For the past 15 years, Doug has worked as a sort of humanitarian commando in the jungles of Burma, leading clandestine missions into the country's war zones. After nearly a decade in the Army, he left for Fuller Seminary in California where he became an ordained minister. He returned to Southeast Asia, where he had grown up with missionary parents, and became a missionary himself.
Doug started the Free Burma Rangers after witnessing a refugee exodus during an offensive by the Burmese army in Burma's Karen State in 1997. Inspired by the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whom he had met a year earlier, he eventually left his job as a mainline Protestant Christian missionary to work full-time with the country's ethnic minorities. Now, his teams bring medical supplies and "help, hope, and love" to civilians caught amid the fighting between the Burmese army and ethnic insurgents.
Over the years, the Free Burma Rangers have grown from a ragtag band of four volunteers to a network of more than 300 people scattered throughout Burma's conflict zones. With an annual budget of more than $1 million in donations from churches and individuals across the United States and Europe, the Rangers often carry backpacks stuffed with medicine, toys, and Bibles to areas beyond the reach of conventional aid agencies. They also carry guns to defend themselves and villagers who may be under attack -- a choice that has put them at odds with some potential donors.
While the Rangers don't describe themselves as a religious organization, they are led by Christian missionaries and espouse a distinctly Christian message. In many ways, they reflect fundamental shifts in the overseas American missionary movement since it began 200 years ago this year, focusing on humanitarian work and a holistic approach rather than straightforward evangelism.
The first organized international American missionaries boarded a cargo ship in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1812. These five young men, newly ordained as Congregational missionaries, along with their wives and fiancées, sailed to India and were later expelled by the British. Two of them, Adoniram and Ann Judson, had become Baptists and continued their journey to Burma, where Adoniram would work for decades, translating the Bible into the local language and publishing a Burmese-English dictionary that is still used today. The Judsons remain such a presence among Christians in Burma, who now account for 4 percent of the population in this predominantly Buddhist country, that Baptists there still celebrate "Judson Sunday" each year to mark the date of their arrival.
They were hardly the first Western missionaries to venture forth into the world. By the time the Judsons left the United States, about 25,000 European missionaries -- more than half of them Catholic -- had already fanned out across the globe, said Todd Johnson, director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts. American missionaries would later achieve a sort of celebrity as explorers and adventurers, regaling audiences at home with tales of their exploits in far-off lands. They also drew scorn as exponents of colonialism and remain controversial today, even within church circles. Some see them as cultural imperialists, others as spiritual heroes.