For nearly 30 years, Christian missionaries-to-be from evangelical Protestant churches in Charlotte and across the country have been coming to a 90-acre site near Carowinds in south Charlotte.
There, an international mission group called SIM USA has readied them for their overseas assignments, then sent them to spread the Gospel and help their neighbors in Africa, Asia, the Americas and Europe.
In a city that’s home to high-profile megachurches, growing seminaries and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, SIM managed to go about its work with little publicity – “really flying under the radar,” in the words of the Rev. David Chadwick, senior pastor of Forest Hill, a Charlotte church that has provided a steady supply of SIM missionaries over the years.
But two weeks ago, SIM became international news when Charlotte’s Nancy Writebol, a SIM missionary in Liberia, contracted the deadly Ebola virus.
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Since then, SIM officials have offered daily updates on Writebol’s condition and stayed in contact with her husband, David, who is still in Liberia and healthy, but waiting for an Ebola incubation period to pass before he joins his wife. SIM also worked with the U.S. State Department, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Samaritan’s Purse, a Boone-based Christian charity, to evacuate the 59-year-old missionary to Emory Hospital in Atlanta for treatment in an isolation ward.
She was the second American with Ebola to be flown from Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, to Georgia, then transported to the hospital near the CDC. The first was Dr. Kent Brantly, who works for Samaritan’s Purse, which has a small army of public relations professionals.
SIM is new to this media glare. “It’s not been a priority to get ourselves known,” said Fred Ely, the group’s vice president. “We don’t have a PR department.”
What’s not new for this 121-year-old organization is sending its missionaries into dangerous terrain. Many of the more than 65 countries where it operates have been plagued by war, political turmoil, terrorism or disease.
Two of the three founders of SIM – both in their 20s – died of malaria a year after the missionary group was launched in 1893. In the 1920s and ’30s, some SIM missionaries were murdered in Ethiopia. Health workers affiliated with SIM were felled by Lassa fever – the Ebola of its time – in 1969. And in the past few weeks, a Liberian SIM staffer who worked at the hospital in Monrovia died after she was infected with the Ebola virus.
“This goes to the root of our mission: the calling of sacrifice,” said Bruce Johnson, SIM USA’s president for the past five years.
New SIM missionaries do get training in security protocols. They go through orientation before they leave the United States and when they arrive in their new homes. They have health and medical evacuation insurance. And SIM field leaders in each country are tied to the closest U.S. Embassy and to their national partners, offering them “layers of alerts, bulletins and evacuation recommendations,” Ely said.
“These people, when they go to these places, they have their eyes open,” Ely added. “That goes with the territory.”
Sometimes things get so serious that SIM will act. When the Ebola crisis reached Monrovia recently, Ely said, SIM told its missionaries that families with young children had to go.
But what happens frequently, Ely said, is that the missionaries don’t want to leave those they’ve come to help.
“They say, ‘These are our brothers and sisters; we don’t want to abandon them,’ ” Ely said. “Emotionally, it’s very difficult.”
When the Ebola virus broke out in West Africa earlier this year, Charlotte’s Calvary Church contacted Nancy and David Writebol – members since 1994 – and offered to bring them home.
“They said: ‘No, our place is to be here with the people God has called us to,’ ” said the Rev. Jim Cashwell, the church’s pastor of missions and evangelism. “And that’s been their spirit.”
In an interview with the Observer, David Writebol said one of the attractions of Liberia was that it was recovering from a long civil war. “We visited with missionaries who lived through that time (of war) and after,” he said. “We heard their concerns and pleas for the ministry there. And God just worked in our hearts: ‘This is where I want you to go.’ ”
All over the world
What exactly is SIM?
It’s a nondenominational Christian group with about 3,000 missionaries and staffers all over the world.
When it was formed in the late 19th century, its founders’ aim was to Christianize the heart of Africa, so SIM originally stood for “Sudan Interior Mission.” Later, when it broadened its scope to additional continents, SIM was shorthand for “Serving in Mission.” Now it is simply SIM – akin to IBM.
In 1986, SIM USA moved its headquarters from the New York City area to Charlotte. The lure of the Queen City: less expensive real estate and cost of living, a growing airport on the Eastern Seaboard, and a strong Christian community.
“Charlotte was a welcoming place,” said Ely, one of about 100 employees who work at the SIM USA offices in south Charlotte.
Though SIM was not a household acronym to most of Charlotte, it has fostered sturdy relationships over the years with evangelical churches here that emphasize missionary work.
“They have been deeply embedded in Forest Hill for some time,” said Chadwick, whose nondenominational church will soon commission its latest SIM missionaries – two church staffers who are headed, with their children, to Japan, a country with relatively few Christian churches.
And many of the 91 missionaries commissioned by Calvary Church – including the Writebols – are affiliated with SIM.
“It’s big, it’s reputable, it’s committed to the Gospel, and it’s on our doorstep,” said Calvary Senior Pastor John Munro.
And, Munro said, SIM has allowed missionaries, including the Writebols, to do practical tasks, such as working in hospitals, while doing them openly in the name of Jesus.
“Both are demanded by Christ,” Munro said. “He told us to love our neighbors as ourselves and to make disciples of all nations.”
Ely said SIM’s primary goal is to preach the Gospel by starting Christian churches overseas. But “we do a lot of things,” he added, ticking off a list that included health care, education, community development and media ministries such as Christian radio. They also teach locals to read and translate Bibles into the native language.
The Writebols went to work at SIM’s compound in Monrovia in August 2013, after a total of 13 years of serving orphans and widows in Ecuador and Zambia for Rafiki – a Christian missionary group based in Florida.
In Liberia, Nancy Writebol, sent to be a personnel director, also mentored nurses and sterilized medical instruments at the Eternal Love Winning Africa, or ELWA, Hospital run by SIM. David Writebol is the services manager, responsible for managing electricity, water and sanitation for the 130-acre campus, which includes the hospital, an Ebola clinic, a radio station and a school. Photos of the compound show palm trees, an Atlantic Ocean beach and rudimentary houses and buildings.
In Liberia and around the world, SIM partners with other agencies. In Monrovia, for example, Samaritan’s Purse – with expenditures of more than $400 million in 2013 – is rebuilding the ELWA hospital, which was partially burned down during the Liberian civil war.
Samaritan’s Purse and SIM also work side by side on a hospital project in Nigeria.
Signing up missionaries
Ely said SIM attracts a lot of second-career people – “finishers,” they’re called internally.
Decades ago, more people became missionaries right out of college – Bible college, in many cases. But today, Ely said, fewer people who’ve just graduated sign up for long-term stints as missionaries. He attributed that to the growing burden of student loans.
That can be an impediment because SIM missionaries are expected to raise the funds they’ll need to live on during their years overseas.
Missionaries commissioned by churches have to apply with SIM. If they’re accepted, SIM staffers meet with them to come up with a realistic budget for their time on assignment.
The amount that will be needed “varies fairly dramatically depending on the location and whether it’s urban or rural,” Ely said. “It can range from Japan, where costs are high, to rural Bolivia.”
The size of their families is a factor in ascertaining the budget, but the actual work is not. “So a doctor would be paid the same as an agricultural worker, if they are going to the same locale,” Ely said.
After budgets are established, the missionaries-to-be go out and raise the money. In 2013, 61 percent of the funds came from donations from individuals and 33 percent from churches. Accounting for the rest: corporations, foundations and bequests.
All of the money is paid to SIM, Ely said, which then sends much of it out to the missionaries each month. SIM keeps an average of 14 percent of the totals to cover overhead.
In the case of the Writebols, Ely said, the monthly total is $4,600 for the couple. But when health care, taxes and overhead costs are deducted, the cash amount they receive for compensation is about half that, he said.
SIM accepts a “fairly high percentage” of the would-be missionaries who apply, Ely said. But they have to pass a screening process that includes reference and background checks as well as psychological assessments.
“They are interviewed by psychologists who try to make sure they’re stable enough to withstand cross-cultural living,” Ely said. “Cross-cultural living puts all kinds of strains on people.”
And because they want to be missionaries, applicants have to subscribe to SIM’s Christian mission statement and demonstrate a certain level of knowledge of the Bible.
“We also want a reference from their pastor saying that this is a mature believer ready to serve and participate,” Ely said. “We really want to look at this as a partnership with churches.”
Churches often provide financial backing – Calvary offers up to 25 percent of the funds its missionaries need to raise – as well as spiritual and moral support.
Cashwell of Calvary Church said the Writebols were uncertain in 2013 whether they were being called by God to come back to Charlotte or to take on another missionary assignment.
“It was a real time of prayer for them, and we as their church body struggled with them and started an investigation” into options, Cashwell said. “Several doors opened for them. But one just came to the forefront.”
That was the SIM assignment in Liberia. The church even sent a team to the West African country last October to visit with the Writebols and assess the possibilities of short-term mission opportunities there for Calvary members.
Finally, Ely said, before the missionaries make their way overseas they are asked by SIM to sign standard waiver forms.
“When they go to other countries,” he said, “they understand the risk.”
‘Highest quality’ group
SIM USA gets high marks not only from pastors but also from its missionaries and from an agency that sets accountability standards for evangelical nonprofits and churches.
SIM “is the highest quality organization I can imagine,” said Dan Busby, president of the Virginia-based Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, or ECFA. “I’d put them on a short list of organizations that – year in, year out – you don’t hear anything bad about them.”
Busby said the average of 14 percent overhead SIM retains from the money raised by missionaries is within the 10 to 20 percent range that ECFA often sees.
And he called the practice of sending all the money raised by missionaries to SIM to administer and pay out “a legitimate process that’s widely recognized.”
SIM, which has been a member in good standing with ECFA since 1986, is a tax-exempt religious nonprofit. The IRS offers it the further designation of a “religious order,” which Ely said means it effectively qualifies as a church.
That means that SIM is not required to file 990 tax forms with the IRS. Typically, in the case of churches, that shields much financial information – including the salary of the pastor or president – from the public.
SIM USA made financial audits available to the Observer but would not reveal the salary of Bruce Johnson, its 63-year-old president.
Crisis draws more people
Nancy Writebol’s illness and SIM’s public efforts to get her treatment have raised the group’s profile.
More people are going to the mission’s website ( www.simusa.org). There, they can get updates on Writebol’s condition and are invited to pray for her.
All the news reports about Writebol’s plight and what could prove to be a multimillion-dollar evacuation have also spurred more people to offer assistance.
“During this situation, we’ve sent out no appeals,” Ely said. “But we’ve had a lot of people calling to say, ‘How can I help?’ ...We’ve got a long history of seeing God provide for our needs through his people.”