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A religious movement with an edge

Youth With a Mission takes in just about anyone -- even an unstable young man who would later shoot and kill 4 in Colorado.

December 18, 2007|Nicholas Riccardi | Times Staff Writer

COLORADO SPRINGS, COLO. — Paul Filidis thought little of Christianity as he backpacked through Afghanistan in the early 1970s, searching for top-grade hashish and Eastern enlightenment.

Then his passport was stolen and he took shelter with a group of missionaries who had moved to Kabul to help wanderers on the hippie trail. "They looked just like me," Filidis said.

The missionaries took Filidis in and helped him get a new passport. Filidis, who had believed Christianity was only for old people, eventually became a convert. He has spent the last three decades with that group, Youth With a Mission. His 20-year-old, tongue-pierced daughter, Noelle, just finished a YWAM mission to India, where she nursed sick villagers and was attacked by a mob of Hindu fundamentalists.

The mission "gave an opportunity to kids to go out," Noelle said. "Like kids can impact the world."

Youth With a Mission is a nondenominational Christian network that takes in just about anyone -- punk rockers, misfits, retired engineers, schoolteachers, fresh-faced teens. After a little training, they are sent to preach the Gospel in some of the most dangerous parts of the globe.

That nonconformist approach brought tragedy to the group last week when Matthew Murray, who had been expelled for apparent mental health problems, fatally shot four people -- two at the Arvada Youth With a Mission office near Denver and two at New Life Church in Colorado Springs -- before killing himself.

The attack exposed what Youth With a Mission members acknowledged was the group's greatest vulnerability and its greatest strength.

"YWAM has been known as a mission that believes in young people and gives them a chance," said Jarod Marshall, 32, a staffer in the Colorado Springs branch. "You believe in people, and there's a risk in that -- but it's a risk worth taking."

Youth With a Mission is considered avant-garde, on the "bleeding edge" of the evangelical movement, said A. Scott Moreau, a professor at Wheaton College in Illinois who studies mission programs.

"They are passionate, they are a bit wild," Moreau said. "A lot of agencies are wondering how they're going to mobilize this generation. YWAM has figured it out."

One veteran calls YWAM (the acronym is regularly pronounced Why-Wham and members are known as YWAMers) a Christian Peace Corps. Projects include working with prostitutes in Holland and orphans in Mexico, and providing clean drinking water or dental care in Third World countries. Youth With a Mission also launched the Reconciliation Walk, a 1,500-mile trek through Turkey and the Middle East to atone for violence perpetrated in the name of Christianity during the Crusades.

In places where Christian missionaries are typically not welcome, such as Afghanistan or the Middle East, Youth With a Mission operates under other names and does not publicly proselytize. The group believes that doing good works is the best way to save people's souls, members say.

Youth With a Mission is non-hierarchical, allowing any of its 16,000 staffers or the 3 million people it estimates have gone through its training programs to develop their own mission and go anywhere to pursue it.

"There's this growing sense among younger people that they want to be part of something that's bigger than themselves," Marshall said. "YWAM's in a position to say, 'You want to do something? We can help you go abroad and make a difference in somebody's life.' "

Marshall joined the group when he was a teenager after taking one of its trips to the Caribbean. "I was smacked in the face by the huge distance between people in the world -- our affluence and their extreme poverty," he said.

Marshall and his wife, Carly, also a missionary, are leaving for Thailand next month to work in refugee camps along the border with Myanmar, also known as Burma. Another YWAMer they know invited them -- a typically informal way for a mission to start.

The mission group was the brainchild of Loren Cunningham, who was a Pentecostal college student on summer break in the Bahamas when he had a vision of waves of young people crashing onto the shores of all continents. He founded Youth With a Mission after he graduated in 1960. He still works out of the group's main office in Hawaii.

"He wanted to reach young people, especially college-age people, before they got stuck with a job," said Filidis, 57, who works in the group's communications office.

Filidis took a break from the mission in the late 1970s to get his degree at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena. He also worked at Christian ministries in Glendale and Seattle. But the experience drove him back to Youth With a Mission.

It was "the attitude in YWAM that wants to serve, that wants to take the lower road rather than the higher road, that will do the dirty work," Filidis said. "I'd rather take those attitudes than those of organizations that want to be on power trips."

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