The dangers of mission work

Over the years, I have made a number of trips south of the U.S. border with short-term mission groups, both with my church and as a reporter for The Associated Press and The Christian Chronicle.

Two years ago, while visiting San Diego, I spent an afternoon in Tijuana, Mexico, interviewing church leaders about drug-gang violence curtailing mission trips by many U.S. groups. (For some reason, my wife was not particularly pleased that I brought my middle child, then 11, with me on that assignment.)

Given my personal experiences in Mexico, news coverage of an American missionary’s slaying in northern Mexico this week captured my attention. The tragic death of Nancy Davis has generated quite a bit of media attention, particularly here in the Southwest. The first-day reports that I read Thursday were pretty straightforward (see stories from CNN, Reuters, the San Antonio Express-News and the McAllen Monitor).

The top of CNN’s initial report:

(CNN) — An American missionary was fatally shot in Mexico on Wednesday, police said.

The preliminary investigation indicated that Nancy Davis, 59, and her husband were traveling on a Mexican highway near the city of San Fernando, Mexico, when they were confronted by gunmen in a black pickup, the Pharr Police Department in Texas said in a statement. San Fernando is south of the border city of Reynosa in Tamaulipas state.

“The gunmen were attempting to stop them and the victims accelerated in efforts of getting away from them,” the police statement said. “At a certain point the gunmen discharged a weapon at the victim’s vehicle and a bullet struck the victim Nancy Shuman Davis on the head.”

Davis’ husband, identified as Sam Davis by family friends, drove their truck “at high rate of speed” to the Pharr International Bridge, which crosses the Rio Grande. Nancy Davis was taken to a hospital in nearby McAllen, where she was pronounced dead about 90 minutes later.

I did not expect the breaking-news coverage to reflect a key issue for many churches in this part of the country: the safety of sending short-term mission groups south of the border over spring break — which is about six weeks away. But I wondered if follow-up stories might explore that angle.

In Googling for such reports, I noticed that The Dallas Morning News’ Texas Faith blog asked its panelists on Tuesday — a day before the missionary’s slaying — how religious groups might make a difference along the border if it’s too dangerous to send volunteers there. Godbeat pro Sam Hodges noted:

Suncreek United Methodist Church of Allen was one of the few local congregations still sending mission teams to the violence-torn border area of Mexico. But even Suncreek recently called off a trip to Ciudad Juarez, due to killings in the area where Suncreek volunteers build cinder block homes for poor families.

My own church has a 2o-plus-year relationship with small congregations in remote mountain villages in the state of Taumaulipas. Before the drug war escalated, we’d send a long line of white rental vans through the border crossing in McAllen and drive to our church’s tent city in the mountains to conduct vacation Bible schools, build concrete floors and feed entire villages. At its height, the trip drew 150-plus students and families who’d make the pilgrimage each spring break. Two years ago, the border violence prompted my church to cancel this trip. Last year, a smaller group returned. This year, the trip is still planned — although headlines and reports from border-area Christians prompt constant reassessment of the threats and opportunities.

One question for my church — and for others — is whether Christian groups are a target. In the case of the slain missionary, it appears that the gunmen may have targeted the couple because of their pickup truck. The Associated Press reported:

Pharr police said the couple’s 2008 Chevrolet pickup is the kind of heavy-duty, high-profile truck prized by cartels, and that it’s likely the reason the Davises were targeted. Damage to the truck’s quarter-paneling suggests the gunmen tried to ram them, Pharr police Chief Ruben Villescas said.

AP did not tackle the mission-trip angle but did delve into the faith-related question of why Davis and her husband risked their lives despite knowing the dangers:

Joseph Davis said his mother loved music, and could compose songs and lyrics in minutes. But he said she loved the work she did most of all.

“Time after time, what made her the happiest was seeing somebody hit their knees and come up forgiven for whatever they’ve done — murder, rape, the smallest sin,” Joseph Davis said. “She’d come home so happy. She’d say, ‘Well, we stole another one from the devil today.’”

I was pleased to see that the San Antonio Express-News recognized the significance of the mission-trip issue and tackled it in its second-day story, as did the local paper, the McAllen Monitor. The Express-News even quoted Rick Owens, a missionary with whom I spent a week in Mexico in 2008:

Rick Owens, a missionary who lives in New Mexico, spent 23 years working in Mexico, much of it near Monterrey, like the Davises. Owens said he stopped accompanying volunteers into Mexico after a trip to Monterrey last spring when masked gunmen raided a hotel near where the group was staying.

Owens said he still travels to Mexico and helps build churches, but said most of the volunteers he would take aren’t aware enough of their surroundings to be safe in the country. Missionaries — and visitors from the U.S. in general — used to be off limits, Owens said. But the chaos caused by unchecked cartel violence has changed that.

One line in the San Antonio story did give me pause:

The couple labored for 30 years planning churches in northeastern Mexico, and while touring the U.S. churches that supported them last year they talked about the dangers of working in a country torn by cartel violence.

Planting churches would be the more common description of those starting churches. I wonder if the reporter was not familiar with the term planting and thought his sources said planning. In either case, it’s an excellent report that does a nice job of scaring away potential religion ghosts.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Jerry

    It’s good to keep in mind, and be reminded in stories about this situation, that it’s people in the US that create tragedies like this by buying drugs and that our current system operates to funnel money to these thugs and murderers.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    JERRY has a very good point. There is plenty of coverage of the violence swamping Mexico. How about more coverage of the American end of the pipeline? Although I am afraid some in the media would use that to promote things like pot legalization. Yet most any public high school teachers — as I was for almost 40 years–will tell you how easy it is to point out the “potheads” in their schools using the so-called harmless drug.
    As one black inner city activist once said–”Legalizing pot would be like giving every city kid a pistol and tell him to put it to his head and pull the trigger.”

  • Bobby

    Thanks for your comments, Jerry and Deacon John.

    Given that the drug war in Mexico is largely about money and territory, as I understand it, one of the questions for American mission groups is: If our group is clearly labeled as a church coming to help the Mexican people, will that keep the church group from being targeted by the warring factions? (Which is a different question than whether a church group might be in the wrong place at the wrong time and get caught in the crossfire.)

  • Julia

    “Time after time, what made her the happiest was seeing somebody hit their knees and come up forgiven for whatever they’ve done — murder, rape, the smallest sin,” Joseph Davis said. “She’d come home so happy. She’d say, ‘Well, we stole another one from the devil today.’”

    I’m wondering if these mission groups also plant churches in Canada. An unanswered question is: why Mexico? Is the devil more active in Mexico? If I was a reporter that question would immediately come to mind.

  • Bobby


    I think the answer from mission groups would be that physical needs are greater and hearts are more open to religious messages in Mexico. You drive across the border into Mexico and you are immediately in a Third World environment. You drive across the border into Canada and you are in U.S. lite (although I know my Canadian friends do not appreciate it when Americans make such statements). I did a GR post recently related to a newspaper series on Canada marching from religion to secularization.

  • John

    Having led short term teamsin different parts of the world for over 25 years, and now living in Lake Chapala, Mexico, my heart breaks to see what the main stream press coverage of cartel violence in Mexico has done to stifle teams coming into this beautiful country. I concur with others who have pointed out that violent crime and danger exists in even greater measure in the United States. There are no school shootings in Mexico. There are no terrorist related threats like we see in the US. Mexico is generally a peace loving, hospitality driven culture. It is unfortunate that Mexico must suffer from the bad PR–and just as unfortunate that would-be teams from the US would hold back from coming to Mexico from a motivation of fear.

  • Julia

    I did a GR post recently related to a newspaper series on Canada marching from religion to secularization.

    Then wouldn’t the Canadians be more in need of being snatched from the jaws of the devil?

  • Bobby


    Was there a media-related/journalistic point you were trying to make?

  • John

    Those in greatest need of being “snatched from the jaws of the devil” are those who deny that he exists. In that regard, you are probably right, Julia, since I would guess a much higher percentage of Canadians fit that category than Mexicans. But if we see poverty and injustice as as an evil that can addressed by going to, encouraging and loving those who are experiencing it, then it becomes clear why more missionaries go to Mexico than Canada.

    Concerning the secular tendency to deny that a personal devil exists, I would recommend the “Screwtape Letters” by C.S. Lewis.

  • Julia

    Was there a media-related/journalistic point you were trying to make?

    Yes – why ignore such an incredible statement about saving people from the devil? Why no follow-up questions? Why did they think these people were in danger from the devil? What were these Mexicans doing that made the missionaries think they were in such danger from the devil? Were the people they dealt with committing more rapes and murders than other countries? Isn’t Protestant missionaries saving people from the devil as interesting a topic as exorcisms?