“What are you doing listening to that?” I was 15 in the fall of 1984, in my second year at a missionary kid (MK) dormitory and blissfully naïve of my offense. My mistake was playing a cassette of American folk and children’s songs sung by “Uncle Mac.”
My interrogator was one of my MK “cousins”, though in truth we were more like siblings since we’d all known each other in a tightly compressed community of missionary “aunts”, “uncles” and cousins since we were babies. Mac’s smooth North Carolina accented voice sang Appalachian mountain music accompanied by his skillful autoharp playing in the background as my interrogation continued.
“That’s just Uncle Mac – you know, all the songs he played for us at mission meeting and camp when were little…,” had been my lame and trailing-off response. I was already sensing that I had somehow violated at least the high school “cool code” but the glare I received from one of my closest friends told me I’d done something much, much worse. His eyes were filled with fury as he spat out, “Don’t you know?”
I didn’t know. But I turned off the tape as one by one, my older MK “brothers” who’d overheard the discussion wandered in. Over the next hour or so I came to learn the open secret known to our MK family. Mac did bad things to children. My MK family. This girl touched under her skirt, a boy fondled, still others had worse things done – it had been happening for at least two decades. Mac would often do this out in the open, using his autoharp and skillful storytelling to gather victims like the pied piper, then molesting them – sometimes even with a crowd around.
It seemed like all the older MKs knew – many pulling their younger siblings or MK “cousins” away from sitting in Mac’s inner circle of chosen favorite kids or on his lap. Intervening when Mac wanted to “wrestle” with you in the water on “pool day.” I’d grown up on the opposite side of an island away from Mac and had limited interactions with him so I was shocked by what I’d been told. Surely this wasn’t true! Not “my” Uncle Mac who’d always been so kind and gentle to me!
But the stories they told me that day and the fearful rage in their eyes weren’t made up. The stories were terrible and included victims who’ve since publicly come forward and others who still haven’t. And slowly, the blinders came off my eyes as I began to watch out for my younger MK cousins and observe the tragic life arcs of many of the older ones. This “troubled” older MK with “immorality” patterns or that one with substance abuse “problems”. Or, even worse, the occasional MKs who had “walked away from the Lord”… Too many of our MKs from different generations whose lives had seemed to suddenly go off the rails in some way when they left high school or college. The pattern was consistent… most had “Uncle Mac” stories.
In my dorm, I saw the damage – unchecked emotional responses, fear, chronic anxiety, paranoia of being touched, an inability to trust adults, nightmares, normalization of sexualized comments by adults, and worse. I knew nothing about trauma as a category but I saw the after-effects of abuse in the lives of too many people I loved. And it was all much, much, much worse than any one of us knew.
See, we thought the adults didn’t know or didn’t understand. Committed to the MK code – “Don’t harm the mission of Jesus, at all costs!” – we protected one another and stayed silent to the adults and the watching world. We’d silently absorbed a hidden message – a form of shame-filled spiritual abuse – if anyone knew the truth, then some missionary might get sent home. That meant a lost person might not hear about Jesus. We loved the people of Indonesia – most of us thought of ourselves as half-Indonesian. Growing up in a gospel-saturated environment we knew that those who’d never heard were “without excuse” and were on their way to hell if they didn’t repent and believe in the Gospel.
Further, our parents had sacrificed so much to come all this way to tell people how to get saved. We too had personally paid such a high price for our parents to stay – sacrificing comfortable American lives, tv, food, sports, homes and so much more. Most of us had a love/hate relationship with being sent away from home at 14.
We couldn’t say anything and endanger all the work, the lost people, the national churches, the “mission.” All those sacrifices. We’d all been part of the furlough speaking assignments our parents went on to raise support for the sacred Cooperative Program and Saint Lottie. We’d endured pinched cheeks and repeated stupid questions by well-intentioned Southern Baptists who looked at us like we were aliens. We all “knew” that these people might not give to missions if they knew how “bad” some of our missionaries were and what they really did.
Then there was the shame. What if people knew that “Uncle Mac” had been confronted by some of the abused children’s parents and that the Foreign Mission Board (FMB now the International Mission Board – IMB) had not done anything about it? What if other missionary “uncles” we deeply loved and honored got in trouble for not doing the right thing when they found out about Mac? What if WE were wrong about what needed to happen to Mac and they were right? After all shouldn’t we forgive as Jesus had forgiven us? Shouldn’t we “turn the other cheek?” What was “wrong” with my missionary cousins if they couldn’t “get over” what had happened to them?
Southern state honor and shame tendencies got magnified pretty quickly living in an Asian honor and shame culture. Throw in a poor theology of true repentance, spoonfuls of habituated MK independence and more than a dash of survivor guilt – we weren’t saying anything to anyone except each other.
Eleven years later my parents called in a panic. William “Mac” MacElrath had just been fired after bold adult MKs repeatedly went to IMB executives and told of his decades of abuse. My parents were careful, not saying his name at first, telling me gently that one of my beloved “uncles” had done some “bad things” to “some” MKs. My response was, “You guys finally found out about Mac?” They were stunned – they hadn’t known. Nor it turned out had most of the adult missionaries. Most, but not all.
From at least 1973 on, there had been multiple reports to FMB field leaders. One of those leaders was Keith Parks who would go on to become the FMB President. Mac had confessed to “inappropriate” behavior, pled repentance, and promised change. He’d been forbidden from interacting with MKs at camp and mission meetings for a brief while but somehow those guidelines had been forgotten after a time. He’d stayed on the field despite multiple reports for decades. Mac had even been billed as “THE missionary to children” in a missions support magazine and he’d become the renowned author of “Survival Kit for Children” (new believer discipleship materials) amongst dozens of other books.
After “Uncle Mac” was fired for sexual abuse of missionary children, IMB leaders fought the idea of reporting Mac to stateside authorities and certainly didn’t publicize the cause of his termination. They offered no real counseling, compensation, protection, or advocacy to the sexual abuse survivors. No one investigated whether Mac had abused other missionary children let alone Indonesian nationals. IMB attorneys and leaders even told other field personnel that they were forbidden from sending our letters of contrition to the MKs who’d been exposed to Mac’s assaults. No one said a word – the IMB culture of silence remained intact. It was left to adult survivors, their siblings, and spouses to track Mac and to find him teaching in children’s programs at SBC churches years after his termination. See, there was no publicly accessible database of credibly accused /terminated IMB sexual abusers.
In fact, the IMB fought disclosing information about Mac’s termination and the termination of other abusers. It was left to journalists at newspapers like the Houston Chronicle (https://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/investigations/article/Abuse-of-Faith-Missionaries-left-trail-of-abuse-13904418.php) and the San Antonio Express-News (https://www.pressreader.com/usa/san-antonio-express-news-sunday/20190602/281479277903116) to tell the world the stories of Mac and other IMB sexual abusers.
Most Southern Baptists never read those articles. Many Southern Baptist pastors never thought to check the credentials or story of their friends who’d mysteriously left the IMB before they referred them to a new ministry. Most Southern Baptist churches or state conventions never even thought that this “nice” and “gifted” former missionary might have been terminated for horrific sexual abuse. And the IMB wasn’t going to tell them.
Some got hired by state conventions. Others by churches. Others went on to volunteer at churches – working with children and/or vulnerable adults. Nobody told the churches or conventions or associations. Nobody said a word even if they knew. If you don’t believe me, look around the survivor community for the publicly available stories of other IMB sexual abuse victims. Read the articles linked above. Listen to the survivors when they tell you how their predators left the IMB and found safe haven and employment at churches, state conventions, schools, etc. Listen to their stories of cover-ups and minimizations and threats and refusals to help. And then ask, why don’t we have a publicly accessible database of credibly accused/terminated IMB sexual abusers?
In 2003 my wife and I were appointed by the IMB as missionaries. Our weeks at field training outside of Richmond included age-appropriate education for sexual abuse prevention and response attended by all MKs and IMB personnel. Mandatory reporting of sexual abuse was now the expectation. Automatic termination for committing sexual abuse was now policy. And I praised God for all those changes that had occurred in the intervening years.
In 2018, the IMB adopted even more stringent policies (https://www.imb.org/for-churches/abuse-harassment/) and began the practice of reporting all known sexual abuse to law enforcement, CPS and other authorities both in the US and abroad. The IMB now maintains confidential sexual abuse reporting hotlines via e-mail and phone (email@example.com / (855) 420-0003). These, along with other parallel policy and practice changes are good, wise, and necessary albeit decades too late in most cases.
However, to this day, the IMB’s official policy on providing information regarding credibly accused and terminated sexual abusers and offenders is:
“IMB strongly encourages any church, entity, or other employer who is considering working or partnering with a former IMB personnel to contact IMB to obtain a reference on that individual. Reference requests can be submitted to IMB’s HR department at firstname.lastname@example.org. IMB quickly responds to all reference requests by providing a release for that former personnel to sign authorizing IMB to share information from its HR file. In almost all cases, IMB will have positive information to share. However, in the rarer cases where IMB has information to share concerning child abuse or sexual misconduct by that former personnel, or the former personnel refuses to sign the release, then the church, entity, or employer will be in a better position to evaluate a future relationship with that former IMB personnel.”
In other words, if you have a potential employee or volunteer that you know is a former IMB then send us a reference request. If we get a request, we’ll send a release form to the former IMB employee. If they don’t agree to sign the release, we will tell you nothing.
This is simply unacceptable. It is, to paraphrase Kristene DiMarco, “fear masquerading as wisdom.” It is time for the IMB to publicly bring their darkest stories into the light. I know that some fear that publicly listing IMB sexual abusers will detract from all the stories of the good work that IMB missionaries do around the world. One SBC22 Presidential Candidate, a former IMB field leader, has even tweeted out a minimization of the number of SBC sexual assault victims and implied that the Sexual Abuse Task Force report is distracting us from “the mission.”
Some genuinely believe that there is no good reason to bring these “sins” out into the public light. In contravention of scripture, sound practice and wise prevention, they fear the outcomes of what may happen to the IMB if people know the truth about some former IMB personnel. Others may have motivations that are darker or they may genuinely believe that what their friend or colleague did just “wasn’t that bad.”
During the same years that I knew “Uncle Mac”, I grew up with “Uncle Jerry.” From the time I was a small child, he was often in our home and I played with his children. My parents tell me that I ruined a manual typewriter of his by trying to get colored type by smashing crayons in the roller. I was always excited to see his 1970’s Jeep CJ rumbling up the long driveway of our mission home. He was never less than a good, honorable, kind, and godly example to me. When my wife and I were in seminary he insisted on taking us out to dinner though by then he was known to much of the Southern Baptist world as Dr. Rankin, president of the IMB. When my wife and I were appointed by the IMB, I had the privilege of being prayed over by “my” uncle Jerry. I deeply love and respect Dr. Rankin. But he was wrong when he wrote to the sibling of a survivor of “Uncle Mac’s” abuse, “I see no constructive purpose by making a general accounting of (this) matter to all our missionaries and to Southern Baptists in general.” For too long this has been the same mindset of IMB executives, field leaders, and trustees.
Dr. Rankin was wrong then and any IMB leaders who oppose a database of credibly accused/terminated IMB sexual abusers are wrong now. It is far past time for the vindication of past victims and the protection of future potential victims. It is far past time for our entity trustees to know the truth about the termination of their own entity’s employees. It is far past time for survivors to know they are believed and valued.
It is far past time for us to own our past mistakes, repent of our sins, and make restitution where possible. It is far past time for us to admit that we can take real proactive steps to prevent terminated IMB sexual abusers from ever working or volunteering again in churches, ministries, conventions, and associations. It is time for Dr. Paul Chitwood to lead the IMB trustees to set the example for other SBC entities by creating a publicly accessible database of credibly accused/terminated sexual abusers.
It is time for the SBC messengers to request this kind of action from their entity trustees and for us to replace them if they will not act. It is the least we owe and can do for the survivors of “Uncle Mac’s” and other IMB personnel’s abuse. It is a tangible, wise, and godly act to help prevent the future abuse of other children.
Lead Pastor, Redeemer Baptist Church, Paso Robles, CA