Keith and Howie Beardslee in “All God’s Children,” a documentary by Scott Solary and Luci Westphal. (Photo: Howard Beardslee / www.allgodschildrenthefilm.com)
“How many African souls were worth my soul?”
That’s the question of a former missionary kid in Africa, whose abuse at a boarding school for missionaries’ children in Mamou, Guinea, is the subject of a chilling new documentary, “All God’s Children: The Ultimate Sacrifice,” by Scott Solary and Luci Westphal.
Now available on DVD, “All God’s Children” examines the systemic abuse at Mamou Alliance Academy, which boarded the children of missionaries sent by theChristian and Missionary Alliance (C&MA), an evangelical denomination based in Colorado Springs, Colo. Twenty minutes into the documentary, you wish the stories of physical, sexual, verbal and spiritual abuse would just stop. The accounts of physical beatings, editing of letters to parents, spiritual manipulation and dental procedures without Novocain mirror the dread that missionary kids, or MKs, some as young as 5, experienced for nine months at a time, hundreds of miles away from their missionary parents—who believed their children were in good, capable care and that they themselves were doing God’s work.
“All God’s Children,” running 70 minutes and buoyed by plentiful photos and home movies, is told through the eyes of three missionary families: the Beardslees, Darrs and Shellrudes. The MKs, now adults and dealing with the history of that abuse, share their stories on camera for the first time. Almost all speak of lost childhoods, and some speak of lost faith.
The filmmakers focus on the abused, not the abusers, some of whom are still alive. Solary and Westphal do, however, use the names and photos of some of the staff at the academy, who have denied wrongdoing in investigations by the C&MA.
The documentary opens with a brief explanation of why missionaries do what they do in the first place: to fulfill the Great Commission. It then proceeds to detail the situation of C&MA in Africa and how missionaries were required to send their children to boarding schools that, the documentary argues, were run by personnel rejected for other types of missionary appointments.
“All God’s Children” moves past the stories and into the effects of abuse. One MK speaks of depression and suicidal thoughts; another says he couldn’t comprehend having children of his own because childhood was tragic; another says it would take a Damascus-Road experience to make him a “true believer.”
Solary and Westphal, who began production on this in 2004, then follow these stories to their natural conclusion: what, if anything, the C&MA did about these abuses. The Mamou Alliance Academy was shut down in 1971, but some of the personnel from the school were still employed by C&MA, and the organization continued to run other schools.
The MKs from Mamou wanted not only closure but assurances that others would not endure what they did. They found C&MA unresponsive at first, and then the victims experienced various levels of response and action. Bob Fetherlin of C&MA appears on camera with the unenviable task of explaining the denomination’s response.
“It’s not that victims are against forgiveness,” says one MK. “It’s that victims are against forgiveness as the solution to the problem.”That sentiment seems entirely appropriate given the inaction by all sorts of religious bodies when faced with evidence of wrongdoing.
“It wasn’t just a few bad individuals,” says another MK. “It was a consistent, systemic problem.” These observations are necessary to help counteract the defense against wrongdoing offered in many sectors, from religion to sports to finance: It’s just a few bad apples.
“All God’s Children” tells a tragic story—one that no one really wants to hear, but one that responsible adults need to hear. It reminds us that all souls need saving, starting with the ones God has seen fit to put in our care.
Cliff Vaughn is managing editor and media producer for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: Not rated. Reviewer’s note: Nothing objectionable.
Directors and Producers: Scott Solary and Luci Westphal
Interviewees: Ann N. Beardslee; Howard M. Beardslee; Howie Beardslee; Keith Beardslee; Anne Darr; David Darr; Dianne Darr Couts; John Darr; Richard Darr; Beverly Shellrude Thompson; Marilyn Christman; Ralph Shellrude; Bob Fetherlin.