Travel risks prompt Baptists to improve training

by Shawn Hendricks, posted Thursday, November 06, 2014 (3 years ago)

NASHVILLE (BP) -- Reggie Quimby thought he and his fellow mission team members were safe.

In the company of local guides and a caravan of vehicles, they traveled at night on a rural road in Guatemala. While there was some risk involved with this particular road after sunset, Quimby believed the odds of something bad happening were too small.

A group of bandits with AK-47s, however, blocked their path with rocks, forced them to pull over and robbed them. No one was harmed that night several years ago. But Quimby, global missions director for the Alabama Baptist Convention, was reminded that a crime can happen when it's least expected.

"... People get comfortable and let their guard down...," he said. "We had been there. We had traveled on these roads.... [We thought] if we traveled together ... that risk would go away. Well, obviously it did not."

As the ISIS terrorist group and Ebola scare continue to make headlines, the Alabama convention and other Baptist organizations are continuing to assess the growing risks involved with overseas travel.

Many of them have turned to an organization based in Pinehurst, Idaho, called Fort Sherman Academy. Its president, David Dose, is a former Department of Defense consultant and instructor who has helped train government, corporate and faith-based groups how to handle travel risks for the past 17 years. The group is one of the largest -- if not the largest -- providers in the United States of travel security courses, crime survival training and crisis management.

Dose and his team have interviewed numerous survivors of overseas crime looking for ways these situations could have been avoided. Among those survivors is Gracia Burnham. She and her husband Martin, who were missionaries to the Philippines, were taken hostage by Muslim extremists in 2001 and held in captivity for more than a year before Gracia was rescued. Martin lost his life when he got caught in the crossfire of a gun battle that broke out during the rescue.

"During my time in this work, the Burnham case particularly touched me, and I've been privileged to work with Gracia some since," Dose said. "... I saw opportunities where probably using existing knowledge we could have helped some people avoid, survive or better survive and encourage folks...."

Fort Sherman currently works with about 200 clients. Included in that list is the Southern Baptist International Mission Board, nine Baptist state conventions and numerous churches. The group works with organizations from other denominations as well.

Fort Sherman has a team of about 50 full-time, part-time and contract workers and its Idaho headquarters also includes a 40-acre guest facility.

Helping better equip faith-based groups for overseas ministry is what motivated Dose and his wife Elizabeth to start Fort Sherman.

"My wife and I made the decision that probably a lot of missionaries and their families have made -- to throw everything in the basket. We started our own company with a major focus on ... faith-based [groups].... I find enjoyment in that audience. I find purpose in their purpose ... and so we did like everybody else [with] our finances and future plans and cashed those things in and started this little organization."

And the "little" organization has grown. Since it began more than 10 years ago, Fort Sherman has trained about 42,000 long- and short-term mission workers as well as corporate and humanitarian workers.

Fort Sherman specializes in providing different levels of training -- including Web-based training -- on how to handle various types of crisis situations overseas. It also provides a 24-hour service for clients to call if they need assistance.

Some of those situations may include:

-- What to do if someone on a mission team gets sick overseas, needs immediate medical care and is unable to travel back to the States.

-- Calling for help if you or a team member is robbed and your wallet and passport have been taken.

-- What to do if an unexpected natural disaster hits the area you're traveling in and derails travel back to the United States for several days.

-- How to handle a team member being detained by an overseas government for several days.

Dose said an "upsurge" of interest is developing among faith-based groups as evangelical groups and organizations send more teams into high-risk areas.

"This is just one more tool," Dose said, "... to focus on the basics of avoiding crime, surviving crime, being organized in advance for avoiding those things and even having a crisis plan in place if something goes wrong -- whether it's a volcano interrupts travel ... or somebody stops me at a border."

Dose says travelers need to realize that finding a "safe place" to travel is becoming increasingly difficult.

"... I'll get the guy who says, 'Oh we don't have a problem. We go to the same place every year,'" said Dose, noting he read a U.S. State Department report showing that crime has increased by nearly 15 percent worldwide. "Yeah, but if crime is going up every year and you're doing the same thing you always did, eventually someone might fall victim. We're trying to prep them for that."

Days of 'winging it' are gone

And sometimes unexpected challenges can arise before a mission team even arrives at their destination.

As airport authorities continue to crack down on a variety of criminal activity -- drug and sex trafficking, terrorism -- more mission teams are being detained in airports everywhere, Dose said.

Teams often don't plan ahead for handling unexpected questions in an airport, he said. Travelers need to be able to better articulate why they are traveling to a country and what they plan to do while they are there.

"They throw out the good ol', 'I'm just an American tourist' and that doesn't work anymore," he said, noting that some travelers have used "American tourist" when traveling to a war-torn country to help with relief work. "... Winging it doesn't help because security has changed."

Dose said those types of mistakes can get expensive if a team member is detained. In some situations, organizations can spend anywhere from $10,000 to more than $50,000 in fees and legal expenses triggered by issues with overseas governments.

"I've seen up to $100,000 in a month," Dose said. "... That's a lot of money that would have gone to next year's mission trip."

Quimby, Alabama Baptists' global mission director, said stewardship was a major part of the decision for the state's convention to develop an ongoing partnership with Fort Sherman. He described the training they've received in developing crisis management strategies as a way of "protecting ministry, protecting our future ministry and helping our churches to protect their ministry."

"... We're seeing that if we ... do the training and we invest up front, then we may not have to pay those big expenses ... because we have been trying to do things correctly," he said.

Ken Rhodes, director of missions mobilization for the Mississippi Baptist Convention, said they require mission teams and personnel who work with them to go through at least a basic level of training from Fort Sherman -- which can involve an eight-hour course.

"... In Mississippi we are really pressing the boundaries to send people to some of the harder ... places to get to in the world," Rhodes said. "We have trained right around 2,000 people at this point."

In addition to the general risks involved with overseas travel, Rhodes said there also are liability issues to consider. Organizations should be prepared to resolve conflicts that could surface between them and the family members of those involved in an unexpected crisis, he said.

"We send husbands of unbelieving wives ... we send students whose parents are unbelievers and they do not understand what is happening," Rhodes said. "So I think that is a huge liability when you're sending family members who are from families who are not supportive and may not even be believers...."

More and more Baptist colleges and universities also are working with Fort Sherman to train students planning to study abroad or participate in mission trips.

Cynthia Jayne, associate provost for intercultural and international studies at Union University, noted, "... We decided that it really didn't matter where students were going. [Students] had the potential to get themselves into really serious difficulties if they didn't understand some of the basic things."

With a total enrollment of more than 4,000 students on its main campus, satellite campuses and students utilizing their online programs, the university sends about 250-300 students overseas annually for academic programs and about 200-300 overseas for mission projects.

Jayne said the university continues to push its leadership to be more prepared when working with students overseas.

"The bottom line is, If you're in charge of this group you'd better have more information than they have to be able to make decisions," she said.

"... Our faculty [is] now asking questions about assessing the risk of what they are doing in ways that help them think through how they're going to put the trip together."

The training also has helped them prepare to better handle potential crisis situations on campus. Last February, Baptist Press reported that a Union University student had been charged with first-degree murder in the shooting death of another student on its campus in Jackson, Tenn.

"It raised a lot of other questions for us about ... preparing our students to deal with many kinds of life situations," Jayne said.

The campus is now working with Fort Sherman to provide online training to freshmen this year, Jayne said.

"Ultimately our goal is to have every student have that basic online ... training," Jayne said. "... You can fence in. You can lock the gates. You can do all of those things but if the students themselves don't understand how to protect themselves, it isn't gonna help."

For more information about Fort Sherman and the training they provide, contact them at 888-211-8674 or info@fortsherman.org.

Shawn Hendricks is managing editor of Baptist Press.
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