Cover image courtesy of The Africa Freedom Mission.
Written by Caitlin Schwallie, The University of Oklahoma
This podcast investigates Africa Freedom Mission’s (AFM) impact on the African communities they work with. Africa Freedom Mission is a humanitarian organization that focuses on doing mission trips to Zambia, Zimbabwe, Kenya, and Uganda. Their missions are about sharing their statement of faith with African communities through leadership training, discipleship, kids’ camps, ministry projects, and more. They focus on facing what they understand to be first-hand issues within the churches in Africa. These trips are possible through fundraising to aid the volunteer’s trips itinerary which can include a leadership boot camp, bungee jumping, and boat rides. The fundraising efforts per individual need to reach about $1,600 or more two weeks prior to their trip. The members go with the purpose that falls in line with AFM’s mission statement: “[Seeking] to inspire a world-wide revival through identifying, equipping, and mobilizing the next generation of missional leaders in Africa.” The fundraising aspect of AFM is problematic in that the people who fund these missions are not truly aware of where their money is going and the motives of teaching the gospel to the African community the individuals are in. The true meaning of the mission trip is for the travelers’ development rather than local communities through their boot camps and internships.
CS: From the University of Oklahoma, this is “The Urge to Help Podcast.” I’m Caitlin Schwallie, a Senior studying Accounting, International Business, and Management and I’m a student in Dr. Prichard’s class “Africa and the Urge to Help.” This podcast is titled A Look Into the Motive of Africa Freedom Mission. Today I’m going to discuss the fundraising aspect of the humanitarian organization Africa Freedom Mission or AFM. People volunteering under the auspices of AFM go to Zambia, Zimbabwe, Kenya, and Uganda to do mission trips during the Summer or Winter seasons. The fundraising aspect of AFM is problematic in that it is not made clear where the money is going and the motives of teaching the gospel to the African community the individuals are in. This is due to the volunteers at AFM not presenting themselves correctly to what they are doing on their mission trips. With that, we first need to understand the impact of mission trips on communities, then we will delve into the mission of AFM, and finally speak on how volunteers with AFM fundraise for their mission. Let’s get started.
Clip of Audio from their mission video (Mission).
“After being home for a few years, God began to show us a new direction that he was calling us into. That was Africa Freedom Mission.”
CS: AFM was started by Brent and Kerri Roberts who were originally doing 7 years of missions in Africa, but felt in 2015 that “God” was calling them in a different direction. Them and their five children started AFM as a family. Within the same video that the Roberts shared how AFM started, the director of operations, Austin Panter, spoke on his view of AFM. His words are some that stood out to me when watching this video.
Clip of Austin sharing how this is an escape from people’s reality (Mission).
“Sending people, but when they are sent, a big part of what we see, people come from brokenness, pain, and shame. Whether it is from their past or homelives, or whatever going on in their lives. But for them, to come to a place of true freedom in Christ is one of the best things in the world”.
CS: Austin made AFM seem like a way to escape from troubles in a place that is truly a freedom to dive into Christ. Although this can be good for the individuals going, it can place a lot of stress on the communities that are being entered because their problems do not go away when people come on mission trips to them. With knowing this information about AFM, it is important to know the history of mission trips and the current mindset of these volunteers.
CS: In the beginning, Roman Catholic and Protestant missionary patterns had multiple differences. These differences are from the article written by Hastings called Church in Africa and comes from the perception of the ministries in the early nineteenth century. Protestants had the problem of not being trained for community or to share common work due to them being more individualistic. Compared to the Protestants, the Catholics had a higher mortality rate, but continued to practice bodily asceticism, including heavy fasting. Because they were celibate and bound by the regulations of a religious order, they did not fuse well with other white groups like the Protestants.
CS: The things both the Protestant and Catholic missionaries had in common were their understanding of Africa and the approach they use to preach the bible. When it came to the missionaries’ perception of Africa, they would describe it as “dark” (Hastings, 29). This idea of being dark is due to the lack of Christian belief within a community. Over time, it has come to “represent the unacceptable superstition of any religion other than one’s own” (Hastings, 29). The approach they used to introduce Christianity was more direct with showing individuals why they would not go to heaven due to their actions unless they chose to convert (Hastings, 14). The more dramatic part was the shift from “initial concentration upon sin, salvation, and eschatology to one focused more upon God and creation” with the use of having the African beliefs be their bridge (Hastings, 15). With this transition, it allowed missionaries to have a common ground of belief with the African communities they entered. This transition may seem to be a light at the end of the tunnel for missionaries, but there were still many costs that the African communities had to endure. The documentary The Bible and The Gun by Davidson showed religious artifacts being burned, so there can no longer be an attachment and the Africans can start focusing on their new beliefs. It seems from this documentary, people were choosing to follow the religion of the missionaries because it brings more opportunities like education and food that they would not receive if they chose to continue following their religion. With this broader understanding of the beginning of missionaries, the present-day mindset is one that needs to be considered.
CS: The question that needs to be asked is if they still have the same mindset as the Protestant and Roman Catholic missionaries as shared before or are they more understanding and adaptive to the African culture and choose to go with a not-so-direct approach?
CS: First, why do these individuals choose to go on mission trips? According to Emily McDonald in her study about short-term mission trips, within a sample size of 10 individuals, 6 of them chose to go on mission trips because they felt a calling from “God.” The other 4 saw this as an opportunity to travel. These 4 shared an opinion such as they had nothing else to do, so why not do a mission trip during the summer. These individuals were doing a mission trip in Costa Rica, but they shared how they would have gone anywhere that was an opportunity for them. The not-so-shocking part was when they were asked if they know any historical context that has shaped Costa Rica to what it is today; all said no besides one who was aware of the social unrest, but was unsure why. They noticed that a lot of the individuals in the location they were going to were Catholic, but believed there was no true connection with “God” because they were just going through the motions of the traditions the Catholic church has. They were aiming to move forward with the mix of Christianity and Catholicism that was occurring in this location, similar to what the Protestant and Roman Catholic churches were deciding to do in the African communities. Although there may not be as high of a mortality rate similar to the Catholic missionaries, there still was the perception that the religious beliefs the individuals had within the communities being visited was not “good enough.”
Clip of audio from the Summer Leadership Bootcamp (Summer Leadership Bootcamp).
7-second clip of the song they have playing during this video.
CS: Now to go more into AFM, as stated on their website, the mission is “Africa Freedom Mission seeks to inspire a world-wide revival through identifying, equipping and mobilizing the next generation of missional leaders in Africa” (Mission). They achieve this by hosting Summer Leadership Boot Camps such as their upcoming one in Zimbabwe from June 1 – June 31. The goal of this boot camp is to develop leaders who will “come back and serve either as full-time missionaries or help AFM through leading some of our 2-4 week teams the following summer” (Summer Leadership Bootcamp). The training they receive during this boot camp is cross-cultural leadership training. They state this on their mission site, but when it comes to the description of their boot camp, the program seems a little different. On the Summer Leadership Bootcamp description, it states:
“During [their] stay, [they] will receive teaching on various subjects: developing intimacy with God through prayer, worship and time in his word, praying for the sick, prophetic ministry, personal holiness, spiritual warfare, etc… [They] will also learn as [they] go out into surrounding villages and townships and put into practice what [they] are taught.”
The boot camp could potentially entail both aspects, but it is unsure if these individuals receive cross-cultural training prior to or during their stay in Africa. It can be perceived that the main purpose of this boot camp is to create a leader for missionaries rather than aid the African communities they have entered. A question that raises for me is: why did they have to hold this boot camp in Africa? We have spoken about AFM, the history of mission trips, and the mindset of the volunteers, but now it is time to hit the fundraising aspect.
CS: AFM’s mission appears to only have positive effects on the volunteers who are choosing to go on their mission rather than the communities they are entering. When describing what AFM is in a video displayed on their website, they share how the positive impacts are being made on their community, but they do not present themselves that way in their mission statement or mission trips. Overall, they appear to be the organization that is the link to creating leaders in missionaries, not the people who are being perceived as the ones making a “positive” impact.
CS: It is not uncommon for aid organizations to be misperceived for something they are not. An example of this can be seen in the New York Times article called A World Vision Donor Sponsored a Boy. The Outcome Was a Mystery to Both. The article is about Brendan who decided to host a child through a Christian organization called World Vision. This is done by donating $39 per month. Brendan shared how he sent over $1,000 and holiday cards to who he thought was his sponsored child. The images shared of the children play into the power of personalization. It was found out that this sponsored child and his family never received the money that Brendan sent over. What Brendan was not aware of was the money he sent over was never going to be directly given to the sponsored child, but rather used as a pool of money to support projects in the child’s community. Although his money was going towards the community, he felt misled and could not trust the organization anymore.
CS: Now why did I bring this story up? People who support aid organizations want to be aware of where their money is going and what they are truly supporting. As shared earlier, AFM does not appear to be presenting themselves correctly to what they are actually doing. This is even furthered through how they aim to fundraise themselves. As seen on their fundraising website, they fundraise through prayer letters, selling shirts, adopting-a-box, and making phone calls and/or appointments. To kind of break down what each of these are, prayer letters involve creating a list of individuals and “send a prayer letter letting them know what you will be doing and telling them that you need their financial and prayer support” (Fundraising). Selling shirts allows individuals to create their own designs and become more personalized with their fundraising efforts. Adopt-a-box is creating a grid of numbers where individuals donate an amount based on a single box within the grid. Making phone calls and/or appointments are self-explanatory for the fundraising aspect. The individuals have to raise $1,600 2 weeks prior to their travel in order for AFM to book their airfare. On this website, they also share how prayers are another way to fundraise because they can place it in the “Lord’s hands.”
CS: Now comes in another question that I had: how are the volunteers truly portraying AFM in their fundraising efforts? Within the Zimbabwe Boat draft prayer statement, individuals are advised to state:
“In these villages, there is little Christian influence and very few Christian believers. Over the past few years, Africa Freedom Mission has partnered with local missionaries (Bruce and Sue Douglas) in an attempt to build long-term relationships with some of the people in these villages. Through outreach using the Jesus Film, teaching, sharing their own personal stories of faith and praying over the sick, past teams have started to make headway for the gospel” (Fundraising).
This is something shared in each of the draft statements. The draft statements share how these individuals are facing a lack in their relationship with “God,” but do not share the other problems they are facing. They are advising the people that will fundraise for their trip that they are going to spread the word of the gospel, but they do not share the mission of AFM. The mission is to create the next generational leaders to continue missionaries rather than assisting the problems the African communities are facing. This is not clearly portrayed in any aspect of their fundraising efforts that I have seen.
CS: There is another aspect where AFM can be portrayed and this is through social media, specifically Instagram. After reviewing their Instagram, handle @africafreedommission, they seem to be romanticizing the mission trips. What do I truly mean by romanticizing? They show constant smiles, dancing, bungee jumping, boat riding, and more. This is all shown through videos that have songs playing like Waka Waka, Let My People Dance, and Welcome Home.
After each song title, a little clip will be played.
Why are these mission trips being romanticized? It is shared in the study Short-Term Missions: Reinforcing Beliefs and Legitimating Poverty by William Taylor that poverty is the reason for this romanticization. Poverty gives people special advantages according to Christians due to the gospel stating “‘blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God’” (Taylor, 100). There are many examples of this opinion within the gospel which can be found in Matthew as well as the evangelical movement by George Whitefield. With tying this back to what Austin Panter shared before, the poverty that the African communities are facing is a “get-away” from reality for the volunteers. It is their chance to enter what is more to be believed “the Kingdom of God.”
Mission trips should not be romanticized, but rather should be real. With the movement of technology and how everything can be shown through social media, this can be a chance to show the real struggles that are being faced and show the impact that those fundraising could make. This is something AFM is not doing.
CS: Now how does this relate to the history aspect we spoke about at the beginning. There are many benefits for the African communities to choose to convert to Christianity that is being imposed by AFM. For instance, they have a chance to practice their English that gets them further ahead. They have the ability to continue having “visitors” that will bring money into their community which will help them more economically. They even have the chance to further their education by learning from the missionaries in other aspects than religion. The individuals who go on the mission trip do bring in a lot of outside knowledge that allows these African communities to be exposed to a new culture. Not surprisingly, all these positives do not relate to religion but are reasons why many individuals would choose to convert and distance themselves from their own culture and beliefs.
CS: This aspect is something that the individuals who travel with AFM do not realize. There seems to be no training until they arrive at the boot camp. On their prepare to go section of their website, the only aspects that are mentioned are fundraising, travel/money info, spending money, visa info, immunization, ministry items, electronic policy, gift policy, and packing list. Due to this, they are unaware of the impact they are making on their culture.
CS: So this has been a lot on AFM, but what are the main things that we need to pull from this episode? First, whenever an aid organization is being analyzed, it is important to understand the history and how that can already cause mistrust in the communities they are entering. Second, it is important to understand the mindset of the individuals going and why they are going. This mindset is what dictates if they are going for themselves or for the community. Thirdly, it is important for an aid organization to correctly represent themselves otherwise they will be misleading the people who chose to help fundraise.
How to Get Better
CS: With this in mind, how can AFM better themselves? Trips similar to AFM’s mission trips have gone under a lot of criticism because they are being perceived as “religious tourism.” The Washington Post posted an article called Churches Retool Mission Trips by Jacqueline Salmon which explains how certain religious aid organizations are trying to revamp themselves to be perceived in a better light. The common denominator of how to make their reputation more positive is to remain local. Pastors started realizing that painting houses and spreading the gospel could easily be done at home than the location they were choosing to travel to. It could also be done at a lower cost and there is not much of a cultural difference. There has begun a movement of realization of the negative impact mission trips have on communities they are entering that are not similar to the Westernized culture the missionaries are coming from. With this, I believe AFM should adopt this mentality due to the negative impact on the communities as well as the misleading they are doing through their fundraising.
Clip of mission video (Mission).
“We have a team of young staffers who are really doing the nitty-gritty work of the ministry alongside brint. I have been amazed at watching them do what they do. The way they connect with people and the way they lead.”
CS: It is important to keep in mind after this critique that AFM is an organization that is trying to do the right thing in its eyes. They believe their purpose in life is to spread the word of the gospel and this is how they perceive they should do it. If they understand their impact and move to be more local, I believe they can continue having a positive reputation and still fulfill their need to spread the gospel. It is unknown what will come with the next few years for AFM, but it could be a time that really defines them due to the focus on the real impact of mission trips. With that, it is time for me to end this episode. Thank you for listening.
This post may have been edited by admin for clarity and length.
“Africa Freedom Mission.” AfricaFreedomMission, https://www.instagram.com/africafreedommission/?hl=en.
Davidson, Basil “The Bible and The Gun” AFRICA ep.5 6 Jun. 2007 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MNWA2cOS7sg.
“Fundraising.” Africa Freedom Mission, www.africafreedommission.org/fundraising.
Hadid, Diaa. “A World Vision Donor Sponsored a Boy. The Outcome Was a Mystery to Both.” The New York Times. 2 Aug. 2016 https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/03/world/middleeast/worldvision-palestinians-sponsor-a-child.html.
McDonald, Emily K. Perceptions of the ‘Less Fortunate’: An Exploratory Study of Short-Term Mission Trips, Southeastern Louisiana University, Ann Arbor, 2015. ProQuest, https://login.ezproxy.lib.ou.edu/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.ou.edu/dissertations-theses/perceptions-less-fortunate-exploratory-study/docview/1733671331/se-2?accountid=12964.
“Mission.” Africa Freedom Mission, www.africafreedommission.org/mission.
“Mission Trips.” Africa Freedom Mission, www.africafreedommission.org/mission-trips.
“Summer Leadership Bootcamp.” Africa Freedom Mission, https://www.africafreedommission.org/summer-leadership-bootcamp.
Salmon, Jacqueline L. “Churches Retool Mission Trips.” Washington Post, The. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=n5h&AN=WPT140292945808&site=ehost-live. Accessed 18 Apr. 2021.
Taylor, William Vaughan. Short-Term Missions: Reinforcing Beliefs and Legitimating Poverty. Aug. 2012, trace.tennessee.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2472&context=utk_gradthes.
“The Victorian Missionary.” Church in Africa: 1450-1950, by Adrian Hastings, Oxford Scholarship Online, 1994, pp. 242–305.