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IMB family staying in Yemen despite attacks

LEESBURG, Fla. (BP)–It was a moment that left the world shocked and stunned. Three American Southern Baptist medical workers shot at close range at a Baptist hospital in a Muslim country Dec. 30. Three yanked from the arms of their loving families and friends, having become martyrs.

And while America fretted and prayed half a world away, Larry and Maggie Sandstrom, who were in Yemen to visit their daughter’s family, told the Florida Baptist Witness they felt a strange, but certain “peace” come over them.

The Sandstroms, members of First Baptist Church of Stetson, Fla., had traveled to Yemen to spend Christmas vacation with their daughter, son-in-law and two small grandchildren, who serve in the country as representatives of the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board. The daughter’s family is unnamed for security reasons.

It was the Sandstrom’s second trip to Yemen. Maggie said they had a “wonderful vacation” and felt at ease knowing their daughter and son-in-law “love being there and working among the people.”

Dec. 30, ironically, only added to their growing conviction that their daughter had made the right choice in traveling across the globe to be a witness for Jesus Christ. Maggie called it a “life-changing experience.”

“It was Monday morning around 9:30 a.m. their time. The phone rang and our daughter kept saying, ‘What? What’s going on?’ She called for [her husband] and said to me, ‘Dr. Martha and Dr. Bill have been killed and there’s apparently a terrorist at the hospital and Kathy Gariety is very, very ill and she may not make it.’ [My daughter] said, ‘We need to start praying right now,'” recounted Maggie.

“What happened next was very important for me,” said Maggie, in describing her nearly immediate reaction to the news after she and the family began to pray.

“A peace came over me, like [the Lord said,] ‘I am with you and everything is going to be okay,'” Maggie nearly whispered. She also recalled telling her husband, “Larry, this is like a miracle, I feel like the peace of the Lord is with us and is going to take care of us.”

The Sandstroms shared their experience in an interview with the Florida Baptist Witness during a retreat at Lake Yale Baptist Assembly Jan. 17-18. At one point in the interview, Larry said he remembered saying something that day in Yemen that he didn’t think he would ever be capable of saying.

“After having experienced time with those three people, and having just seen two of them the day before,” Larry said of William E. Koehn, Kathleen A. Gariety and Martha C. Myers, “I always had a concern about what would happen with [my daughter’s family].

“After that, the Lord assured me, if he took them home, all at the same time, that was his will. So there really is nothing to worry about,” Larry said.

“In fact,” said Larry, recalling a question he was asked recently about whether he was uncomfortable in leaving the family in Yemen after the shooting, “I said, I used to be, but now they’re in God’s hands. It doesn’t get any better than that; they are in God’s hands. If anything happens to them, they are in God’s hands. He’s in control — and if they are following God’s will and He is in control and something happens — then something happens.

“They are comfortable, they are happy. They are not leaving Yemen,” Larry said. “I think they have the same dedication the four people who were killed or wounded have. I think, if you ask if they will be there 28 years from now, I would say ‘yep,’ that’s exactly what I expect.”

He said his daughter told him they will not leave the country unless forced to evacuate.

“They are not going to get away from Yemen. If they are forced out they will go right back as soon as they can. That’s what they want to do. It’s their calling,” said Larry.

Maggie said their daughter’s goal is to “reach the Yemeni people” who Maggie said are just as shaken up about the killings as is the rest of the world.

Describing a conversation she had with a housekeeper working at her daughter’s home, Maggie said the Yemeni woman was “grieving” because she said Dr. Martha had been “‘very, very kind'” to her over the years.

The Yemeni woman told Maggie, “‘All the people in the streets are talking [and they say] this is not right, this is not a good thing that happened. These people are good people.'” The woman told Maggie she was “very surprised and happy” about the response of the Yemenis toward the slain missionaries — that it “was a very positive thing” Yemenis felt remorse over the terrorist’s actions.

In Yemen, where television or media is scarce, most of the people are not likely to gauge their reactions by watching CNN or even viewing propaganda put out by the government, Larry said. “They just know that these are people who they loved who are dead.”

And whether Southern Baptist workers should be concerned about their safety in response to what Americans might say about Islam or their prophet, Larry said it’s dangerous “even to go” to a Muslim country, so “what’s the difference?”

“You can’t not say what needs to be said,” Larry emphasized. “If the Muslim religion has real problems in comparison to Christianity, you’ve got to ferret those out. God never said it would be easy.”

Using a prayer request list from his son-in-law as an example, Larry said he shared the eighth request, at a prayer breakfast at First Baptist Church in Stetson just a few months ago.

“Pray not that we’re not persecuted, we expect to be persecuted, but pray that when the persecution comes that we have the faith and trust in God and He will give us the strength,” Larry said, paraphrasing the request.

“They are not afraid of people putting them in jeopardy. They know what they’re there for, they know what their calling is. Whatever it is, they’ll do it, they know that,” Larry said.

Maggie reflected on what Larry said for a moment and then repeated a conversation she said she had with her daughter when they first went to Yemen.

“I told my daughter, do you realize these people might take my grandchildren. Do you realize that?” Maggie said. “She said, ‘Mother, yes, I’ve already considered that. Mom, I’m more mature than that.'”

While Maggie composed herself, Larry said even two to three years ago he and Maggie could not have had this conversation.

“It took us a while to realize this is not something they’re doing. This is their calling. No doubt,” Larry said. “My faith was strengthened a lot by what happened and the way we felt afterward, how God gave us peace.”

Maggie likened the experience to being in the center of a tornado. “I’ve never had peace like that before. We’ll be okay.”

And as for the three workers martyred there, Larry said they were the three most dedicated to the work at the hospital. He’s not surprised any more by their killings, but looks at the shooting with an eye towards God’s sovereignty. “So, I think the Lord left them with the hospital. That’s what they wanted,” Larry said.

“What God does surpasses all human understanding,” Larry mused. “Why do people die? That’s not our concern. There was a reason, [but] we don’t know what the reason is. It’s beyond our understanding.”

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  • Joni B. Hannigan