Gospel for Asia's K.P. Yohannan and the Ring Kissing Ritual

In one of my early communications with Gospel for Asia’s COO David Carroll I asked:

Can you confirm that the reason GFA organizes as an episcopal type church is related to Indian law. I have been told  that Indian law requires GFA to register as a church and assume a governance structure similar to the officially recognized Catholic Church and the United Church of India.  That means an episcopal structure (with bishops, etc.) is required.  Thus KP Yohannan is officially the Metropolitan (archbishop) of the Believers Church.  Is this why allegiance to KP Yohannan and kissing his ring is involved?

Carroll answered: 

In regard to Gospel for Asia’s structure, while we are thoroughly evangelical, our organization and church structure is specific and unique to the areas where we work most heavily. Additionally, K.P. Yohannan’s title is understood in the countries where we work to refer to the senior leader of the organization.  In regard to your question about kissing K.P.’s ring, I haven’t seen it, nor am I aware, that it has ever happened. 

On ring kissing, David Carroll needs to see this video:
[youtube]https://youtu.be/rfHoh6xMEkM[/youtube]
The man seated is K.P. Yohannan and the men coming forward are being ordained into the Believers’ Church. They very clearly are kissing Yohannan’s hand, and at times, it seems clear that they are kissing his ring.
The allegations that GFA and Believers’ Church have evolved from an evangelical ministry to a self-contained episcopal type denomination have dogged GFA for about a decade. This video was taken at an ordination service. According to my source, the service took place in 2009 in India at one of the Believers’ Church seminaries.
One former leader in India told me that the pastors were taught several years ago to kiss Yohannan’s ring, which has the Believers’ Church emblem on it. However, many felt awkward with practice and the leaders revised the ritual to include bowing low before Yohannan before he touched a person’s forehead with his signet ring. In any case, these rituals seem to place significant emphasis on allegiance to the Metropolitan. 
As recently as April of this year, Yohannan denied remembering it. In a staff meeting, in response to a question about it, Yohannan said:

Did anybody ever kiss my hand or my ring? In memory I cannot ever recall I allowed it to happen or if they did it. Because we never teach it. We never promote it. That is not our doctrine, I am not a god, anything, but if people who talk about it and say this, they saw it, what can I do.
and then…
What have I done to you or to anyone here to promote me? When I took the ring on my hand, as God Almighty my witness, I was going to a death chamber. I never asked anyone to kiss my ring, I never allowed it to happen. We never teach it, we never promote it.
The audio is hard to make out but the first quote above is first on the audio followed by the second quote.
ring-kissing1-cropped
Of course, none of this means that Gospel for Asia is ineffective in ministry to the poor or in service to others. However, the practice of structuring cash transfers to India in ways which evade detection by customs officials and now the double talk on their ecclesiastical practices raises many questions about the organization’s other claims. GFA has asked for and received a significant exception to financial reporting requirements from the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. Prominent pastors like Francis Chan claim that GFA’s practices are clean. However, perhaps GFA should respond to these recent concerns with increased transparency rather than silence as they have in the past two weeks.

Gospel for Asia Tells Staff Carrying Cash to India is Legal But They Won’t Do it Anymore

Cash
Image courtesy of sheelamohan at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Last week, I reported the testimony of several former Gospel for Asia students and staffers who told me that GFA asked them to carry envelopes of cash into India.Some groups may have carried as much as $135,000 in cash to India via individual envelopes of cash packed in luggage or backpacks. According to U.S. law, more than $10,000 leaving or entering the country must be declared and cannot be split up among co-travelers to evade declaration. No source I spoke with filled out any customs forms to declare the cash as required by law.

I asked GFA COO David Carroll for comment or explanation before that article was published with no response. I have reached out again this week but have not heard back.

In the mean time, I was given audio of a staff meeting which took place last week after my article was published where GFA leaders Carroll, KP Yohannan, and Danny Yohannan answered a staff question about the practice of various GFA travelers carrying money to India. In the meeting, the leaders acknowledged that students, pastors and staff had carried cash to India. Even though staff have complained for months, the staff were just informed last week that GFA leaders have decided to discontinue it. Listen to the segment in response to a question from a female staffer:

(Author’s note: During the week of November 13, 2015, GFA, through attorneys, demanded the removal of the audio from this post. Even though the use of the audio is in keeping with fair use of the material, I decided to post a link to the audio rather than embed it.)

Listen to the segment of the May 14, 2015 staff meeting (click the link)
Transcript:

Female staffer: Ok, so the money regarding the students taken over to India, you know we have to carry the money over. How is that audited? Because if I lost my backpack, all that money would have been lost, and that’s money from sponsors and donors. So why is that put in place, and if it was lost, how would you track that?

David Carroll: That’s a good question and actually that was going to be one of the next questions that we answered because someone wrote a very emotional question about that and said why we were endangering students by having them carry the money to India, and I just want to say that for whoever asked the question that I’m sorry we’ve given you, truly sorry that we’ve given you the impression that we were endangering students. A couples things you should know we would never endanger students or anyone else, we’ve had pastors carry money, we’ve had staff carry money, we’re always looking for ways to get money into India because the reality is that it’s getting more difficult to do that, and we are looking for other ways that we’re able to do that. But we checked with our auditors before we ever would allow such a practice. We actually called Bland Garvey, they’re our audit firm and said this is what we’re planning to do, this is what we are intending to do, and they told us how we get it receipted they said it’s completely legal, you’re under all limits, you need to get receipts, there need to be receipts here, there need to be receipts there which Lori has receipts from here. The Indian side also account for that money as received. If you were to lose it, they couldn’t receive it, and in that case, we would say it’s lost basically. We would have to tell the auditors we gave it and it didn’t get to the other side and I’m sure they wouldn’t be very happy, but is it receipted on the other side as received, and accounted for? Yes, it is on the other side of the pond.
So, we have stopped that practice, we feel that it put more emotional burden on people than we realized and then we wanted to and so…

KP Yohannan: It is a perception problem also. Like when I go to Burma and Nepal, I carry quite a lot of travelers checks and get into the country and cash it into local currency and I give it and then the border department, they account for that money in the local Burmese currency or wherever I’ve been to so (?). It’s a legal thing, you cannot carry any more than $5000 and not declare it but when you get India, Nepal, Burma, you can cash it, you can burn it, you can eat it, you can throw it away, you can give it, it is a local currency you are giving it and so receipts are accounted in the book are reported to the government (?) and that is an absolute thing because what I am trying to say, it’s not trying to be under the radar, or illegal smuggling money into the country, nothing like that.  

Carroll: We had heard that one explanation you were given was that the tax rate is high, which would indicate that we’re trying to avoid tax on the money and that’s not the case. I’m sorry if that got skewed but that’s not the case. It’s actually reported on the other side legally so we can do everything we’re supposed to do in reporting that money to the Indian government.

Yohannan: But we don’t do that anymore.

Carroll: We’ve stopped the practice.

Danny Yohannan: We are always looking for legal ways to bring resources into the ministry, but also over there we’re trying to be as responsible to even raise funds on that side…

Shorter GFA: We did nothing wrong and we won’t do it again.

Several questions come to mind. If GFA is not trying to be “under the radar” then why are students given $4500 each? In India, customs would need to be informed in individuals bring in $5000 or more. Clearly, more than $5000 at a time was sent from Texas to India (the smallest group I have heard about so far is 10 people = $45,000; largest was 30 – $135,000). Thus, structuring the transfer among the students to avoid informing the Indian officials seems to be flying under the radar. Furthermore, on the U.S. side, the law requires aggregate amounts more than $10,000 to be declared. If there is no desire to hide the full amount being sent from Texas to India, then why give each member of the group $4500? Why give cash to students, ministry partners and pastors at all? Why not have the GFA staffer in charge simply declare the entire amount when leaving the U.S. and when arriving in India?

It is hard to understand the reason that GFA needs to get money to India. GFA sends millions to India through established channels. It seems hard to understand why donor funds have been risked in this manner.

None of my sources recall getting receipts in India.

A new source told me that a group of between 20-30 people traveled to India in April, each carrying $4500. If GFA has discontinued the practice, it happened just recently. At this point, very little of the explanation given by GFA can be verified. Emails to Bland Garvey and David Carroll have gone unanswered. However, it is now clear that GFA has been moving large amounts of cash from Texas to India via students, staff and pastors.

Money Travels With the Passengers on Gospel for Asia Mission Trips to India

Cash
Image courtesy of sheelamohan at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Gospel for Asia sponsors frequent “vision trips” to India. These trips help inspire donors and prospective ministry workers to give time and money to the work of GFA. In Texas, GFA runs a School of Discipleship and the students at the school often go as a group to India as a part of their work. According to some former GFA travelers, they pack more than cameras and a toothbrush.
For over two years, some GFA travelers to India have been packing envelopes of cash designed to be taken into India and given unopened to GFA headquarters in Kerala, India.  According to my sources, GFA staff in Texas have on multiple occasions given GFA travelers sealed envelopes filled with cash and said that the envelope contained $4500. The travelers — who were traveling together in groups of various sizes — were told the figure of $4500 was designed to avoid the need to declare the cash in India. Amounts of $5000 or more must be declared upon arrival. According to federal law, any amount of cash may be taken out of the country, but amounts of $10,000 or more must be declared when leaving or entering the U.S. According to my sources, the GFA groups were carrying far more than $10,000 per trip.
Over the last several days, I have spoken to five GFA travelers* who carried money to India in this manner and have examined GFA source information which described the practice.  The sources said that most if not all members of their groups carried the envelopes filled with $4500. For instance, a group of ten people carried $45,000. I asked GFA COO David Carroll for comment but he has not replied.
Pushing the Envelope
One individual told me that a GFA leader told a group of travelers that taxes were high in India and by taking undeclared cash, the ministry would benefit. According to all sources, each individual in the GFA groups received a sealed envelope from GFA leaders in Texas. I was told that one group had ten people carrying cash ($45,000 at one time) and another source said there were 30 travelers in a group (a maximum of $135,000). The travelers were told that each package contained $4500 and that each member of the group would turn in the envelope to a GFA leader in Kerala, India. The money did not belong to the travelers and was not to be used for expenses. The envelopes were to remain sealed and turned over to a GFA leader at headquarters or a Synod office for the Believers Church. Some specifically named Siny Punnose, who works in finance for GFA in India. Some groups consisted of students, some of ministry partners, and at times, pastors have been asked to carry funds.
All sources felt odd about taking the money. One person said fear of losing it or having it stolen was a constant preoccupation. They worried they were doing something that didn’t sound right. Even though the leaders assured them that the practice was fine, it still didn’t seem right.
And, in fact, the travelers may have been right to worry.
Currency Structuring
One may leave or enter the United States with any amount of cash. However, a person who has $10,000 or more must declare it on a form designed by Customs and Border Protection when leaving or entering the U.S. As a recent CBP press release says, one may not split it up and have others carry it for you. In this case, GFA asked the travelers to carry much more than the $10,000 limit in total.

If travelers have someone else carry the currency or monetary instrument for them, they must file a currency report for the entire amount with CBP.  Failure to report may result in seizure of the currency and/or arrest.

Another CBP press release tells of an Italian man who attempted to come into the country with more than $10k along with “co-travelers.”

During a secondary inspection, the man, who arrived from Italy, reported possessing $11,700. It was later discovered that the man had given money to two co-travelers in order to evade currency reporting requirements, an illegal practice known as currency structuring. In total the cash added up to $24,644. CBP officers seized the money, issued the man a $1,000 penalty, and then returned the remaining cash back to the man.

The reporting requirements apply to travelers leaving and entering the country.

International travelers who arrive or depart the United States in possession of more than $10,000 or equivalent foreign currency are required to report all currency to CBP officers and complete a Treasury Department Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) form. (emphasis added)

Federal law appears to forbid such undeclared money moves without declaration. None of my sources report any forms filed. Note that the relevant federal law forbids aiding, commanding, or requesting such moves in the aggregate:

§ 103.23 Reports of transportation of currency or monetary instruments.

(a) Each person who physically transports, mails, or ships, or causes to be physically transported, mailed, or shipped, or attempts to physically transport, mail or ship, or attempts to cause to be physically transported, mailed or shipped, currency or other monetary instruments in an aggregate amount exceeding $10,000 at one time from the United States to any place outside the United States, or into the United States from any place outside the United States, shall make a report thereof. A person is deemed to have caused such transportation, mailing or shipping when he aids, abets, counsels, commands, procures, or requests it to be done by a financial institution or any other person. (emphasis added)
(b) Each person who receives in the U.S. currency or other monetary instruments in an aggregate amount exceeding $10,000 at one time which have been transported, mailed, or shipped to such person from any place outside the United States with respect to which a report has not been filed under paragraph (a) of this section, whether or not required to be filed thereunder, shall make a report thereof, stating the amount, the date of receipt, the form of monetary instruments, and the person from whom received.

I am not an attorney and realize that there may be some unknown facts which make this all fine. However, it seems strange to me. GFA can wire money to India and does so frequently. There are many other ways to get money to the field which can be verified transparently. If these travelers are accurate in their reports, GFA is causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash to be transported without declaration. This practice seems risky and fraught with many negatives and potentials for abuse.
I want to repeat that on Tuesday I asked GFA’s David Carroll for comment and explanation.
*All sources spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation from GFA. None of the people I spoke with are affiliated with the GFA Diaspora.

Gospel for Asia Faces Allegations of Misconduct; GFA Board Investigation Found No Wrongdoing (UPDATED)

GFA LOGOGospel for Asia is a large missionary organization which supports direct evangelism, child sponsorships, Bible colleges, education, disaster relief and several other ministries. Their assets are substantial but, at their request, I am not going to address how much money they take in.* The 990s are not available on Guidestar and so it is very difficult to find out specific information about the financial situation.

GFA describes itself as a missionary organization and a church. What GFA calls The Believer’s Church is based in Wills Point, TX and apparently consists of the various churches planted around the world. According to the church website, the church has “over 2.4 million members scattered throughout 14 nations.”

According to the organization website, GFA was founded by K.P. Yohannan. Yohannan is the head of GFA and The Believers’ Church and uses the title Metropolitan Bishop of Believers’ Church.

Dr. K.P. Yohannan, the Metropolitan Bishop of Believers Church, was born and brought up in Niranam, Kerala. Niranam has immense historical significance in the tradition of Saint Thomas, a disciple of Jesus Christ who planted the first church there in AD 52.

In June of 2014, a group of 30 former employees sent a letter to Gospel for Asia with five allegations. The full letter is linked here. According to the former staff group, GFA replied with a defensive and, to my eye, threatening letter. In September 2014, a follow up letter was sent, this time with nearly 80 signatures. GFA responded again on March 26, 2015 with results of an investigation. In short, they considered the matter closed.

In summary, the five basic allegations are below.
1. GFA leadership practices and teaches a false view of spiritual authority.

2. GFA leadership prioritizes ministry over family, and teaches the same.

3. GFA leaders lie or intentionally deceive people in order to “protect” the ministry.

4. GFA practices unbiblical shunning.

5. GFA prohibits or discourages staff involvement in bible studies, small groups and local churches.

My purpose with this post is simply to report that there has been an ongoing effort by nearly 80 former employees to communicate these charges to Gospel for Asia since June 2014. According to GFA, an investigation found no wrongdoing but this response from GFA has not been sufficient for the former staffers.

I was alerted to this matter by a former donor earlier this month. Since then, two more donors have contacted me with similar concerns.

Apparently, during April, some GFA leaders have contacted individuals in the former GFA staff group (GFA Diaspora) with offers to talk about personal matters. J.D., the Diaspora’s spokesperson, said that no apology has come officially from GFA. According to the spokesperson, a more systematic response from GFA is needed to fully address the problems. Even so, the former employees do not wish to harm GFA. Speaking for the entire group, J.D. said:

It is not our intention to harm GFA or its staff in any way. From the beginning, our hope in addressing these matters has been to see repentance and change.

In response to my inquiry, GFA Chief Operating Officer, David Carroll, sent the following statement.

Gospel for Asia was disheartened to receive a letter dated June 17, 2014 from a group of former employees expressing concerns with our leadership team. We value the well-being of our staff and don’t take criticism lightly. After unsuccessfully trying to seek biblical reconciliation with every signer of the letter, our board launched a formal inquiry into the complaints outlined by the former employees. Gospel for Asia President and Board Chair K. P. Yohannan and his family members, also members of the board, recused themselves from participating in the investigation to ensure a fair and unbiased process. At the same time, our leadership team examined our HR policies and procedures, making improvements wherever possible, and affirmed the freedoms afforded to those called to the work of Gospel for Asia. While the board investigation concluded that there was no wrongdoing on the part of leadership, we recognize that, as humans, our leadership is not always going to be perfect. At the same time, our motivation has always been to reach as many people as possible in Asia with the Gospel of Jesus Christ and grow in our ability to reflect the character of Christ in our own organization. Regarding those former employees with unresolved concerns, it is our ministry’s desire to reconcile when possible and disagree in love when necessary, so that we might stand together in our commitment to spreading the Gospel throughout Asia.
— Gospel for Asia COO David Carroll, on behalf of the leadership team

As is clear from the letter, some of the concerns expressed over the past 10 months relate to GFA’s accountability to donors. In the coming days, I will report more information regarding transparency and the concerns of donors.

*Gospel for Asia is a charter member of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. On the ECFA GFA page, this caption tells why the financial information isn’t available:

Due to international security concerns, Gospel for Asia has requested that their financial information not be posted on the Internet. To receive a copy of their audited financial statements, please contact Gospel for Asia directly.

I did contact GFA directly and received a copy of an audited financial statement.

UPDATE: In 2015, former board member Gayle Erwin allowed me to publish his unedited report of his investigation of Diaspora’s concerns. His report contradicts the statement from GFA.