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Slain aid worker Karen Watson valued ‘the attention of God’

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (BP)–Yvonne Lawson’s fingertips caressed the crate containing the coffin of her daughter, Karen Watson, oblivious to the crowd collected about her, family and friends who met the plane bearing the body at Kern County’s Meadows Field.

“I knew it was Karen the minute I touched that box,” Lawson said. “I know it sounds strange, but I could feel her. Her death wasn’t real to me until then.”

It has been just over a year since mother and daughter said goodbye, a goodbye that would lead Watson, 38, to a heartbreaking death on the other side of the world.

Lawson saw that goodbye coming years before, long before her daughter would, or could, voice it. It was a small thing, something a mother would notice, a look in Watson’s eyes that said something deep was happening within this daughter.

She first noticed it when Watson returned from a mission trip to El Salvador with her church, Valley Baptist in Bakersfield, Calif. She was spilling over with stories and bubbling with excitement – and worried about the fate of children she had come to love.

Lawson listened, saw the look and knew someday her daughter would trade the life she had crafted in California’s Central Valley to help people in other parts of the world.


In 2003, Watson joined the Southern Baptist International Mission Board as a humanitarian aid coordinator for Iraq. Friends say it was the job she was created for. As the United States and Iraq edged into war, she worked in refugee camps in Jordan and Kuwait, living out of a suitcase, never having a permanent home. When the war wound down, she moved into Iraq, coordinating efforts to distribute 3 million pounds of food, set up water purification systems and help the Iraqi people rebuild their lives.

On March 15, 2004, while investigating sites for future humanitarian relief efforts with four other aid workers, she and three of her colleagues died from a rocket-propelled grenade and gunfire attack while driving through the city of Mosul.

“I heard her breathing, then I felt her die,” said Carrie McDonnall of Rowlett, Texas, the lone survivor of the attack that also killed McDonnall’s husband, David, and Larry and Jean Elliott of Cary, N.C,

More than a week after her death, family and friends gathered at Bakersfield’s Valley Baptist Church for her funeral. More than a thousand people filled the sanctuary. They came to grieve and remember, honor and celebrate a life well lived.

Among them were six rows of deputies from the Kern County Sheriff’s Department. They take turns, two by two, standing guard by her casket throughout the service. Watson served among them for eight years. The training she received qualified her for the work she did in Iraq.

“Don’t make Karen into a saint,” said one of her friends from those days. “She would hate that. She was pretty wild when she was young. But when she became a Christian, she turned around 180 degrees.”


“She had one speed, and that was 100 miles per hour,” said Lt. Kevin Wright of the sheriff’s department and a close friend. “When you were with Karen, you either got on board the train or you were left behind. If she believed passionately about something, she’d let you know about it.

“I would hear her footsteps coming down the hall and know I was going to get a lecture about something. She would come in, close the door, sit on my desk and say, ‘We gotta talk.'”

“I’ve heard that more than a few times myself,” whispered a co-worker who attended from Iraq.

IMB President Jerry Rankin talked about Watson’s penchant for shopping. Invariably, it was for someone else, seldom for herself. She would see something someone needed — or knew they would like — and buy it. But she recently bought a small, jeweled ring for herself.

“Colleagues teased her that it was a wedding ring and she wasn’t married,” Rankin said. “‘Well, maybe I can wear it because of my love for Jesus Christ,’ she said.”


Another aid worker compared Watson with Tabitha, a woman in the Bible characterized by her deeds of kindness and charity. “I know there are Jordanians and Iraqis today who are weeping,” he said. “[Karen] is a woman who is going to be remembered as Iraqis and Jordanians hold up the things she did and say: ‘Look what she did for us.’”

Roger Spradlin, co-pastor of Valley Baptist Church, asked the question: “Does it pay to serve God … [when] kindness is greeted by a hail of bullets?

“It pays if you value the attention of God more than the approval of men. It pays if you value others more than yourself,” he said. “If we were to ask Karen, she would say, ‘Oh yes!'”

Phil Neighbors, the church’s co-pastor, said Watson would want people to know about the importance of Christ in her life. And she would want to see Him in their lives. Neighbors briefly told how to become a Christian and how others could follow “in the footsteps of one of the most dedicated and devoted Christians I have ever known.” He then voiced a prayer for those desiring to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior.

In the balcony, a small boy sitting alone whispered the prayer as Neighbors spoke it. “I’m not going to ask you to come to the front,” the pastor told the congregation, “but if you prayed this prayer please raise your hand.” Hands were raised across the auditorium.

Following the service, the funeral procession made its way to the burial site through the countryside, across irrigation canals, past fields showing the new green of spring, with mountains in the distance veiled in purple cupping the valley. In the rural community of Arvin, the body of Karen Watson was laid to rest next to her grandparents.


Standing at the gravesite, Roger Spradlin commented how much Watson’s coffin looks like a larger version of the small hope chest his sister used as a child to collect her treasures.

“What we have here before us today is a hope chest,” he said, “something of value, not a coffin or a casket.”
Updated information will be posted at http://imb.org as it is received.

    About the Author

  • Bill Bangham