Penn. Church Holds Mock Kidnapping on Youth Group to Illustrate What Missionaries Face

A southeastern Pennsylvania church subjected
members of a youth group to a mock kidnapping and interrogations
without telling them it was staged, and the outraged mother of one
14-year-old girl has filed a complaint with police.


The pastor of the Glad
Tidings Assembly of God in Middletown said the church is “so saddened”
that the girl was traumatized at the Wednesday evening youth meeting.

But
the pastor, John Lanza, said Friday there have been emails of support
from other students at the church, about 10 miles southeast of
Harrisburg, because the intent was to prepare them for what they might
encounter as missionaries. He didn’t disclose the names of those
involved but said the mock kidnappers included an off-duty police
officer and a retired Army captain.

“It was a
youth event, to illustrate what others have encountered on a regular
basis,” he said, adding that the focus of the lesson was “the persecuted
church” in other countries.

Lanza said there
were about 17 students at the meeting and the mock kidnappers covered
the students’ heads, put them in a van and interrogated them. Neither
the students nor their parents were told about the raid beforehand, he
said, though it was discussed with the parents of one youth who might
have health issues.

TV station WHTM interviewed the girl who complained.

“They
pulled my chair out from underneath me, and then they told me to get on
the ground,” she told the station. “I had my hands behind my back. They
said, `Just do as I say, and you won’t be hurt.'”

The
girl said the teens were taken to the pastor’s house, where it appeared
he was being assaulted. Eventually, she said, the adults in charge
revealed it was a staged event.

“They heard me crying,” the girl said. “Why not right then and there tell us it was a joke, when you see me crying?”

Lanza
said the church has conducted similar events at least twice before,
adding that “there was much thought given to the safety aspect.”

“If
anyone was ever uncomfortable, they would be removed” from the
exercise, Lanza said, though part of the idea was to shock the students
with the experience.

Lower Swatara Township
police Chief Richard Wiley declined to comment until an investigation
into the raid is complete. The names of the mother and daughter who
complained haven’t been made public.

There
could be consequences if the teens didn’t know what was going to happen
and didn’t agree to be a part of the event, Dauphin County First Deputy
District Attorney Fran Chardo said.

“It’s extremely disturbing,” Chardo told WHTM.

Tom
Copeland, who studies international affairs and terrorism at Geneva
College, a Beaver Falls school that emphasizes a “Christian worldview,”
questioned the wisdom of submitting a youth group to a mock kidnapping.

“It
just seems inappropriate for that age group. You would think there
would be permission from the parents,” Copeland said, adding that he’s
never heard of anything like that happening at a church.

He
said that while there have been highly publicized episodes of violence
directed against Christian missionaries in other countries, it seems
those countries’ local religious groups are more at risk.

One
security expert said role-playing training is sometimes conducted “at
the quasi-military level” for groups that are going to work in war
zones.

Daniel Karson, chairman of business
intelligence and investigations at Kroll, a worldwide risk consulting
company with headquarters in New York, said the idea of conflict zone
training “is to acclimate someone to a possible situation that might
arise.” The training might involve everything from what items they
should take to the country to a review of who they’re meeting and
security conditions there, he said.

Lanza said
members of the church have made numerous mission trips overseas and
have learned to be cautious. He said they were planning a trip to Mexico
but reviewed current news and advisories and decided it was unsafe.

Lanza
said he “would love to” apologize to the girl and her mother but feels
he can’t until the police investigation is done. He said the church
wants to keep doing the program but would make changes.

“I
would find a way that we could continue to keep the shock value,” he
said, “but I would find a way to inform the parents (beforehand).”

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