It is still not entirely clear how and when Kay Hiramine attracted the attention of Lt. Gen. William “Jerry” Boykin. After all, Hiramine’s faith-based aid organization, the Humanitarian International Services Group (HISG), was large, but not particularly well-known back in 2004. All that is known for sure is that Boykin was impressed with how well HISG was able to smuggle Bibles into North Korea. And he figured if Hiramine could smuggle Bibles, then he could be convinced to smuggle espionage equipment as well.
The whole story begins back during President George W. Bush’s administration, though it lasted well into President Barack Obama’s tenure in the White House. Given the understandable secrecy surrounding the operation, many of the details are unconfirmed. But what is known, thanks to reporting from The Intercept, is this: Hiramine’s successful track record of Bible smuggling got the attention of Boykin, a senior Department of Defense official and vocal evangelical at the Pentagon. According to The Intercept, he approached Hiramine about smuggling sensitive espionage equipment into the country. That would be a boon to U.S. intelligence officials who knew even less about North Korea’s then-fledgling nuclear program than they do today. So the Pentagon set up a deal with Hiramine: He would continue to provide aid to North Korea, but smuggled inside that aid would be things like sensors and small radio beacons that could provide the U.S. military with intel. Hiramine utilized the help of other missionaries in the country, including fellow aid workers, to transport the military equipment. One hitch, according to The Intercept: none of these helpers knew they were part of a top-secret Pentagon mission.
That program was disbanded in 2012. While The Intercept couldn’t find any officials who were able or willing to say what—if any—intelligence HISG was able to deliver, numerous experts were willing to go on the record about what a severe ethical breach the plan constituted.
“If true, to use unwitting aid workers on behalf of an intelligence operation, people who genuinely do humanitarian work, to turn their efforts into intel collection is unacceptable,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky, a member of the House Intelligence Committee told The Intercept at the time. “Now we have people who have been hired to do some good work and become unwitting accomplices to an intelligence mission? They can face all kinds of retaliation. It is completely unacceptable.”
Unacceptable as it may be, it’s certainly not unprecedented. HISG may be a dramatic example, but missionaries have long been infamous for their clandestine expertise. While ostensibly bringers of the light, their work is often shrouded in secrecy and deception, utilizing covert tactics to bring the Good News to closed countries. And while it’s generally been considered a given that such covert tactics are a necessary evil for the greater good of the Gospel, a growing number of detractors are starting to question whether such tactics do more harm than good.
North Korea is far from the only country in which Christian missionaries must use spy-like tactics to be admitted. In many countries in the Middle East, Islam is the official state religion and religious conversion is illegal. The frequency and consistency of how laws regulating Christianity in such countries are enforced vary from being forced to pay a punitive fine to being deported. In places like Sudan and the Maldives, Christians can be imprisoned and even killed.
Faced with this grim reality, missionaries have often adopted a professed purpose to serve as their excuse for entering a closed-off country. Sometimes they pose as aid workers, bringing medical relief to impoverished areas. Other times, they enter the country under the guise of being translators.
Often these aren’t, strictly speaking, complete lies. As was the case with HISG, where real, tangible relief was being offered in the form of warm clothes for North Korea’s harsh winters, missionaries will often be sincere in offering some legal form of relief while concealing their illegal, spiritual goals. That’s where the ethics get murky.
Jeremy Courtney is the co-founder and executive director of the Preemptive Love Coalition, an organization that provides medical and general aid in Iraq. Iraq’s relationship with the U.S. is, shall we say, complicated, but Courtney’s tenure in Iraq has been long and fruitful. While he’s never made any secret of his faith or the way it plays into his work in Iraq, Courtney insists that he’s found the Iraqi government to be far more open and accepting of his beliefs and mission than the commonly held assumption might lead one to believe.
“The idea that I could never come into a Muslim country and speak openly and hold my head high as a Christian because they would kill me has proven to be patently false,” he says. “Not just in one country but in numerous Muslim countries, I have been able to walk in, head held high, no covert cover story and not only identify passively as a Christian but identify openly, work openly and hold serious talks about faith between Muslims and Christians, and not just at the grassroots level of poverty—people who needed my help—but also with the powerful and influential people who could have, in that moment, had me arrested and had me taken out back.”
While Courtney stresses that he doesn’t want to set his experience in Iraq up as typifying the norm, his experience provides a clear counter to the narrative that missionaries have to sneak around in closed countries. He’s found strength in openness, and whatever liabilities may come with his boldness have been made up for in effectiveness, and he’s critical of those who use duplicitous means to gain access to closed countries.
“When we lie, we destabilize communities, we destabilize families, we sow seditious ideas, conspiracy theories and we make real truth tellers impossible to believe. So, a true business comes in with no ulterior motive and they cannot be trusted because everyone knows that the CIA, the Pentagon and missionaries have all used similar covers before,” Courtney says. “Societies rise and fall on trust; that is the currency of development and when we enter into trust-deficient communities and engage through tactics that further erode trust all in the name of bringing Jesus, democracy, gospel, development, aid, help, whatever, we cut off our nose to spite our face. We cannot accomplish the thing that we say we want to accomplish if we engage it in ways that diminish trust.”
A recent example of just such suspicion and mistrust took place in August, when an anti-trafficking nonprofit called Agape International Missions (AIM) came under fire from the Cambodian government for purportedly working with CNN to stage a smear campaign against Cambodian women.
It started when CNN ran an article about women in Cambodia who sell their daughters into sex slavery. AIM founder Don Brewster, who estimates his organization has rescued more than 700 girls from sex slavery in Cambodia, was heavily involved in the CNN story and quoted throughout.
But the featured women in CNN’s story were ethnically Vietnamese, not Cambodian. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen was livid, and ordered AIM to be investigated and shut down. “My country is poor,” he says. “But you cannot insult my people,”
Brewster released an apologetic statement, saying that he and his organization “were mistakenly accused of working with CNN to defame the integrity of Cambodian mothers and of not having programs to help the people of Cambodia.” Brewster said he’d told CNN the women were Vietnamese, not Cambodian, and CNN had botched its reporting (CNN released its own statement, saying the news organization stood by its reporting, though they changed a headline that identified the women as Cambodian.).
Hun accepted Brewster’s apology and backed off his calls to have AIM kicked out of the country, but the incident highlights the fragile relationship faith-based nonprofits have with the countries in which they operate, and how easily that relationship can be fractured by even minute errors.
TWISTS AND TURNS
Massive faith-based nonprofit Compassion International made waves last March when it was kicked out of India, despite ranking at or near the top of the country’s largest donors. The government claimed Compassion was using donor money to fund religious conversion, an accusation the organization adamantly denies. Many speculate that Compassion was the victim of a recent nationalist surge in India that finds government leaders aggressively cutting ties with foreign aid as a way of asserting ideological independence.
Mark Yeadon is Compassion International’s senior vice president of global program, and while he was unable to discuss the situation with India, he was able to shed light on Compassion’s unique method of marrying local relief work with religious conviction.
“We engage local churches that are in the midst of communities in extreme poverty, so that’s [in countries of] Asia, Africa, Latin America, Caribbean, [places] like that,” he says. “And we walk alongside those churches for a long time. Sometimes, well, easily a 20-year run. We help those churches reach out into their communities and start ministering, expressing tangible acts of love in Jesus’ name to children in the community.”
The nature of Compassion’s work rules out covert tactics, since local churches are key to their mission.
“We want to be open,” Yeadon stresses. “We don’t come in covert, if you will. We legally register, and we adhere to the local laws. It’s who we are. There’s the pragmatics of that also. We’re quite big. So to kind of go in stealth … it doesn’t work real well for us.”
When asked if working as a Christian organization ever creates tension, he chuckles. “Only on a daily basis,” he says. For the entirety of its storied existence, Compassion has been explicitly faith-based and explicitly industrial. Their lauded sponsor-a-child program works in cooperation with local churches to provide holistic health and education to children of all religious backgrounds. By working with area churches, Compassion is able to provide the aid it promises to children while equipping local churches to carry out the faith-based element of their mutual mission, effectively absolving Compassion of any accusations about untoward proselytism.
A commitment to working with local churches necessarily limits the scope of Compassion’s reach. If there is no local church, or the local church is underground, Compassion can’t get involved. For some mission organizations, that’s simply too high a price to pay.
Some mission organizations or individual missionaries consider a few “creative tactics” to gain admission to a closed country a small price to pay for the greater good of sharing the Gospel—missionaries like D. Due to the sensitive nature of his work, he asked that his name and the mission organization he worked with be withheld, but he has a couple decades of experience on the mission field in closed-off countries. He and his wife, J, push back against the notion that they “lied” to gain entrance to certain countries. They prefer the adjective “creative.”
“We tried not to lie,” J says. “You just have to be creative. … I feel like we were creative.
“It’s very foolish for an American—we believe—to go into a place and say, ‘Oh, it’s wrong to not say that we’re missionaries. It’s wrong to try and use a creative descriptor of why we are here,’” he says.
“First of all, the likelihood of them being able to stay there is almost zero,” he continues. “Secondly, any contacts they begin to establish with nationals—particularly in countries where it’s against the law to renounce your state religion, your birth religion, and convert to Christianity—are punishable by death. You immediately put at risk the lives of people who may or may not be open, in terms of being Christ-followers. If there’s a church that’s in existence in that place, you immediately put that church at risk to be shut down, for people to be imprisoned, for people literally to be killed.”
It’s important to note here that D’s issue is not as much with his own safety as it is with the safety of the citizens. Nevertheless, Courtney feels differently, saying that no matter how well-intentioned such work might be, it still runs the risk of discrediting other aid organizations.
“If you can only win or succeed or build or plant or whatever your particular brand is, by lying to get in, lying to stay in, lying to earn the support of your neighbors, lying to gain access to this place or that place, then you model, teach or just outright instill or replicate the kind of modalities that you want the next generations to embody and they don’t have a ticket home,” he says. “They don’t have a way out. They don’t have a big foreign government to back them into wheeled international aid or trade, treaties and deals. So if we get kidnapped, if we get imprisoned, if we get tortured, the likelihood that the U.S. government might come for us is pretty reasonable. If we teach others to do this kind of lying, manipulative, covert work, who is going to come rescue them? Who is going to come help them?”
Following the leak of HISG’s actions in North Korea, it’s very difficult to imagine North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un allowing other Western aid organizations in and running the risk of exposing his top-secret and globally condemned nuclear program to U.S. intelligence.
Timothy Sisk is a professor of intercultural ministries at Moody Bible Institute. He grew up in a missionary family in Japan, and then spent some time overseas in Bolivia as well. Today he’s in the business of training missionaries for overseas work, and he’s very familiar with the argument that missionaries should be upfront about their intentions when they go overseas.
“I spent some time in China on a visit one time and I was talking to some folks,” he relates. “And this person was with the registered church in China. Of course, they knew that there were a number of other independent missionaries there, and [one of them] said, ‘I just wish they would be honest about what they’re doing because once the government finds out, it makes all Christians look like liars.’”
This story and others like it have led Sisk to be an advocate for what he calls tent-making, a named gleaned from the Apostle Paul’s reputation for making tents in addition to spreading the Good News. That, says Sisk, is something today’s missionaries should strive to mirror.
“Whatever we claim to be doing, we better be doing that well,” he explains. “So if we’re going to be an English teacher, don’t use it as a fake identity to get in some place and then not do it. If you’re going to be an English teacher or if you’re going to be an NGO or you’re going to be in education, then you make sure you do that really well.
“That doesn’t mean you can’t be a witness too, but it does mean that you have to carry both of those responsibilities honestly.”
Sisk acknowledges that there may be times when missionaries working as “tent-makers” may need to violate the law in order to tell people about Jesus, but he sees that as a separate issue from using covert tactics to gain entrance to a closed country.
“When it comes to being a witness of Jesus Christ, I may be a law breaker in that sense,” he explains. “But that’s not so much saying, ‘I’m saying one thing and doing another.’ That’s just simply saying, ‘I’m going to be obedient to God rather than man.’”
The MISSION CONTINUES
The Pentagon’s operation with HISG was discontinued in 2012, after around eight years of operation. It would have remained a secret forever, if not for The Intercept. But HISG’s legacy—and missionaries’ unique skill sets—remain in place. The exact measures missionaries should take in order to spread the Good News, and what “creative” means are morally permissible, remains a debate with very few concrete answers, especially in a global community as rapidly shifting as our own.
“I think we should live to be as transparent and open as possible,” Courtney says. “And that’s the premise that a lot of my friends in that community reject. They reject that you can be open and I just am here to say, ‘Well, I’ve been doing it for 10 years in Iraq and nearly 15 years in the region. And it doesn’t always have to be this combative thing. It just doesn’t.”
Tyler Huckabee is RELEVANT's senior editor. He lives in Nashville with his wife, dog and Twitter account.