The curious case of Fly Fishing Collaborative
"Gaining a good network of supporters is critical to the life of any new NGO, and in this day and age people can be very leery of supporting any non-profit; not everyone out there is completely sincere in their fundraising efforts."
from the opening paragraph to his story,
"Fly Fishing Collaborative in South Africa,"
in Revive: A Fly Fishing Journal, fall 2016.
THE VILLAGE OF YEMERI GROVE, BELIZE, sits roughly 200 miles south of Belize City and about 10 miles north of Punta Gorda, or "PG"—the "Permit Capital of Southern Belize." PG is home to both the luxurious Bel Campo Lodge, surrounded on all sides by jungle and howler monkeys; and Garbutt's Fishing Lodge, surrounded on all sides by water and permit flats. Driving down to PG for a late-February fishing trip, I stopped in Yemeri Grove to meet with Emerson Mangar, the 34-year-old manager of an aquaponic tilapia farm that was funded and built in spring 2015 by a Portland, Oregon-based non-profit called Fly Fishing Collaborative (FFC).
FFC was founded in 2013 by Bucky Buchstaber—now its executive director—with the aim of "rescuing kids from human trafficking through the efforts of the fly fishing community." (The word "rescuing" had been used on FFC's homepage since 2013. In early March, four days after I interviewed Buchstaber for this article, it was changed to "preventing.") The group works toward this goal by building tilapia farms around the globe similar to the one in Belize, creating a funding mechanism allowing safehomes and orphanages to generate their own source of both food and income. Specifics are found on FFC's website under the "Vision" tab: "Every $15,000 we raise will provide a totally sustainable tilapia farm that will be built for an orphanage or safe-home in order to provide them with food, income, water, and fresh produce." Descriptions are also provided on videos found on FFC's website and Vimeo page, the most recent from Jan. 20, 2017, where Buchstaber again details FFC's mission: "The Fly Fishing Collaborative is an organization that mobilizes the great people in the flyfishing community to build sustainable aquaponics farms for safehomes and orphanages around the world. These homes provide livelihood for children that are being rescued or prevented from entering into child trafficking."
February 26th, 2017
March 3rd, 2017
FFC raises money in a variety of ways, but primarily through individual contributions, donated fishing trips from guides, and sales of flies, fly wallets, and other FFC gear. This money pays for the tilapia farms. The farm in Belize is the second built by FFC, after northern Thailand, and I'd emailed Buchstaber before my trip, asking if he would set up the meeting with Mangar. He replied that he thought it would be great for me to see the farm, but added that the Belize operation isn't an exact model of what they do, "given that it's not directly related to child trafficking."
This is true. The FFC farm in Belize is not directly related to child trafficking. Nor is it indirectly related. The $33,170 tilapia farm built in Belize was not built for a safehome and it was not built for an orphanage, it was built for a private missionary school called the Toledo Christian Academy (TCA), whose goal is "making disciples and lovers of the Word of God through a Christ-centered education." Mangar and his wife, Juliana, manage and run the farm and academy, but an American Board of Directors based in Waco, Texas, oversees the school.
In Buchstaber's original email, he explained that FFC had built the farm for the school in order to "help them care for kids in the surrounding villages through their feeding program." But the school's feeding program doesn't feed kids in the surrounding villages; it feeds the students at TCA, who are already heavily subsidized by private donations. As Mangar began showing me the farm, he explained how it is being used to raise money, and how that money is spent.
"One of the reasons that Bucky and the others are so excited," Mangar said, "is because the farm helps provide local funding to pay our teachers."
"What about the feeding program?" I asked. "Bucky mentioned that. Who does that feed?"
Mangar: "The children."
Me: "Children in the community?"
Mangar: "No, children in the school. We have more than 100 students, and every day the students get hot lunches. They have to pay a little bit for the hot lunch, but part of the supply of vegetables comes from the tilapia farm. That's why what Bucky is doing here is extremely important. We did not have to pay a dime for what they did, and it's providing a way for us to bring in funds so we can continue to have students get a quality education." (This education includes using the controversial fundamentalist-Christian A Beka curriculum books, which cost TCA $8,000 per school year.)
During more than an hour spent with Mangar, he politely and thoroughly described TCA's tilapia operation without once mentioning food or money from the farm going toward anything but the school itself. He did say that TCA had enrolled foster children in the past, and that private donations helped keep tuition low, but he emphasized on several occasions that the money raised from the farm would go toward helping the school become more "self-sustaining"—by reducing costs and helping pay for maintenance and growth. "What we are working toward right now is being able to sell 600 to 1,000 fish per month, and we sell each fish at $5 Belize a pound," Mangar said. "With $5,000 a month, we could have scholarships for kids, send our teachers off to further their education, or different things we have envisioned for the future. Eventually, we want to duplicate the Christian academy in one of the other districts, so we'll have a sister school."
Mangar described how missionary groups from churches in the U.S.—like Calvary Chapel, in Mesquite, Nevada, and The River church, in Blacksburg, Virginia—come down every year to help work around the school—about six groups per year, usually with about 15 people each. "You should see people's eyes open up when I tell them what we're doing," he said. "A lot of people are into helping churches across the globe become more self-sustaining—that's kind of the movement that we're seeing at this time."
On April 18, 2015, TCA held a ceremony inaugurating their new tilapia farm, and the event was covered by Breaking News Belize. The story made no mention of Fly Fishing Collaborative or its efforts to fight sex trafficking. Nor did it mention the more than 30 grand that FFC put toward the project. But the story did quote then-principal Mangar: "The first persons to eat tilapias will be students and staff," he said. "The rest will be available for sale."
I asked Mangar how Buchstaber and the Fly Fishing Collaborative had selected TCA as the place to build a farm, and he told me that it began with a question from one of the missionaries. "This guy from Virginia, Todd Meyer," Mangar said. "He came down with a mission-team and he said to me, ‘Emerson, what would you think about raising tilapias? Because I know some people who would be thrilled to come down and help you do it.'"
I FIRST READ ABOUT FFC in the winter 2014 issue of Revive magazine, which had a story called "Welcome to the Jungle" written by Buchstaber. The opening graphs gave a vague outline of how he and his wife had envisioned FFC, and ended with an inspiring realization: "Finally two years later it was this recent Thailand trip that proved that what we dreamed to do through FFC is actually possible. We did it!"
All this enthusiasm was intriguing, but the rest of the story was about overcoming fear and fishing for blue mahseer, which left many unanswered questions. "How much money was raised? Where did it come from? Where in Thailand was the farm built?"
Some details became available later, as Buchstaber began sharing the FFC story more broadly. Starting last summer, he began posting regularly on the Christian blog site, Saturate: "I took a much closer look at what I do when I'm not ‘at church' and how I can use that part of my life to reach the lost," Buchstaber wrote on July 18, 2016. "So one April night in 2014, I gathered a handful of my friends together in my living room to brainstorm ways we could include people from the fly fishing community in God's great plan of restoration."
When FFC began operations in 2013, its website listed two non-profits as beneficiaries of its fundraising efforts—Hear the Cry, based in Oregon; and Remember Nhu, based in Ohio. Hear the Cry, according to its website, "started in 2007 when one church in Portland [Westside: A Jesus Church] decided to give 10% of every dollar toward compassion and justice causes around the world." But according to the Oregon Department of Justice, Hear the Cry is the church, operating under an assumed business name for A Jesus Church Family, for whom Buchstaber was formerly a pastor. "Hear the Cry would not be considered a separate legal entity from A Jesus Church Family," an Oregon DOJ employee wrote to me. "It is more like an official nickname."
Hear the Cry has two "field partners" named Jason and Brenda Sommer who, according to Mangar, did most of the heavy lifting on the FFC Belize project. "Jason did all the welding and Brenda did all the plumbing," Mangar said. "They are both workhorses." Because churches are exempt from the Oregon DOJ's non-profit registration requirements, and because Hear the Cry operates within A Jesus Church, Hear the Cry's financials aren't public. But the Sommers were paid $20,000 in 2015 for their work with FFC. The husband-and-wife team is also listed on the donation page for Remember Nhu. (A lot of crossover exists between these four groups, none more so than for a man named Michael McDonald, who serves as board member for Remember Nhu, board member for Fly Fishing Collaborative, Executive Director of Hear the Cry, and Global Justice Pastor for Westside: A Jesus Church.)
Remember Nhu began in 2005 and aims to end child sex slavery through a particular kind of prevention. According to the group's website: "When introduced to the incomparable love of Jesus Christ, children are introduced to a new and accurate vision of themselves. Nurturing children into mature disciples of Jesus Christ protects them from the sex trade." Remember Nhu operates 70 children's homes in a dozen countries and had close to $3 million in revenue in 2016. The group's founder, Carl Ralston, gave a presentation at Fly Fishing Collaborative's 2016 fundraising event at the Multnomah Athletic Club in downtown Portland. Ralston and his wife recently moved from Ohio to Oregon, where they also attend Westside: A Jesus Church. Ralston attends the Hood River Alliance Church as well, just east of Portland, and is a prominent member of its parent organization, the Colorado Springs-based Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA), otherwise known as The Alliance, whose $43 million "Great Commission Fund" finances more than 2,000 U.S.-based CMA churches and ministries. Alliance churches make up just one of the many evangelical church families that view exponential growth as their way of fulfilling God's "Great Commission"—spreading the word of Jesus Christ to all nations.
This growth—often accomplished through "church planting"—is a central doctrine to the modern, hip, non-denominational, "emerging church movement" or "missional movement," whose churches go by many monikers, including "seeker," "apostolic," and "charismatic." While the tattoo-covered congregations these churches produce are sometimes mocked or criticized, and some of their bad-egg pastors exposed, the fact remains that church groups do much of the world's important, essential caregiving work that governments are unable or unwilling to do themselves. This partly explains why minor transgressions by religious organizations are sometimes overlooked in the name of Big Picture virtue. But overlooked too long, and minor transgressions can become major atrocities. In 1998, one of the Alliance's branches was found guilty of more than 20 years of systematic child abuse from the 1950s to the 1970s. Thirty alumni from the Mamou Alliance Academy in Guinea were found guilty of rape, sexual molestation, excessive beating, and sadistic dental practices performed without novacaine. The academy, which a 2010 article in Christianity Today described as "the Auschwitz of missionary kid boarding schools," was the subject of the 2008 documentary All God's Children.
AFTER BELIZE, on Feb. 26, I called Buchstaber to ask why so much money had been spent on a private school rather than an orphanage or safehouse, as indicated on FFC's website and fundraising videos. "I was pretty confident that Emerson was going to set up a feeding program in the surrounding villages," Buchstaber said. "I guess my bad is not following up as well as I should have." He sent me an email later that evening: "Emerson is a great guy down there in Belize, with a heart of gold, but I was really disappointed to hear that he's not doing more good to the surrounding community." Buchstaber then added: "It would have been so nice for you to see some of our other farm projects that are much more anti-trafficking related."
I agree, but only two other farm projects are listed on FFC's 2015 federal and state tax filings (the most recent available)—Uganda and Rwanda, both in East Africa, which is harder to reach than Belize. And if FFC's filings are accurate, and the Uganda and Rwanda farms are both "more anti-trafficking related," then why did FFC spend more than four times as much on the Belize farm ($33,170), than on the combined amount spent in Uganda and Rwanda? ($7,584). To be clear: The point isn't that 30 grand was spent on "disciple-making" in Belize; it's that 30 grand wasn't spent on fighting sex-trafficking in Belize, especially considering that the U.S. State Department's 2016 "monitoring and combating trafficking in persons" report ranks Belize as a Tier 3 country—its worst rating—below both Uganda and Rwanda. (Tier 3 countries are described by the State Department as those "whose governments do not fully comply with the minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so.")
"That farm in Belize doesn't define us," Buchstaber told me. Maybe not, but nonprofits, young ones especially, are defined by actions not words. And of the $169,825 in 2015 revenue listed on FFC's taxes—of which $83,783 went to "salaries, other compensation, and employee benefits"—the $7,584 spent on non-Belize tilapia farms represents less than 4.5 percent.
The morning after speaking to Buchstaber, I received a second follow-up email from him, again placing blame on TCA despite his role as FFC's executive director. "When we talked of them [TCA] serving their local community with the farm we felt it was a worthy project," Buchstaber wrote. "It's hard to hear that they haven't done much for their surrounding community. That pains me."
Three hours later Buchstaber sent a third follow-up, only this time he changed his perspective and began defending various aspects of the academy: "Just to be fair about the project in Belize, TCA (the school that Emerson leads) provides free tuition waivers to many underprivileged/poor children that would not otherwise go to school because their families cannot afford it. I believe they also offer free meals to surrounding kids. I hope he told you all that."
But Mangar had not told me all that, because none of that is true. I passed Buchstaber's comments onto Mangar via email, and he promptly responded. "All primary school students in our district go to school, just not all of them to TCA," Mangar wrote. "There are no ‘poor' students withheld from receiving an education." As to Buchstaber's comments about TCA providing "free tuition waivers to many underprivileged/poor children" Mangar said: "Fees are waived as the need arises. If parents present their case to us and we see their need to be helped, then we remain open to waiver. At this time there is not a need for this."
Buchstaber's sudden about-face was surprising, especially considering our initial phone conversation. When I returned from Belize I'd emailed one of my friends in Punta Gorda, a guide for the Garbutts and a lifelong resident of the Toledo District who had told me a story about trying to get his son into TCA. "I sent him twice to take their test and they said he wasn't qualified," he wrote me. "And I know my boy is as smart or smarter than the average kid, so I'm not seeing them looking after underprivileged kids with those kinds of standards."
I shared this story with Buchstaber over the phone and said that it didn't sound to me like TCA was serving the most vulnerable kids in the community. "No, it definitely isn't," he answered. "It's not a farm that we boast about and it's not a good representation of our program. I'll tell you that straight up."
Why build it, then? Why did FFC choose to build, for only their second project, a farm that so obviously deviates from their stated mission? I asked Buchstaber, via email, about Todd Meyer, the man who'd first approached Mangar about the tilapia idea. "Todd is one of the supporters of the school," Buchstaber replied, adding that when FFC took on the Belize project for TCA it was partly because "they, through Todd Meyer's network, had some funds available to share the expense."
Meyer currently serves as pastor for family ministry at the St. James Anglican Church in Cost Mesa, CA, but when the farm was being built in Belize he was the associate pastor for Church of the Holy Spirit in Roanoke, VA—sister church to The River, which has been hosting annual missions to Punta Gorda and TCA since June 2010. According to a 2013 blog post on Church of the Holy Spirit's website: "The goal for these mission trips to Belize has been to develop a long-term relationship with TCA so that we can help them improve their facility, provide better training for their staff, help them to become self-sufficient so that they will no longer have to rely on foreign funds." The post included a list of projects that had been completed at TCA by the missionaries, including building a new kitchen, replacing a roof, putting in a foundation, and sending two of TCA's teachers on full scholarship to Liberty University, the Lynchburg, VA-based Christian college founded in the early 1970s by famed televangelist Jerry Falwell.
By fall 2015, another item had been added to Church of the Holy Spirit's completed-project list: a tilapia farm for TCA. "One of the best kept secrets in missions at Church of the Holy Spirit is a little school named Toledo Christian Academy in the Southern part of Belize," Meyer wrote in a November 2015 blog post aimed at recruiting members for an upcoming mission to TCA ($1,300 p/p). "We have been partnering with this school for over 5 years building relationships with the staff and community by doing construction on a new office building, building a tilapia farm, running vacation Bible schools, and more." A post by Meyer the month before had noted that, "One large way that Church of the Holy Spirit has supported TCA is through the building of an aquaponic tilapia farm earlier this year. This farm is providing them with fish and produce that they can serve at school or sell for income."
In other words, the farm is doing exactly what Emerson Mangar told me it was doing.
BUCHSTABER SHARED that he has at times wrestled with his relationship to the church, and that he set up FFC as a non-faith organization because he didn't "want to just work with Christians." He added that, "the heartbeat of Fly Fishing Collaborative is not to go out and make converts." But FFC has thus far only been non-faith in its fundraising. The actual spending has all gone through evangelical groups that clearly state the growth of Christianity as their primary goal, which might be just fine with some donors but ought to be made transparent on FFC's website regardless.
Buchstaber said that he is trying to work with more non-faith groups like Portland's Sexual Assault Resource Center (SARC). Yet his own words show his struggle in keeping non-church friendships formed on the river separate from evangelism: "Working with the un-churched, mainly the Fly Fishing Community, has become the heartbeat of our organization, Fly Fishing Collaborative. How can we as Christian leaders in the marketplace make more room in our businesses for non-believers to join us in what God is doing?" he wrote this fall on the website, Saturate. "It is then, when they see the fingerprints of God in their jobs, and contribute to the good God is bringing to this world, they can see God for who He is; the natural response to that is surrender and worship."