Decades later and half a world away from the defunct West African boarding school where they suffered abuse, 80 adult children of Christian missionaries met for a peaceful reunion in suburban Atlanta in May.

They had been invited to Simpson wood Conference and Retreat Center by the Christian and Missionary Alliance (C&MA), the denomination that ran Mamou Alliance Academy, the school where, as young as six, they had been beaten, fondled, and forced to eat vomit and sit in their own waste (CT, April 27, 1998, p. 16).

With them came 50 of their parents and spouses and 20 counselors and facilitators.

DENOMINATION APOLOGIZES: It was a weekend of hugs and tears, of baring the deepest angers of the past and the greatest concerns for the future. In the bittersweet gathering, some friendships left latent for decades revived and some hurts long buried surfaced.

For officials of the C&MA, a denomination of 328,000 members with missions in more than 50 countries, it marked a time of confession and repentance.

"I want to express to each of you the deep sorrow that we feel because of the abuse that you experienced at Mamou Alliance Academy," C&MA president Peter Nanfelt, 62, told the assembled. "It is hard to imagine the pain which you have endured, some of you for the past 25 to 35 years."

Nanfelt—who became C&MA president last year—apologized that the denomination did not have safeguards in place to prevent the abuse, and that leaders did not take complaints more seriously when they first heard of them. "We were wrong in this, and we are sorry," he said.

During the summer, officials are sending copies of the apology to alumni who could not attend the reunion and will visit anyone who requests a meeting, according to Bob Fetherlin, the denomination's vice president for international missions.

"This weekend we were able to turn an important corner, not only in dealing with this distressing situation from Mamou, but also learning how to do a much better job in the years ahead," Fetherlin said.

FAMILIES RECONCILE: Mamou Alliance Academy in Guinea operated from the 1920s until 1971 in the fertile mountains of West Africa, educating the children of missionaries serving in four countries for the C&MA and other evangelical groups. Most of the abuse occurred in the 1950s and 1960s.

For some alumni, the retreat brought a sense of catharsis.

"Regardless of where we were in our healing process, many of us were able to connect, to talk, to simply be," says Beverly Shellrude-Thompson, 47, a language school director in Toronto who attended Mamou from age 6 until age 16. She says she was psychologically and sexually abused there. "As for the Alliance, for the first time in the five years we've been formally working with them, I heard real grief expressed for what happened."

Article continues below

Although she had been dealing with anger and hurt for years, the retreat marked the first time her father heard Shellrude-Thompson tell her story. He attended along with her sister and brother, also Mamou alumni.

Shellrude-Thompson says her father has suffered great anguish because of what happened to his daughters while he had been on the mission field. "My sister and I have often said we would rather have our pain than our parents' pain."

Howard Beardslee, 72, and his wife, Ann, 70, of Grantham, New Hampshire, know about parents' pain. They attended the reunion with their sons, Keith, 48, and Howard, 46, who lived at Mamou in the late 1950s. "We left them when they were little," says Ann Beardslee. "Now we can be by their sides."

With such sensitive issues to cover, the weekend retreat "could have bounced either way," says Deloris Burns Bandy, 75, a retired missionary living in Florida who had three children abused while she and her husband served as missionaries.

"Much was accomplished in the way of healing," Bandy says of the retreat, "especially for those who are just now beginning to deal with the issues in their lives." Bandy's four children attended the reunion, the first time in 15 years the family had been together.

Bandy praises the C&MA for its handling of the situation. "The denomination has openly, publicly acknowledged that this happened, that the things that happened were wrong," she says.

PREVENTIVE MEASURES ENACTED: During the past few years, the C&MA has spent $400,000 investigating allegations, disciplining offenders, and instituting measures to prevent future abuse. After considering the testimony of about 80 witnesses, a six-member Independent Commission of Inquiry made up of mostly non-C&MA members found evidence to support many allegations of the former students. Seven former staff members and two former students were found responsible for committing abuse.

In response to recommendations by the independent com mission, the alliance issued formal apologies to abuse victims, reviewed policies for evaluation of missionary school personnel, and is establishing an advocacy network for missionary children and a sensitive-issues team to deal with any future allegations of abuse. The independent commission also suggested the retreat.

Article continues below

Richard Darr, 44, an early leader in drawing attention to abuse at Mamou (CT, Aug. 14, 1995, p. 60), praised the results of the retreat, but he sees it "as a beginning." He and some other Mamou alumni say additional denominations and mission-sending agencies that had children at Mamou and other missionary schools should work together to address past wrongs and protect children.

"The retreat gave the broader missionary community permission to grieve together, to confess, to repent," Darr told CT. Darr, his two brothers, and his sister all attended Mamou while their parents worked for Gospel Missionary Union, an independent missionary-sending organization.

Darr is one of the founders of the Missionary Kids Safety Net. Since word began to spread about the Mamou investigation, former students have come forward to tell of abuse at other schools.

"This is a huge, huge problem," says Darr, a United Methodist minister in Green wood, Illinois. "Major mission-sending groups need to reach out to these missionary kids who were so grievously wounded. Their failure to do so, when these missionary kids come to them, is a repudiation of the very gospel they repute to be spreading around the world."

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.