Decades later and half a world away from the defunct West African boarding school where they suffered abuse, 80 adult children of Christian missionaries met for a peaceful reunion in suburban Atlanta in May.
They had been invited to Simpson wood Conference and Retreat Center by the Christian and Missionary Alliance (C&MA), the denomination that ran Mamou Alliance Academy, the school where, as young as six, they had been beaten, fondled, and forced to eat vomit and sit in their own waste (CT, April 27, 1998, p. 16).
With them came 50 of their parents and spouses and 20 counselors and facilitators.
DENOMINATION APOLOGIZES: It was a weekend of hugs and tears, of baring the deepest angers of the past and the greatest concerns for the future. In the bittersweet gathering, some friendships left latent for decades revived and some hurts long buried surfaced.
For officials of the C&MA, a denomination of 328,000 members with missions in more than 50 countries, it marked a time of confession and repentance.
"I want to express to each of you the deep sorrow that we feel because of the abuse that you experienced at Mamou Alliance Academy," C&MA president Peter Nanfelt, 62, told the assembled. "It is hard to imagine the pain which you have endured, some of you for the past 25 to 35 years."
Nanfelt—who became C&MA president last year—apologized that the denomination did not have safeguards in place to prevent the abuse, and that leaders did not take complaints more seriously when they first heard of them. "We were wrong in this, and we are sorry," he said.
During the summer, officials are sending copies of the apology to alumni who could not attend the reunion and will visit anyone who requests a meeting, according to Bob Fetherlin, the denomination's vice president for international missions.
"This weekend we were able to turn an important corner, not only in dealing with this distressing situation from Mamou, but also learning how to do a much better job in the years ahead," Fetherlin said.
FAMILIES RECONCILE: Mamou Alliance Academy in Guinea operated from the 1920s until 1971 in the fertile mountains of West Africa, educating the children of missionaries serving in four countries for the C&MA and other evangelical groups. Most of the abuse occurred in the 1950s and 1960s.
For some alumni, the retreat brought a sense of catharsis.
"Regardless of where we were in our healing process, many of us were able to connect, to talk, to simply be," says Beverly Shellrude-Thompson, 47, a language school director in Toronto who attended Mamou from age 6 until age 16. She says she was psychologically and sexually abused there. "As for the Alliance, for the first time in the five years we've been formally working with them, I heard real grief expressed for what happened."
Although she had been dealing with anger and hurt for years, the retreat marked the first time her father heard Shellrude-Thompson tell her story. He attended along with her sister and brother, also Mamou alumni.
Shellrude-Thompson says her father has suffered great anguish because of what happened to his daughters while he had been on the mission field. "My sister and I have often said we would rather have our pain than our parents' pain."
Howard Beardslee, 72, and his wife, Ann, 70, of Grantham, New Hampshire, know about parents' pain. They attended the reunion with their sons, Keith, 48, and Howard, 46, who lived at Mamou in the late 1950s. "We left them when they were little," says Ann Beardslee. "Now we can be by their sides."