NBC news had a shocking headline on Wednesday. An American man, Jason Gerald Shenk, who claimed to be a missionary, collected 30 million USD in donations from people in Ohio and North Carolina for ‘Bibles for China’. This money never reached China, but was spent on private purchases, online gambling, gold, and diamonds. He is now an international fugitive and sought for fraud.
For people involved in this very ministry of getting Bibles to Chinese believers, cases like this hit home for many reasons. Like all Christians, we are of course shocked by the depravity of the act itself. Withholding money from persecuted Christians, while lying in the name of God to the people you are tricking into giving the donations, betrays a lack of conscience that is difficult to comprehend.
What makes it more painful is the acute awareness of the need of Bibles in China. For 30 million USD, up to 10 million Chinese believers could have received a Bible. In a time when many Bibles are seized and destroyed, and many Christians have no access to the word of God, this is incredibly tragic. Even today, Chinese Christians risk it all to secretly print and distribute Bibles throughout the country. This crime makes a mockery of their sacrifices.
It also makes a mockery of those who have sacrificially given out of love for their brothers and sisters in China. Not only did their money not get to its intended destination, but fraud like this also makes it less likely people will give again. Trust within Christian work is often a given, but once it is broken it can be very hard to repair.
This does not just affect people’s willingness to give in the future, but worse, it can really affect their spiritual life. People have been encouraged to give in the name of the Lord, in speeches most likely peppered with Bible verses about the power of the Word of God and how important it is that as the body of Christ we look after each other’s needs. People may really have felt a holy urge to give, only to learn the ‘Christian brother’ deceived them. This form of spiritual abuse can really harm people’s ability to trust other Christians, especially those in leadership.
Another reason why headlines like this hit home, is that for almost everyone who has been involved in mission work longer than a few years, this is not the first time we have encountered fraud. Often, we have experienced it up close in people we personally knew and trusted. Most of these cases don’t make headlines, because they have happened in sensitive areas and therefore cannot be brought to light, as it would put people in danger, or fear of embarrassment has caused us to be silent about it. But when we read a headline like this, we again feel the soul crushing pain we felt when we first encountered fraud up close.
The very sobering reality is that people who are not just Christians, but even missionaries, can take paths of destruction and use their Christian or missionary cover to enrich themselves. Even though accountability is vitally important and must be pursued, we cannot always prevent this from happening. Especially in nations where persecution is a reality and not everything can be checked. Our comfort is that even within the circle of the disciples of Christ there was financial fraud. Suffering the betrayal of friends is part of sharing in the suffering of Christ.
Nevertheless, we want to remind ourselves and potential donors that closed countries with their extreme stories of persecution and revival also attract those who see these testimonies as great marketing opportunities to make money from. We have to pray and discern wisely who we trust with the resources God has given us to bless his church with.