By CHRISTINA WOOD
Of the Baker City Herald
The license plates on the vehicles tell the story: California, Michigan, Texas and Alaska, as well as several provinces of Canada.
In all, 18 different states and three foreign countries are represented by the students at New Tribes Institute, 3100 H St., this year. They have come to learn how to spread the message of Christ and their reasons for wanting to become missionaries are as diverse as their license plates.
I worked in San Diego as an accountant and we lived a good life, but through our study of the scriptures, we wanted to do something greater with our lives, said Brooks Buser, 25, of San Diego, Calif.
He is joined by his wife and 16-month-old son. He said he worried some about the safety of his family, but we arent counting the costs, the benefits are greater. He said he is interested in working in Papua New Guinea, an island in the South Pacific, north of Australia.
The students are in their second phase of a four-year program that teaches them the fundamentals of what it takes to be an effective missionary among the tribal peoples of the world.
When they graduate, they will be expected to share the gospel under the most primitive of conditions. They are in effect preparing to live as long as 20 years away from their homes, away from modern conveniences and perhaps days away from the support of other Christians.
According to the organizations literature, New Tribes is a fundamental, nondenominational, faith missionary society composed of born-again believers and dedicated to the evangelization of unreached tribal peoples.
To do this, the missionaries need to live side-by-side with the tribal peoples in their own environment, learn their languages, help translate the Scripture into individual tribal languages and learn how to plant a church that will grow into a self-sustaining membership.
New Tribes Mission was founded in 1942 by missionary Paul Fleming while he was on a break from missionary work in Malaya. He was joined by Lance Latham, Cecil Dye, Mervin Rosell, Robert Williams, William Dillon and Roy Oestreicher.
There are eight North American Training Centers in addition to the Baker City location.
Two of them, located in Waukesha, Wisc., and Jackson, Mich., are bible institutes. Baker City is one of six missions institutes, with the other five located in Kentucky, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin as well as Ontario, Canada.
The organizations only language institute is located in Missouri. The international headquarter is in Florida and a number of support ministries are located throughout the United States.
Four-year training program
The New Tribes Mission Training Institute in Baker City is part of a four-year course in missionary training conducted by New Tribes for its field people. The full course includes two years of Bible study, one year of cross culture issues, communication, church planting and practical matters, plus one year of language training.
The Baker City complex specializes in teaching the skills necessary for a missionary family to survive in a tribal setting in a third world country.
According to New Tribes spokesman George Heckman, New Tribes is a tool for churches. The churches raise up people with an interest in missionary work. We train them to do that work. We give them the skills and information they need to be effective and successful in their work.
Christ said go out and preach the gospel, Heckman explained. It is a major focus of Christianity and we focus on the tribal groups living far away. It is estimated that there are at least another 4,000 tribal groups remaining in the world that havent been reached with the message of Jesus.
The 40 students in the present class include a dozen single women and eight single men. The rest are couples some with children who expect to take their families with them on their missions.
Id been praying about training and thought that I would like to be trained to share the gospel, said Kelly Clifford, 34, of Haines, Alaska, one of the single women in the class.
Id heard that New Tribes had the best training available. I picked the Baker City Institute as it was closer to my home; it only takes a week to drive there.
Clifford said she found two of the classes cross-cultural communications and animism (the attribution of conscious life to nature and the belief in the existence of spiritual beings that are separate from bodies) to be the most interesting of her classes.
Buser agreed with Cliffords assessment of the classes and added courses in teamwork and learning to work in groups as the most helpful for him.
Safety is a concern
Busers concern over the safety of his family is often shared by many of the students with good reason.
The hazards are real, said Heckman. In January 1993, three men from a New Tribes Mission in Pucuro, Panama, were kidnapped at gunpoint by armed Colombian guerrillas in the dark of night.
The guerrillas allowed the mens wives to pack a few belongs for them and then they disappeared back into the jungle, taking the men with them.
The men were never seen again. The guerrillas tried to ransom the men, but this failed. New Tribes policy is to not pay ransom and the families of the men were not wealthy.
Only recently, Heckman said, has New Tribes learned the fate of the lost missionaries. An eyewitness has confirmed that they were killed in mid-1996. They left behind their wives and a total of seven children.
Two more missionaries, Martin and Gracia Burnham, were kidnapped just six months ago in the Philippines. They were taken by the Abu Sayyaf Group in May from a resort off the island of Palawan in the Philippines. Their release remains a topic of discussion between Philippine President Gloria Arroyo and U.S. President George W. Bush.
Heckman said the work of missionaries is expected to continue well beyond the 21st century.
We are a part of a global community and we have a responsibility to share the gospel with the world, he said.
Heckman said that anyone interested in learning more about the role of New Tribes can borrow one of their videos that are at the Baker County Library. Or they can visit the New Tribes web site at www.ntm.org. He also recommends the book The Stranger on the Road to Emmaus, by John R. Cross. He said the book explains the mission of New Tribes well but is not a New Tribes publication.
The institute also hosts a weekly study at 7 p.m. on Tuesdays except during holidays or school breaks. He added the public is welcome to attend and learn more about missionary work and New Tribes.
Heckman said the New Tribes Institute has been in Baker City since 1974. There is room for as many as 60 students at a time although it is a little crowded with that many.
He added that New Tribes Missions is examining its structure and there has been some discussion about combining the Baker City complex with another training center some time in the next five to eight years. Whether the Baker City facility will remain in operation beyond that is unknown at this time.
Heckman said New Tribes and its staff have been warmly welcomed and supported by the Baker City community. We like it here and we would like to stay here, he said.
Heckman lives on the institutes grounds with his wife, Linda, and and their children.