84:
During another church service Jonathan attended, the pastor turned the word “testimony” into “taste of money.” He insisted that part of each believer’s testimony- his or her personal story of faith in God- should include a taste of money.
Yeah. Wow. That’s … that’s not good.

Furthermore, the African church had a lot of rules, like Christians aren’t allowed to drink or smoke. But Jonathan’s reason for coming to Cameroon was to share God’s love, so he would go out and meet people and if they were drinking or smoking, he would join in. Yeah, he got in trouble for that; they said it “threatened the reputation of the mission agency” (page 47). And he found out that they didn’t want him interacting with non-Christians or Christians who were “the wrong kind.” They basically just wanted him to preach in front of big crowds. Preach things that violated his conscience.

They limited his freedom more and more, but it took a long time for Jonathan or his parents to understand how bad the situation really was. The radical Christian teachings that Jonathan believed said we are supposed to suffer for God, that it was a test, that he had to stay there and put up with it because that’s what it meant to be obedient to God. But finally, he and his parents realized the truth, and they knew he really really needed to come home.

The missions agency wasn’t letting go without a fight though. They said he couldn’t leave. They refused to give him his plane ticket. Finally he was able to get back to the US, but the missions agency never refunded any of the money from Jonathan’s donors.

So he comes back home and has to figure out how to put his life and his faith back together. But it gets worse: Jonathan’s church in the US made him agree to not tell anyone what had happened. He was told to say he had “philosophical differences” (page 135) and that’s why he left Africa. The US church wanted to cover it up. Oh and also, they told him it would be very wrong for him to stop attending their church while he tried to figure out his faith.

So it’s a story about spiritual abuse. He experienced spiritual abuse in Cameroon and in the US. One of the African leaders, Peter, knew how much Jonathan feared his own selfishness, how he believed he was supposed to sacrifice and suffer more and more and that’s what God wanted. Peter used that against him.

And then when Jonathan came back to his church in the US, here’s what happened:
The senior pastor opened their secret meeting by pulling out his Bible and reading a passage:
Lord, who may dwell in your sacred tent?
The one… who keeps an oath even when it hurts,
and does not change their mind.
(Psalm 15:1a,4b)
Peter had shamed Jonathan by using his own words against him. More effective still was to use God’s word against him. (page 133)
This is evil. This is evil. This is spiritual abuse.

And at first, Jonathan and his parents agreed to keep quiet. But they realized that the shame was destroying him, so they decided to write the book to tell his story.

This is the kind of story that never gets told in church. You only hear the miracles and success stories. You only hear about how great missionaries are. In general, the white American church preaches an extremely romanticized view of missionaries, and Africa in particular. Page 83 says this:
Jonathan believed what he read in missionary books and saw in documentaries, that the hearts of African people were simple, noble, and pure. Africa, once called the Dark Continent, was now the last bastion of light, maybe the last sacred place on earth. Stories abound and are quickly disseminated about African children sharing freely; in one popular story they refuse to compete for a single basket of fruit, but hold hands and run toward the coveted prize set before them by an anthropologist. Beautiful and barely dressed, they are the antidote to Western greed. Tired of American materialism, Jonathan hoped not only to live among the poor but to learn from them. To see firsthand those who didn't use monetary metaphors like "value" or "worth." To live with people who cherish others more than possessions (which must be easier to do when you don't have many). To experience those with the innate ability to look into someone else's eyes and understand how important they are.
Yep. All of this sounds so familiar to me. That's exactly how people talked about missions trips in church. But when Jonathan got to Africa, he found that people there had the same sorts of problems with greed and legalism that he had seen in the US. How bout that.

And all I ever heard about missionaries is how they're so amazing, they're basically the most Christian of all Christians. They gave up everything to follow God and go to some awful backwards place where people don't even know how to do stuff. (I got a lot of this sort of reaction from church people when I decided to move to China.) They're preaching the gospel to the groups that haven't heard. They're risking their lives in places where it's illegal to be a Christian. They need to rely on God for everything. They take so many risks and they pray so hard and God does miracles for them.

If that's your view of missionaries, then the fact that leaders at the mission organization totally screwed Jonathan over is just unbelievable. Seriously. I never could have imagined a missionary doing something that bad.

I think maybe the biggest reason behind this over-the-top awe for missionaries is that they depend on other Christians to give them money, so they're not really able to honestly tell those Christians about their problems. If you're trying to decide which missionary (or charity) to give your money to, are you going to pick one that's like "look at all these wonderfully successful things, we are totally changing lives, the people here are so desperately in need and you HAVE TO send money to continue this amazing work God is doing" or one that's like "this is hard, and sometimes I wonder if we're really making a difference or not"? So missionaries only ever talk publicly about the good things. And personally, I don't see how it could be any other way, when you have a system where missionaries need to convince donors to support them financially. They have to say what the donors want to hear, or else they won't get money and can't continue being missionaries.

So you see why a mission agency would want to cover it up when they commit abuse. And if you buy into the whole "missionaries are the best Christians ever and they're doing God's work so many times better than the regular church people", then it almost seems reasonable to cover it up. The organization is in Africa so they're clearly doing amazing things, right? That's so important, wouldn't want any bad news to get out and hurt their ministry.

Jonathan did everything that the church said we should do. Giving everything up, stepping out in faith, moving to a foreign country, in a situation where he was in way over his head and needed to trust God- and it ended disastrously. That's not a story you're allowed to tell in church. But it's a true story and it needs to be told.


Posts about Runaway Radical:

The Stories You Can't Tell In Church
Radical Christian Missions
What Feminism Taught Me About Saving the World

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