By Michael Conlon
CHICAGO (Reuters) – In the world of bug-eating, bungee-jumping reality television, here’s a twist: Christian missionaries living a travelogue life while viewers watch their aches, pains and trials trying to spread the Gospel.
It makes for a surprisingly slick programme, a cross between vintage Lowell Thomas and Paul of Tarsus with cheap hotels, dust storms, crowded peasant huts and an eye-level peek at a world where most tourists wouldn’t dare dirty their loafers.
“Travel the Road” is now in its third season, reaching 250,000 to 300,000 U.S. households per show on cable’s Trinity Broadcasting Network, which bills itself as the world’s largest Christian network, and uncounted others in about 100 other countries, according to executive producer Michael Scott.
Scott’s brother Tim, 27, and 30-year-old William Decker are the two missionaries, doing their own filming to record an odyssey that has put them in dozens of countries from Tibet Rwanda.
The pair has been cursed at and threatened with death in Ethiopia, betrayed in India by a thieving convert, attacked by leeches in Laos and bone-rattled for hours on end in the cargo holds of third-world transports.
NO SERIOUS ILLS
Surprisingly, Michael Scott says, neither his brother nor Decker has suffered serious illness or injury.
“Although when they were in Sudan they were riding in a truck, a UN aid truck, and William was in the back filming and fell out the back,” Scott said. “But he got up and wasn’t hurt.”
The pair has just finished filming their missionary work in Rwanda and Congo and at last report was headed for a return trip to Darfur in Sudan where a 22-month rebellion has killed 70,000 people and driven 1.6 million from their homes.
They were also recently in Afghanistan and plan to visit Somalia which along with the previously mentioned African stops will comprise a package of new shows airing next autumn, Scott said in an interview.
The reality rage in broadcasting in recent years — one that has produced shows ranging from Donald Trump putting hopeful apprentices through a trial by fire to cheated-on spouses confronting their mates in the act on camera — has whetted the public’s appetite for the show’s format.
“The timing couldn’t be more perfect because of what was going on in secular television,” he said. “It helped pave the way.”
But “Travel the Road,” he emphasises, “is not about creating a television show. They’re there to do the missionary work. The television show is more of a by-product.”
A SUBTLE TOUCH
That said, much of the actual missionary work is covered not outright but by references or discussions after the fact. At times the pair seems to stumble into situations, looking for converts or even an interpreter to help carry their message. At one point they and some colleagues got flat-out lost.
But the resulting travelogue overlay and the human focus on the two travellers, along with highly professional editing and musical backgrounds, gives the package an entertainment value that goes beyond religion.
The shows are backed by nondenominational Challenge for Christ Ministries, which runs Vision Christian Bible College in Denver. The Scott brothers’ father was a president of that school.
The project was originally supported by donations from “a select group of backers,” Scott said, and now through donations and product sales — copies of the episodes that have been aired to date. They are being sold in stores and through the show’s Web site — http://www.traveltheroad.com.
When the travellers return home in April, Scott said, they will do a lecture tour across the United States. After that they may pack up their cameras, tapes and Bibles and head out yet again.
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