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Lesotho volunteers kidnapped, credit prayer for safe release

MORIJA, Lesotho (BP)–While millions of Americans watched the Super Bowl Jan. 31, a missionary couple in the southern African country of Lesotho were robbed at gunpoint and kidnapped by a gang of thieves.
Gene and Jean Phillips, emeritus Southern Baptist missionaries serving a volunteer term in Morija, Lesotho, were awakened at 2 a.m. Monday (7 p.m. EST Sunday) by five armed men who had entered the bedroom where they were sleeping.
The men demanded money and forced the pair into the back of the couple’s four-wheel-drive vehicle, which was parked in front of the house.
As the kidnappers started the vehicle, they set off its theft alarm. The shriek awakened a neighbor, who looked out to see the vehicle pulling away. When a telephone call to the local police station went unanswered, other phone calls set in motion a chain of prayer that reached all the way back to the United States, including the couple’s home congregation, First Baptist Church in Camden, S.C.
“The chain of prayer started about 3 a.m.,” said Wes Gestring, the Phillipses’ son-in-law who serves with his wife, Elizabeth, as a Campus Crusade for Christ missionary in the nearby town of Roma. “While you guys were watching the Super Bowl, this was happening to them.”
As the thieves drove the couple into an isolated area in the mountains, they repeatedly threatened to kill them, Gestring said. At 3 a.m. — just as fellow Christians began praying — the gang decided to leave the couple on the road, alive and unharmed.
Officials at the Southern Baptist International Mission Board in Richmond, Va., were relieved to hear the couple had been released safely.
“In similar circumstances in southern Africa, people are commonly killed because they can identify the kidnappers,” said Clyde Berkley, associate director of the board’s work in southern Africa. “There were a lot of people praying, and there’s no doubt God answered those prayers.”
The Phillipses were appointed as missionaries to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1956 and served through a period of strife and revolution that resulted in the country’s independence from the United Kingdom in 1980. They retired in 1996 and began the Lesotho assignment in discipleship and leadership training through the IMB’s International Service Corps program in December.
From 3 a.m. to 6 a.m., while emergency prayer networks spread the news of the kidnapping, the Phillipses wandered through darkened cornfields. As daylight dawned, they found a man who got help for them.
A couple of hours later, they were safely back in Morija, where police agencies and other missionaries were mobilizing to mount a search.
“Missionary Aviation Fellowship was preparing to put planes up in the air to search for them,” Gestring said. “Their landlord already had been out looking for them on dirt roads he knew of. A major in the South African Defense Force was about ready to send out troops to look for them.
“It was quite encouraging to know there would be troops on the ground and planes in the air looking for them.”
The South African troops had been sent into Lesotho, a small country completely surrounded by South Africa, in September 1998 after an army mutiny and crippling strikes forced the government to ask for help. Popular resentment toward the South African soldiers had been developing into anger toward foreigners, Gestring said.
“Sundays are days for political rallies here,” Gestring said. “We were worried about the kidnappers’ motives because a political armband was found in the house. The attitude toward foreigners was something that could have made the situation worse.”
“When we heard people had been praying for us much of the night, we understood why we were not killed and why we had such strength to walk all those hours and why we found just the right people to help,” said Jean Phillips. “We clung to verses from God’s Word as we committed ourselves to him, for him to be glorified by our life or our death.
“We have seen him at work, and we know that he has called us to join him in what he is doing.”
Jean Phillips asked believers to continue praying for them and for Lesotho.
“Pray that God will heal our memories and continue to give us his peace,” she said. “Pray for the men who did this terrible crime, that the words of love and kindness and the witness we gave them from the Lord will convict them and that they will be saved and changed into the people God has planned for them to be.
“And join us in praying that much fruit will be borne for his glory through all that has happened.”

EDITORS’ NOTE: In addition to their daughter, Elizabeth, who is a Campus Crusade for Christ missionary in Lesotho, the Phillipses have three sons: Paul Phillips of Fort Worth, Texas; John Phillips of Columbia, S.C.; and T. Mark Phillips of Blythewood, S.C. Gene Phillips was pastor of Southside Baptist Church in Greensboro, N.C., before missionary appointment.]

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  • Mark Kelly