By Connie Davis Bushey
News Editor, Baptist and Reflector
More dangerous world requires travelers to be ‘wise as serpents,’ says security expert
MOUNT JULIET — Missions volunteers and missionaries must be as wise as serpents as they travel, advised John Tallman of a personal protection training company which trains missionaries for the Southern Baptist Convention International Mission Board and missions volunteers of Baptist state conventions.
Tallman led “Faith-focused Travel Security” for the Tennessee Baptist Convention Sept. 17. The event was held at the Missions Mobilization Center of the TBC in Mount Juliet.
Security measures, especially in today’s world, are needed to “protect ourselves and protect ministry,” said Tallman, who served as a missionary for 29 years in Papua New Guinea through a non-denominational missions agency. Currently he works for Fort Sherman Academy based in Idaho.
“While we trust the Lord, we also need to be wise in our conduct,” he explained.
Missions volunteers including missionaries are already vulnerable because “we are easy access, but that’s because we want to interact with the people. …
“The world will say don’t go but we realize the call of God to go into all the world and preach the gospel and that’s what we’re to do,” he stated.
Last year 20 percent of short-term missions teams had incidents, he reported. Most of those were medical but some were criminal incidents and some were incidents involving governments.
“More and more governments do not like us (Americans) … and they don’t like what we’re (Christians are) doing.”
Terrorism, hostage-taking, and criminal assault is on the increase among short-term missions volunteers and missionaries, he reported. Government harassment and detention of visitors is occurring as well. About 80 percent of western hostages taken last year were released but 99 percent of those trained in security measures by groups like FSA survived.
Another ramification of incidents is the resulting media coverage which magnifies the results, often harming the Christians, he added.
He referred to the group of Christians who went to Haiti shortly after the earthquake and were accused of illegally taking children out of the country. Solid policies and procedures need to be in place to protect churches and individuals and training is one of those procedures, said Tallman.
One security risk is insecure electronics carried by travelers, said Tallman.
For instance, many devices allow tracking and recording of owners and others around them, he explained. If taken overseas, an older cell phone is best. Smart phones with SIM cards are okay because the card which carries a lot of personal information can be removed and a SIM card can be bought in a country and used just for that trip without requiring the entry of a lot of personal information, he explained. Finally, a good feature of newer phones is that the contact information can be wiped from the phone remotely.
Electronic devices, if taken, need secure passwords of 15 characters or more which include numbers and symbols. Also all accounts need separate passwords.
“We have way too much information on our smart phones,” he said.
All volunteers should be screened and trained, he noted. While overseas, they should be alert, be unpredictable, and keep a low profile.
Today, Tallman warned, most Westerners visiting other countries are surveilled. They should try, though it is difficult for Americans, to keep a low profile.
Volunteers should keep travel plans off of social media like Facebook no matter what privacy settings have been used. The importance of this depends on the country being visited.
In every instance, travel insurance should be secured before travel on a missions trip, said Tallman. He recommended Gallagher Charitable International Insurance Services. Travel insurance provides for medical support and evacuation.
Paperwork needed today by missions volunteers includes copies of passports and other travel documents to be held by at least one leader of the trip and held in another place as additional backup. Accurate medical information should be included.
Medicine should be kept in its original packaging and a double supply should be brought on the trip as well as another pair of eyeglasses or contacts. These items should be kept in the carry on baggage along with a couple of changes of underwear, energy bars, a Bible, and other reading material.
Generally, travelers carry too much information and too many items, Tallman said. Leave behind business cards, address books, and, depending on the country’s openness to the gospel, information tying oneself to the ministry.
Also family members need to know the situation of the family member on mission and be aware of what should be communicated if contacted, especially if the person on mission is serving in a sensitive country, he continued. All family members and church members should be saying the same thing.
Researching the country to be visited is important, he noted. He referred to government Internet sites including http://travel.state.gov/travel_warnings.htm (from the U.S.), http://www.voyage.gc.ca (for Canada), and www.fco.gov.uk (for the United Kingdom). Don’t forget to research the areas you will travel through, he added.
Research the culture, of course, to enable ministry by, for instance, reducing the possibility of insulting the nationals. Cultural awareness also can minimize the profile of the visitors. In this vein, people should not overdress or display their wealth, he added.
Volunteers sometimes need to wear T-shirts to identify themselves, but generally, Tallman doesn’t think it is good for all members of a group to wear the same T-shirt. This may lead to them being targeted, he said, or be an offense such as wearing the color of a sports rival or politician who is not liked.
He told of a youth group which arrived inappropriately dressed in a conservative Muslim country because, leaders explained, they were there to change the culture. They should understand that they are not there to change the culture but to tell people about Jesus Christ, observed Tallman. “If the culture needs changing, let Christ do it.”
In hotels, missions volunteers should be especially careful of opening the door of a hotel room to strangers, should avoid dark entrances and exits, vary their routine, and stay away from areas where Westerners congregate. Also, hotel rooms on floors 2-7 are the best, he said, because the first floor is too easy for bad guys to access and even the highest floors can be escaped from pretty easily.
When traveling by foot, missions volunteers should not walk close to the street which might allow a person on a scooter or in another vehicle to grab items a person is carrying.
If needing to travel by automobile, use a local driver. If renting an automobile, choose an ordinary vehicle not popular to carjackers. If carjacked, talk through the glass and keep the car running with doors and windows locked as long as possible, appear compliant to demands even when contemplating resistance or flight, and do not take the risk of dying for a car or items in a car, advised Tallman. If giving the car key to the carjacker, lay it on the car to keep distance between oneself and the carjacker.
Depending on the country, group members should consider the safety of going out on their own and/or after dark. Also, a rally point should be identified and a communication plan agreed upon so if some of the team members are isolated, “all are saying the same thing,” he advised.
In some countries it is very important to say the correct things when entering because short-term missions personnel have been denied access based on statements made to a customs/immigration officer.
In one Asian country, it is common for Westerners to be bugged and surveilled. Also, Westerners there are commonly questioned by law enforcement who often want to know who they had contact with.
Knowledge while in the country also is needed, Tallman observed. If a demonstration occurs, of course, it is not the time to visit that area.
Generally, ladies and children are more vulnerable than men, he added.
Finally, training can help a victim maintain composure, said Tallman. He told of a missionary family who was held in their home in an African country for a time. A baby was crying during the incident and one of the bad guys threatened to shoot the child if it didn’t stop crying. The mother, though tied up, calmly pointed out a pacifier to a man and told him that if he would put the pacifier in the mouth of the baby, it might help. He did, the baby quieted, and, eventually, all escaped unharmed.
“Good security is hard work,” concluded Tallman. “But it’s worth it.”