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Services in Oregon, Lebanon memorialize slain missionary

PORTLAND, Ore. (BP)–Worshipers in two very different parts of the world gathered in churches Nov. 24 to memorialize Bonnie Penner Witherall, the evangelical Christian missionary who was shot to death Nov. 21 in southern Lebanon. Witherall was 31.

Witherall, 31, and her husband, Gary, attended New Song Community Church in northeast Portland before they moved to the seaport city of Sidon, Lebanon, two years ago. The church supported them financially and on Nov. 24 prayed for Gary Witherall in the wake of his wife’s death.

The Witheralls were members of a Baptist congregation in Lebanon and partnered with the Christian Missionary and Alliance denomination in missionary efforts.

U.S. and Lebanese officials have not identified a suspect or released information about what motivated the attack, but investigators believe that Witherall was killed in retaliation for trying to convert Muslims to the Christian faith.

“So many people think my wife’s death was a waste … but we believe that coming here with the message of Jesus would never be a waste,” Gary Witherall said during a eulogy reported in The Oregonian newspaper. “It is a message worth laying our lives down for.”

New Song’s pastor, Richard Probasco, encouraged worshippers to come to the front of the sanctuary to commit their lives to Jesus Christ in memory of the slain missionary.

“Who wants to come up and say, ‘Bonnie’s life won’t be in vain because I’m willing to do what I need to do to usher in the kingdom of God?'” he asked.

In Lebanon, about 400 people filled a small chapel at the clinic where Witherall helped provide prenatal care to Palestinian women from a nearby refugee camp. Witherall, who grew up in Vancouver, had just opened the clinic when she answered the door and was shot three times in the head by a lone gunman.

Witherall’s death profoundly impacted the Portland community, and The Oregonian memorialized her death in an editorial titled, “Bonnie Penner Witherall, Christian.”

“By all accounts, Bonnie Penner Witherall, the missionary from Vancouver murdered in Lebanon this week, was a young woman whose life was driven by love,” the editorial stated. “Love of her family. Love of her fellow human beings. And love of her God. That she was repaid in such a horrible way is a great mystery of life and a great shame on the person or people who committed this crime.”

“The communities in the Northwest where she lived will be poorer because of her death. Her adopted community in Sidon, on the coast of Lebanon, will be all the poorer as well.

“If Bonnie Penner Witherall’s death at 31 is a mystery, her life was not. What we have learned of her shows that she approached the world with humility, a sense of service and love. Far from stopping the things she stood for, her death will inspire many others to follow the gentle path she chose.”

In “Witherall Wanderings,” a newsletter that the couple mailed to supporters before Bonnie Witherall’s death, they wrote about the beginning of Ramadan, Muslims’ holy month of fasting, in Lebanon.

“It is all they have ever known, and they feel that this possibly will give them favor with God,” the Witheralls wrote about Muslims who fast each day from sunrise to sunset. “Pray for us this month that we might be able to communicate the freedom of Christ and the amazing grace of the cross!”

In Lebanon, Sidon legislator Bahiya Hariri, a sister of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and local Christian Maronite clergymen offered condolences to Gary Witherall and stayed for part of the one-hour service, The Oregonian reported.

Witherall will be buried later this week in Lynden, Wash.

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  • Todd Starnes