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Bullets bolstered couple’s resolve

PAYNE SPRINGS, Texas (BP) — Don and Teri Caswell thought they would just lie low when they returned to Yemen seven months after the 2002 terrorist attack on the Jibla Baptist Hospital where he had served as a pharmacist.

But Yemeni officials couldn’t figure out why their passports had no reference to any prior travel to the country.

“They kept looking at the passports and looking at us as if to say, ‘We know you’ve been here before,'” Teri Caswell recalled, explaining that they had been issued new documents before traveling back to Yemen.

After retrieving their bags, Don Caswell finally satisfied the curiosity of the local authorities: He lifted his shirt, revealing his scars.

Three Southern Baptist workers at Jibla Baptist Hospital — physician Martha Myers, hospital administrator Bill Koehn and purchasing manager Kathy Gariety — were killed Dec. 30, 2002, when a militant gunman burst into a room where they were holding an early morning meeting.

He opened fire on them with a semiautomatic pistol, then moved to another room where he shot pharmacist Don Caswell twice. The bullets hit Caswell’s right and left sides, but he later recovered. The gunman aimed the spent pistol at two other workers, clicking the empty chamber.

A day later, Myers and Koehn were buried at the top of the 22-acre compound of Jibla Baptist Hospital. The funeral attracted thousands of Yemenis, lining the street for a half-mile outside the hospital gates to pay their respects.

The Caswells and their two sons were flown to a safe location in the Middle East before returning to their home in Eustace, Texas.

“Every single person at the International Mission Board, from [former president] Jerry Rankin on down, were all so supportive,” Teri remembered. “Whatever they could do to help us, they did it. It was amazing.”

Their gratitude extends to the Southern Baptist churches that contribute through the Cooperative Program and the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions.

“Our missionaries go out on the field and they don’t have to worry about raising their support when they come back,” Teri said. “Because of that, we can send more people.”

Having served 18 months of a two-year commitment when Caswell was injured, the couple never hesitated in their desire to continue the work they’d begun, returning to Yemen in August 2003.

Caswell assumed responsibilities at the Jibla compound, helping coordinate the work of volunteers from other countries.

“It was a lot harder to keep a low profile,” he said, referring to guards stationed at their residence. “They would question anyone who came to visit.”

In the community, Caswell recalled with amusement, “The big sheik always wanted me to sit by him and show people my scars.”

Other scars remained under the surface. “I used to not believe in post-traumatic stress, but I do now,” Caswell said.

When their term was completed, the Caswells headed to Winston-Salem, N.C., where Calvary Baptist Church provided counseling for the entire family before they returned to Texas in May 2005, making their home in Payne Springs.

Caswell struggles to find words to describe the many ways his life was changed by the experiences in Yemen.

“Things that used to be really important to me are just not that important anymore,” he said. “I used to get all up in the air about different things we were doing at church.” Now he sets his focus on taking the Gospel to the lost.

“It’s not how big the church is but what you do outside the church in sharing the love of Christ,” he said.

When he can break away from his job at a local pharmacy, Caswell participates in mission trips with First Baptist Church in Malakoff, where he and his family are members. During a vision trip to Greece, he traveled to the northern region, witnessing to Muslims who had migrated from Turkey.

The Caswells’ youngest son joined his dad on a trip to Malawi and ventured out with an interpreter to share his own testimony. Next summer he will travel with other teenagers from the church to serve in Costa Rica.

Ten years after the attack on hospital personnel, the Caswells speak with gratitude for the opportunity they had to serve with the three Southern Baptists who were martyred. They have particular affection for Myers, who served in the country for 25 years.

“She was dedicated to God,” Teri said. “Her calling was to God and that’s who she answered to.”

That example inspired Teri to develop a similar resolve: “For me, that’s been the biggest thing that I learned. If God has called me to do something, by golly, I’m going to do it.”

For now that determination is channeled through Faith in Action Outreach, a ministry offering “life sustaining services to neighbors in need.” Begun as a food pantry by a small group from another church, the work was handed off to First Baptist Malakoff with nearly 100 people volunteering.

As an outreach adopted by his Sunday School class, Caswell travels to Tyler, Texas, each week along with other men to retrieve thousands of pounds of food from East Texas Food Bank.

The ministry provides food each month to 1,200 to 1,500 people from about 350 families. About 100 undernourished elementary school children from four school districts receive grocery bags filled with kid-friendly items.

“We do more than just food. We have probably doubled the amount we give out, and now we have the clothing closet serving about 350 families,” Teri said, adding that the donation of a building allows the ministry to house both the clothing closet and food pantry in the same location.

The Caswells saw the fruit of meeting basic human needs during their time in Yemen. “The best ministry we had was through the hospital and orphanage and in helping the widows,” Don said.

Teri recalled one widow who responded to their offer of help, trusting Christ as Savior. “Then her children, one by one, came to know the Lord because we met a need first,” she said. “It’s really true that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

That approach to ministry has made a difference in the lives of people to whom they’ve ministered in East Texas as well as Yemen. “We’ve had six or seven salvations since we started. That’s not bad for one year in a country saturated with the Gospel,” Teri said.

Thinking ahead to a time when their youngest child graduates from high school, Don said, “We still have a heart for missions and are hoping in the future that we’d like to go back overseas,” contemplating some type of role in support of Southern Baptist missionaries.

“Or maybe even use the experience we’re having now with the food pantry to do some kind of hunger relief,” Teri added. “I feel like God is training us for what He wants us to do next.”
Tammi Reed Ledbetter is news editor for the Southern Baptist Texan, newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, where this article first appeared. This season’s Week of Prayer for International Missions in the Southern Baptist Convention centered on the theme of “BE His heart, His hands, His voice” from Matthew 16:24-25. Southern Baptists’ gifts to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering and through the Cooperative Program help Southern Baptist missionaries around the world share the Gospel. Gifts for the offering are received at Southern Baptist churches across the country or can be made online at www.imb.org/offering where there are resources for church leaders to promote the offering. Download related videos at www.imb.org/lmcovideo.

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  • Tammi Reed Ledbetter