A religious movement with an edge

Times Staff Writer

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.”

Filidis recounted one mission that he views as emblematic of YWAM’s hands-on approach -- working in refugee camps in Southeast Asia after the fall of Saigon, since renamed Ho Chi Minh City. YWAMers volunteered to take care of the latrines and spent hours standing in human excrement. A U.N. report noted the group’s commitment to doing practical work, no matter how unpleasant. “I hope we never lose that,” he said.

Mark Lang dropped out of college in 1983 to join Youth With a Mission. Raised in a Lutheran household, he had longed for missionary work.

“If I was going to become a Lutheran missionary, I would have had to go to four years of college and four years of seminary,” said Lang, 43. “Would you like to do that or go to school for three months and go out and do something? You go make that choice when you’re 18.”

Lang joined a theater troupe that performed allegorical religious plays. He moved to Europe, traveled with the company through Greece and Italy camping on beaches, then worked in the Youth With a Mission branch in Amsterdam, which ran a nightclub on a houseboat that featured a band called No Longer Music.

“YWAM kind of pioneers a lot of things in ministries that are later replicated or perfected by other groups,” said Lang, who is based in Colorado Springs. He oversees health projects in a central Asian country he would not name for fear that the Muslim nation would shut down the operations if it realized they were directed by missionaries.

The intention is not simply to rack up converts, he said. “We can’t provide a spiritual solution” to poor people, Lang said, “unless we can come into their lives and provide practical solutions as well.”

The group’s 1,000 bases are linked solely by the three-month training course consisting of lectures and workshops on biblical principles, plus an official set of shared values. The bases independently stage missions.

“It’s so decentralized that it’s very difficult, even for them, to tell you everything they’re doing,” said Jonathan Bonk, executive director of the Overseas Ministries Study Center in New Haven, Conn.

The bases are a cross between Christian crash pads and college dorms. The Colorado Springs branch is in a former hotel. The dining room has been converted into a coffee bar -- fixed up with worn couches, tables and board games -- that is the scene for all-night discussions. Many of the 120 staffers live in the hotel rooms, as do the few dozen students who cycle through every three months.

Andrew Williams, 23, is the campus barista. He prides himself on mixing new blends of teas. He heard of Youth With a Mission at his church in Sonora, Calif., in 2005 and has stayed partly because of the sense of community. “Just the relationships I have with people here is amazing,” Williams said.

Gil Datz, the base’s worship coordinator, said that the emphasis on communal learning and living means YWAMers learn a lot about their colleagues. “It means a guy like Matt cannot hide,” he said.

Murray enrolled in 2002 at the base in Arvada, about 80 miles from here. Staffers there decided he should not finish the program because of unspecified health problems that would have made it “unsafe,” so he left.

He returned five years later, just after midnight on Sunday, Dec. 9, and asked to stay the night. Staffers said no. He opened fire, wounding two and killing Philip Crouse, 24, and Tiffany Johnson, 26. Twelve hours later he killed two teenage girls at New Life Church in Colorado Springs before being shot by an armed volunteer security guard. Murray then killed himself.

Crouse and Johnson embodied Youth With a Mission’s edgy approach. Crouch was a former skinhead who hoped to reach angry teens; Johnson had started a skateboarding ministry to help alienated youths.

Many YWAMers point out that Murray was the sort of person they would want to help. “That’s what makes the issue with Matthew so painful,” said Jeremy Pyhala, 33, a Colorado Springs staffer. “We look at him with potential.”