By 1819 News staff

The COVID-19 pandemic and unrest around the world have security experts working overtime to ensure the safety of international travel. One Alabama company is consulting with missionaries to help make their missions as safe as possible.

Doug Wilson of Counter Threat Group, a travel security firm located in Birmingham, said travel is picking up since the pandemic. With individual country restrictions, he must track which countries require negative COVID tests and which countries the U.S. requires a negative COVID test for people returning home.

Unrest in Haiti, where missionaries were held hostage, has elevated risk levels. Even the recent abrupt departure from Afghanistan by the Biden administration left many foreign missionaries scrambling to continue their work.

Wilson, a former intelligence officer in the United States Air Force who also serves as Assistant Vice President for University Advancement at Samford University in Birmingham, co-founded Counter Threat Group initially to help churches address safety concerns. The company quickly grew to serve as consultants for businesses, schools and hospitals in a variety of scenarios ranging from acts of terror to cyber security.

Wilson speaks to students and Samford University, and other organizations, prior to travel on mission trips to brief travelers on best practices for travel. He has also participated in many mission trips to Europe and Africa.

According to United Methodist Global Ministries, Taliban representatives in Afghanistan have approached ministries and service organizations there about continuing operations—especially medical work. Missionaries often must build local networks to ensure their work continues despite changes in the political environment.

Mega Missions, a ministry based in Oneonta, saw significant slowdowns in medical mission teams to Mexico during the pandemic.

Speaking to 1819 News from an airport in Harlingen, Texas, Mega Mission founder Johnny Evans said he saw a slowdown in medical travel during the pandemic as doctors and nurses were busy dealing with the surge of COVID patients at home.

“[We’ve had] somewhat of a slowdown, especially the medical ones,” said Evans. “I have a small group of five that aren't afraid to ‘fly under the radar.’ We were able to do a lot of necessary things that the larger groups couldn't or didn't feel comfortable doing.”

Evans is the author of "They Have Bathrooms Down There, Don't They?," a book in which he wrote about his experiences leading mission teams.

Mega Missions has carried teams to Papua New Guinea, Argentina, Central America, and Mexico—which has become its primary focus. The ministry constructs church buildings, leads medical trips and ministers in local prisons and charity hospitals and spends time with families living in a landfill in the area around Victoria, Mexico.

Many of the mission teams traveling with Evans come from churches in Alabama. Mega Missions recently completed the construction of its 140th church.

A lot of logistics goes into the planning of a mission trip before Evans leads a team to Mexico.

“Getting a committed group of individuals from everywhere together is almost impossible,” Evans said.

He uses text messaging, emails and phone calls to help his missionaries arrange everything, from getting passports and visas to paying for supplies.

Evans said he also must plan his flight schedules to ensure the safety of his teams.

“Kind of flying under the radar with the general public is the safest way to travel,” Evans said. “Daytime travel is the only way to move around.”

Wilson agrees that blending in is an important aspect of travel security whether you are traveling as a missionary or a tourist. He also offers several tips to travelers considering an overseas trip.

Wilson suggests staying on top of COVID regulations for testing in the destination country, including quarantine requirements. He also advises people traveling on mission teams to learn about the ministry they are traveling with. Knowing the ministry’s level of experience in the country and being comfortable that the leaders have a strong network of local support is essential to success.

The most dangerous countries, according to Wilson, include Haiti, middle eastern countries, Indonesia and the Philippines. Every country has a travel advisory ranking on the state department website.

“Always check [the] State Department advisory level,” said Wilson. “All countries are categorized at level one through four with four being ‘do not travel.”

Haiti was recently moved to level four.

“People continue to go to these places because of their love for missions and the fertile mission field represented by all of these countries,” Wilson said. 

Ministries based in Alabama organize mission teams to these countries as well as many locations in Africa, India and other areas of the world where Christian ministry can assist with recovery from natural disasters or help in the global fight against poverty or human trafficking.

Ministry leaders are often asked why they travel to other countries when many people in the United States—and here in Alabama—also need help. No matter who you ask, the answer will often contain a reminder that everyone has a different calling to serve.

“Do what you can or [are] allowed to do on your own back porch,” Evans said. “If you know someone that needs help, go and get them. Let’s help them now and first.”