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Buoyed by faith, Don & Teri Caswell recount tragic day at Yemen hospital

CHARLESTON, S.C. (BP)–Evidence of God’s grace and provision dominated the first public testimonies of International Mission Board representatives Don and Teri Caswell upon their return to the United States following the Dec. 30 terrorist attack on the Jibla Baptist Hospital in Yemen.

“We know that beyond a shadow of a doubt that God wants us to tell what he’s done in our lives so that he can get the glory he deserves,” Caswell told a small gathering at the Association of State Baptist Papers meeting in Charleston, S.C., Feb. 6.

The 49-year old pharmacist from Texas heard three remaining bullets ring out from the 9mm semiautomatic pistol the intruder had hidden under his clothing, unaware that the six earlier gunshots he had heard killed three coworkers, physician Martha Myers, hospital administrator William Koehn and purchasing manager Kathleen Gariety.

“We’re both thankful God allowed us to know Bill, Martha and Kathy. They’d been there for many years and done a tremendous amount of work there. People loved them very much,” Caswell said. “We’d only been there 18 months, but we’d become good friends with all of them and are thankful God allowed us to know them and see some of the fruit of their work over the years.”

Caswell and his wife shared examples of God’s intervention and sustenance throughout the tragedy, tracing the obvious hand of God to bring healing and refreshment. From the outpouring of love by the Yemeni people to the fervent prayers of Southern Baptists, the couple praised God throughout their recounting of recent events.

Caswell was reviewing paperwork alongside two other pharmacists from India and Russia and two Yemeni technicians when he stepped from behind the counter to determine the cause of the commotion at the hospital Dec. 30. “About the time I saw [the intruder], he saw me. He turned and I knew he was coming my way.” Adding that his office door normally would be closed, Caswell said his first impulse was to crouch behind the counter.

“I knew that he was going to shoot me and I didn’t know exactly what that would entail. I’m asking God, ‘Is this going to hurt very much? Lord, what’s going to happen?” The first shot lodged in Caswell’s right hip, a second sailed through the other hip while a third missed him entirely. The gunman later aimed the spent pistol at two other IMB workers, clicking the empty chamber.

“When I knew the man was going to shoot me, I wasn’t real frightened — no fear or anxiety. It was just like God put his arms around me and a feeling of calm came over me even though I knew something was fixing to happen here,” Caswell said with a softspoken confidence.

“All of this happened in just a few seconds,” Caswell said. “When I hit the floor with my hand on my face I noticed a lot of blood. I thought he must have shot me in the face, but I was mainly hurting here in my side.”

Caswell said he told God he didn’t want to leave his wife and sons. “Here I am. He kept me here. I believe that’s a miracle in itself that God saved me from that.”

Realizing that Myers had “already gone to be with the Lord” when he saw her body wheeled near him on a stretcher, Caswell soon learned what had happened. A Yemeni nurse preparing him for surgery began to cry profusely, his tears flooding down upon Caswell’s body.

“I’ll never forget the tears,” Caswell said, pausing to collect his own emotions as he related the experience. “You’re searching for answers from God as to what is happening and why. It’s kind of like I was in a constant state of prayer at this time and I asked someone to see if they could get hold of Teri.” He told of God answering his prayer that she would arrive before he underwent anesthesia, giving him the opportunity to offer reassurance.

After dropping her husband off at work, Teri had returned to their home in Ibb, a drive that normally took 45 minutes. A hospital staffer called to inform her that Don had been hurt and she rushed to the scene, ignoring advice that she stay put. “I was still thinking in my mind that somebody had come into the hospital and wanted drugs,” she related, assuming her husband had been knocked out.

“Never in a million years did I think he’d been shot,” Teri said, describing her state of shock when she saw soldiers gathered around the hospital compound and heard coworkers tell what had happened. “I couldn’t believe it. Anger rose up inside me and I said who did this?”

The reference to a terrorist failed to compute in her mind as she learned of the death of the three IMB workers, Teri said. “I got control of myself and we rushed over to the O.R.,” she recounted, expressing her gratitude that God not only answered Don’s prayer for her arrival, but provided encouragement in hearing her husband laughing and telling the doctors he was allergic to bullets.

Teri was assured that her husband was in good hands with the attention of two hospital workers who had a lot of experience dealing with gunshot wounds. As she and the remaining IMB-related staff gathered for prayer, Teri was reminded of the instruction her 5-year old son had received from Martha Myers and Kathy Gariety just days earlier.

After treating Caleb Caswell for a minor head injury on the previous Saturday, the two women spoke with the boy during a Sunday School meeting at the hospital, helping him learn the importance of forgiving the boy who had hurt him. “They wanted to be sure that Caleb knew that even though people are a different color than you are or a different race or religion, even though somebody might be mean to you, that God wants you to loved them and forgive them.”

Teri recalled, “They took Caleb out to the Bedouin camel camps to see the children that are different from him and to teach him about forgiveness. Little did I know the next day that lesson would really be for me.”

As the staff prayed for Caswell’s recovery, Teri uttered, “‘Don’t let a root of bitterness grow in my heart toward this people because of what this one man did.’ He gave me a supernatural ability to forgive that man,” she said. “We prayed that day that just as Paul was on his way to kill more Christians when he was on the road to Damascus that God would somehow shine his light down on this man and he would come to know the Lord. We’re still praying that before it’s too late he’ll know the Savior.”

Caswell added, “It’s only by God’s power and his miracle I believe he performed that this man was deadly accurate with the other three, and five feet away from me he didn’t hit any vital organs. He didn’t kill me.” Caswell was quick to note that his survival was not because of anything the gunman “could or couldn’t do. It’s only because of the God I served that saved me from that.”

The Caswells returned to their home of Eustace, Texas, for a time of recovery after serving 18 months of their two-year term with the IMB’s International Service Corps. Caswell grew up in Levelland, Texas, near Lubbock where his parents remain. He and his wife are members of First Baptist Church in Eustace.

The Caswells are willing to return overseas if God directs them. “Wherever God leads us, that’s where we want to go — whatever he wants us to do,” Don said, acknowledging that many people don’t think Southern Baptists have any business being in a Muslim country, fearing the danger and retaliation. “You know, two and a half years ago I used to be one of those persons.”

While considering the only two pharmacist assignments available at the time, Caswell learned that one location was listed in error. “God took away the fears that we had, especially after we got there. God gave us the capacity to love the people there just like he loves them.

“God calls us to go different places to take his gospel to the world. Some of us here and some of us overseas, but he doesn’t tell us you take it here, but you don’t take it there. He wants the whole world to know about his saving grace and his love,” Caswell continued. “It’s not for us to say God doesn’t want us over there because it’s too dangerous. God wants everyone to be saved and it’s just up to us to await the call that he has for us.”

During the initial days of recovery, Caswell’s attention turned to Hebrews 13:5-6 where he was reminded of God’s promise that he would never be forsaken. “‘I will not be afraid what of what men do to me,'” he quoted.

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, Teri heard the question raised whether Arabs deserved to hear the gospel. “Before we were called to go to Yemen, I was scared to go there,” she said. “I was frightened of those people and didn’t think they deserved to hear the gospel. God said to me so clearly, ‘Teri, you didn’t deserve to hear it either.'”

Caswell said the impact that the deaths of Myers, Koehn and Gariety have brought to Yemen “is something that’s amazing.” He read from a Yemeni newspaper account, quoting, “‘For many here the Americans at a Baptist hospital were not seen as Christian intruders in a Muslim land, but as friends to the residents of this poor town in the rugged hills of southern Yemen.’ In their society and in the Islamic world, that was a profound statement for a newspaper to print in their country,” Caswell said.

He told of the response of Yemenis to the deaths, explaining their awareness that Christians “know for a fact where we’re going when we leave this world. For them to acknowledge this was a testimony to God and to those that gave their lives.”

He expressed gratitude to the U.S. embassy for providing ambulance transfer to another location following his surgery. “They bent over backwards to help us and do whatever we needed done.”

Unable to return for the burial of Myers and Koehn in Jibla, Caswell was glad to be able to attend a memorial service in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa. “God allowed us to do that and it was a real healing time,” Caswell said. “We let God do his healing which actually has been very miraculous. We know that it’s because of all the prayers that have gone out all over the world,” he said, appreciative that his pain lasted only a few days.

Over the past 35 years Southern Baptists have treated some 40,000 patients a year at the 45-bed hospital in Jibla, a small town in southern Yemen. Caswell reiterated that local Yemeni residents showed no sympathy for the gunman’s desire to destroy the Christian influence of the Baptist hospital.

“None of the people there — especially in Jibla — agreed with anything this guy did or some of the beliefs that he had. They all loved us and we loved them. Everything that we saw told us how sorry they were. They didn’t want us or the whole world to think that the people of Yemen were like this one man.”

Now that the hospital has been transferred to the control of a nonreligious Yemeni charity, Caswell expects the local people will put forth extra effort in light of the tragedy. “They know it was run in a way and manner that was helpful to the people and that the care would be good even if people didn’t have the money to pay. Because of what happened, they’re going to try to carry on that legacy.”

Teri dismissed attempts to draw any inference from her recollection that she first wondered if someone had become upset over the transfer of the hospital, prompting the attack. “It was just a thought that passed through my head — that maybe someone was more than sad. Maybe someone was angry,” she explained in recounting how she responded when told her husband had been hurt. “It wasn’t prompted by anything,” she said in response to a question by a Baptist editor.

“Of course employees were concerned [who] had been there all these years. They were a little uncertain about their future as all of us were. But nobody showed any kind of anger,” Caswell insisted.

When the Caswells returned to Jibla, they retraced the events of the shooting. “We were able to piece together everything that happened that day,” Teri said. “Don told us what happened in the pharmacy and actually showed me where he had been at the time he was shot. I could see the marks on the floor from where the bullets had ricocheted, a hole in one of the cabinet doors and a hole in the ceiling. That was a really powerful time for us,” she said, as he nodded in affirmation.

“After everyone left we shut the door, knelt and thanked God for the miracle he did that day,” Terri said. As she spoke with Baptist journalists, Teri referenced the comfort Psalm 18 had provided in reminding her of God’s deliverance in hearing her cries to him. “I’ve experienced his strength in a way never before, from the moment that phone call came, he was carrying me and he’s still carrying me.”

Caswell said he had gained a greater awareness of the sovereignty of God after years of only talking about how God is in control. “I was totally in God’s hands and I think he has used that to strengthen my faith in him. Sometimes in the past I struggled with pride, but at that very moment, all of my pride was gone. I fell face-down on the floor and I was there in God’s hands and he brought me through that.”
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: DON AND TERI CASWELL.

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  • Tammi Reed Ledbetter