Mission From God: The Upstart Christian Sect Driving Invisible Children and Changing Africa

In a 2007 Invisible Children event at San Jose State University, hundreds of people thronged to experience a full-entertainment night, beginning with a Christian rock group, then a Christian dance troupe, then Invisible Children, the movie.

"Millennial generation, there is something about the way we think and see the world," Randall Wong, a blogger and a Christian student club leader who helped organize the 2007 university event, wrote days after Kony 2012 came out. "As Christians, we need to look beyond what's going on in our little circles, but actually go out and do something."

Their Gospel message got more creative, blending political advocacy with song and dance. It didn't always seem to work.

To promote the organization's 2006 Global Night Commute campaign, Invisible Children filmed a comedic and at times self-deprecating musical featuring Russell and his two co-founders dancing and singing, in a style reminiscent of a Michael Jackson video, in a high-school gymnasium to get people excited about the Ugandan conflict.

In the music video's story, Russell and the two others fire lasers out of their hands at suspicious youths, turning them into rainbow-clothed, line-dancing converts to the cause. "We're on a mission to put Uganda deep inside your mind," they sing. "It needs attention and a dance to make it sparkle and shine." The chorus intones, "We're on a mission to change the world."

 "Romans 12," Russell told me in explaining his worldview on faith and missionary work. "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world."

It's a "stealth movement flying beneath the radar that's changing literally thousands of churches around the world."

It worked. However unlikely, Russell was creating a movement. In 2006, Invisible Children mobilized about 80,000 people, mostly youth, across over 100 American cities, according to the organization's statistics, for the "Global Night Commute" campaign. In 2007, they mobilized 68,000 in 15 American cities for their "Displace Me" campaign. In 2009, they led a rally called "The Rescue" in 10 worldwide cities, mobilizing 85,000 people. In 2011, a campaign called "25 and Break the Silence" attracted 90,000 participants at 18 events across the U.S.

In Washington, D.C., Invisible Children held three different lobbying events over the years, bussing in more than 3,000 young Americans to meet with congressional representatives considering anti-LRA legislation. The law passed. On May 24, 2010, President Obama signed the Lord's Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act.

"They are a movement-building organization," said Sarah Margon, a former staffer of Senator Russ Feingold, who spearheaded the anti-LRA legislation. "Young active Americans who took up the LRA issue were essential in getting the LRA on the foreign policy agenda of senators, and frankly the President of the United States."

From its tours and screenings at schools, churches, and other organizations, Invisible Children recruited scores of teenagers and young adults driven by a sense of idealism, particularly young Christians. Many of them took on jobs and later leadership positions in Invisible Children while staying in touch with their alma maters.

As of the Kony 2012 video release, senior officers of Invisible Children who are affiliated with Christian entities or identify strong Christian backgrounds include: national tour coordinators, lead graphic designers, the "director of ideology," on-the-ground Africa programs officers, finance officers, communications staff, all of the founders, and most of the Board of Directors -- one of whom himself leads an Emerging church in San Diego that Russell and his colleagues sometimes attend.

Russell has rebuked long-running criticisms that Invisible Children feeds off emotion to gather support.

"Our goal at Invisible Children is not to guilt you into doing something, because we don't believe guilt does much except makes you cry, and then you give your money, and then you feel bad and go to Starbucks," Russell told students at Liberty University last year.

The Invisible Children website's bio for Hailey Mitsui, a regional tour manager who joined the organization in 2006, reads: "Hailey first got involved with Invisible Children her freshman year of college when her friend took her to see a screening, she cried her eyes out and bought everything at the merch table."

By the time Kony 2012 was ready to go public, Invisible Children had built a widespread and tight-knit network of college and high-school activist cells across the country, ready to be mobilized at any moment.

It wasn't just luck when Kony 2012 exploded on social media. The initial 5,000 Twitter users who posted the video, launching the online momentum that made it the fastest-growing social media campaign in history, largely came from "highly connected groups of users," according to data analyzed by SocialFlow, a social-network monitoring site.

SocialFlow found two trends in the story of Kony 2012's social media success. First, these mini-networks were largely clustered in "small-medium cities" such as Pittsburgh, Oklahoma City, and especially Birmingham, where #Kony2012 trended several days before the video even launched, suggesting it was driven by a network of Twitter users who were connected enough to Invisible Children to know about the video in advance.

The campaign was also "heavily supported by Christian youth, many of whom post Biblical psalms as their profile bios," according to SocialFlow. An analysis of the users in these core activist networks found that the most common words in their Twitter bios include "Jesus," "God," "Christ," "Life," Love," "University," and "Student."

"Having them all operate at the same time, effectively spamming celebrities and spamming them enough times for them to all talk about it at the same," says Gilad Lotan, vice president of research and development at SocialFlow, "you reach such density in the network."

"I've never seen this tactic being used on such a large scale," Lotan says. "You see it with bots, but organizing actual humans? I hadn't seen that yet."

•       •       •       •       •

American Christians from an array of backgrounds have long found a purpose in Africa, from proselytizing to adopting orphans; from preaching social values, some so conservative that they're illegal back home, to delivering life-saving humanitarian aid.

They even care about saving the bad guys. A website called Adopt a Terrorist For Prayer lets people pay money to, well, pray for a terrorist.

"I've never seen this tactic being used on such a large scale."

"At the core of a faith-based group are people with a passion for Christ or God that drives them in ways that money, politics, and nations cannot," said J. Robert Hunter, who works as a consumer advocate in Washington, D.C., and who has performed ministry work across Africa for decades with the Fellowship Foundation. The Fellowship, as its known, is a Christian fraternity that counts many politicians around the world as members, including a number of U.S. Congressmen. It was as a member of the Fellowship that Hunter helped broker peace talks in Burundi to end its 12-year civil war.

 "The idea behind creating charities and getting close to politicians and trying to encourage their spirituality is the same idea: helping the people on the ground," Hunter told me. "Directly helping the LRA-damaged children is a blessing; getting a leader to become a friend with an enemy is a blessing; getting leaders to recognize their own humanity, turn and see the hurting people they lead is a blessing. My motivation is all because Jesus loves the poor and He can be seen in the poor and these steps might help them."

Yet the American evangelical community's involvement in Africa has also contributed -- at times, through some of the same charities and organizations doing so much good -- to some of Africa's cruelest policies, particularly Uganda's 2009 anti-homosexuality bill, which would call for "repeat offenders" of homosexuality to face the death penalty.

Three American evangelicals who specialize in "sexual orientation correction" participated in a 2009 anti-homosexuality conference in Kampala that is widely seen as having inspired the bill.

The bill's architect, David Bahati, once told me that he first got the idea for the bill from conversations with members of the Fellowship Foundation, with which Bahati was once associated.

Evangelists fly to Uganda regularly, holding mass prayer sessions with blind, broken-limbed, or AIDS-afflicted Africans. They pass out bibles and political advice.

Invisible Children is smack-dab in the middle of this evangelical activist community, and has received hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years in funding from some of the most right-wing evangelical charities in the United States: Christian Community Foundation, Pro-Vision, National Christian Foundation, and the Terry & Rosann Douglass Foundation.

"As a Christian, I believe that God is putting this burden in the hearts of hundreds and thousands of young people, even if they don't believe in Him," Faith McDonnell, a director at the Institute on Religion and Democracy, exclaimed to me.

But Russell's evangelism, like the Emerging Church faith that drives him, is different. And that's part of Kony 2012's power, as well as the subtext against which many critics seem to be reacting.

"We are able to be the Trojan horse in a sense, going into a secular realm and saying, guess what, life is about orphans and it's about the widow. It's about the oppressed," Russell said during the 2005 conference. "It's driven by an adventure and the adventure is God's and it's his story."

And he's not targeting Africans. He's targeting you.

"When Jesus talked about Heavenly Kingdom, the Kingdom comes now, it is now, it's like today," Russell told me, in describing the role his faith played in his mission to stop Kony. "A lot of us doing this work, we are sometimes disappointed in the church not showing up. Not fulfilling the mandate."

Rick Warren, the evangelist pastor who wrote The Purpose Driven Life and is famously close to a number of African presidents (as well as some American ones), contributed to a book about the Emerging Church alongside McLaren. He describes his movement also as a "stealth movement flying beneath the radar that's changing literally thousands of churches around the world."

"Invisible Children wants to be attractive to anyone from any background, period," as Ben Keesey, the CEO of Invisible Children, explained their movement. "We want to build loyalty around a lifestyle brand."

Indeed, staying silent on explicit religious topics while oozing a Jesus-y pheromone has allowed Invisible Children to tap an entire spectrum of Christian charities, philanthropists, and celebrities, from the most liberal to the most conservative.

The National Christian Foundation, which has provided Invisible Children with more than $600,000 over the years between itself and subsidiaries, according to figures from financial statements, gave $817,000 in 2008 alone to Ed Silvoso. An evangelist minister in California, Silvoso works closely with Julius Oyet, a prominent Ugandan Bishop and leading advocate for Uganda's notorious anti-homosexuality bill.

Much has been made of Invisible Children's funding from the religious right. But the truth is that these donations are far outweighed by those from pop-culture behemoths, who happen to be some of the most liberal Christians in the U.S.

Oprah Winfrey recently donated $2 million to Invisible Children. Tom Shadyac -- director of Ace Ventura, Bruce Almighty, and a new spiritually centered movie, I Am; and a self-described "Jesus freak" -- has given Invisible Children nearly $1 million over the years. He was one of the organization's earliest high-profile supporters.

Invisible Children has chosen to target a number of enthusiastically spiritual personalities, from Winfrey and Rick Warren to Bono, Tim Tebow, and Justin Bieber, whose faith (he's got Jesus tattoos) was on display in a recent documentary and Christmas album.

In 2006, Invisible Children received roughly $10,000 from an Emerging church in Santa Barbara. In 2007, it received $10,000 from a foundation that emphasizes faith spirituality, $20,000 from a foundation that focuses on the relationship between science and spirituality, nearly $10,000 from a Christian media organization, and $5,600 from a Catholic performing-arts high school.

In 2008, it received $5,000 from a Christian rehabilitation ministry that includes sexual orientation struggles. It received $6,000 from a Christian philosophy ministry and nearly $80,000 from an American Christian charity in Uganda that helps orphans. And it's not only Christians who are giving: Invisible Children won $1 million from a Chase Bank charity competition.

Jason Russell's experiment seems to be working. He's getting Christians, and others, to embrace his message of what the Gospel of Jesus Christ means without actually discussing religion explicitly.

The campaign contributed to a remarkable bi-partisan effort in Congress to introduce and pass legislation condemning Kony and the LRA, and eventually calling for money, equipment, and human expertise to be dispensed by the United States to regional African armies to stop them.

"The American response was highly correlated to people's religious beliefs," said David Rubenstein, a founder of the Save Darfur campaign, referring to that conflict's advocacy history. "There is certainly a religious and spiritual energy to advocating on Capitol Hill."

Even within the Invisible Children organization itself, a surprising blend of liberal and conservative have come together. Of Invisible Children's four independent board members, one is an openly gay pastor (and the head of an Emerging Church); another donated to California's Proposition 8 campaign to ban gay marriage.

 "If Jim Inhofe and Jim McGovern can get together," Keesey told me, in reference to board members Pastor Rich McCullen and John Bradel, "That's the beauty of this thing."

•       •       •       •       •

But it's been a hard journey for Russell. Almost as soon as he and his movie became famous, they became infamous, and the criticism -- from bloggers, university professors, politicians, and LRA victims themselves -- has been vitriolic. Russell was ridiculed in part for comments he'd made referring to himself as "the messenger."

Ultimately, it may have gotten the best of him. Criticism of Russell's campaign became overwhelming, from financial spending to the video's inaccuracies to a photo of the Invisible Children founders posing with weapons in Central Africa. From bloggers to academics, it seemed like virtually everyone wanted to bring him down.

Invisible Children even released a sequel to Kony 2012 last week. Yet only 1.3 million people have bothered watching so far -- less than 1% of the original viewers.

When a TV anchor asked last month if criticism of the organization felt surprising, Invisible Children CEO Ben Keesey gave the business answer, "No, I don't think so." But when the anchor pressed on Russell, he opened up.

 "It does, just a little bit," Russell said. "It's about the heart of the messenger." He paused again. "And we were like, 'Oh, wow, I didn't know this tension was out there.'"

Last month, Russell's family released a statement that, after his public breakdown, Russell was still being hospitalized and had a "long way to go."


* - This sentence originally identified Mark Driscoll as an "Emerging Liberal" in the Emerging Church movement. According to a spokesperson for Driscoll's Mars Hill ministry, he was once affiliated with other theologians affiliated with Emerging Liberals, but now identifies himself as an "Emerging Reformer."

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Josh Kron is a writer based in Kampala, Uganda. He covers east Africa and Africa's Great Lakes Region for The New York Times and has written for Foreign Policy, The Guardian, CNN, and Ha'aretz.

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