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Volunteer leader drowns in El Salvador

CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo (BP)–Missouri Baptists have vowed not to let the tragic drowning of a volunteer missionary from their state halt efforts to spread the Gospel in El Salvador.

Keith Ward, who drowned April 22 in the Pacific Ocean along an El Salvadoran beach, and his wife Karen were serving as volunteer coordinators for the Missouri Baptist Convention’s fledgling partnership effort with Baptist churches in the Central American country.

The drowning occurred near the end of a weeklong missionary journey to El Salvador by a volunteer team from Missouri to identify churches and locations where the state’s Baptists can work during the three-year partnership effort.

“What happened was bad, but God has been glorified through this tragedy with people being saved and others responding to the call to serve in ministry,” said Norm Howell, who heads up partnership missions for the Missouri convention. “We plan to move ahead with our effort to strengthen the work in El Salvador.”

Ward’s body was recovered and flown back to Missouri. A memorial service was conducted Monday, April 30, in Cape Girardeau.

The Wards were three weeks into the three-year missionary effort. Before going to El Salvador, they were active members of the Fruitland Community Church, a Southern Baptist congregation in southeast Missouri.

Mike Parry, Fruitland’s pastor, said Ward apparently got too far out in the ocean, developed cramps and drowned. Observers said it appeared that Ward and his wife were carried out into the ocean waters by a riptide, an especially strong, narrow flow of water that moves seaward from the shore.

Calvin Brown, director of Concord Baptist Association in central Missouri, accompanied the mission team to El Salvador.

“No one but Keith and Karen themselves know the full extent of what happened,” Brown said. “What we do know was that the surf was very rough and that the two of them while playing in the water were taken out farther from shore than they expected.

“Efforts were made to rescue them. Heber Mena [pastor of the Hispanic Baptist Mission in Jefferson City and a native of El Salvador] was able to get to Karen save her life. But no one was able to get to Keith until it was too late.”

Rod Land, a Missouri highway patrolman and member of Concord Baptist Church in Jefferson City, was a member of the mission team. He administered mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to Ward but without success.

Mission team members said God was glorified in the events that followed the tragedy. Several team members were scheduled to preach in different churches across the country on Sunday, but the services were cancelled and a joint funeral service was conducted on the beach.

“The lady who was our interpreter gave her life to Christ at the funeral service, and several El Salvadoran men accepted the call to be pastors in their country,” Land said.

“Karen’s request for this service was that the Gospel be preached,” Brown said. “The work of the Holy Spirit was very evident at the service.”

Parry said he has been told that Karen Ward, while on the beach grieving after the drowning, was able to minister to one of the men who carried her husband to shore. “She told the man that death is uncertain and asked about his relationship with God,” Parry said. “The El Salvadorian man expressed his newfound faith right there.”

Parry said Ward was active at Fruitland Community Church, especially with the youth program.

“Our youth called him ‘grandpa’ and his wife Karen ‘grandma.’ As a pastor and as a father, I appreciated Keith’s leadership and ministry. During his life he had a huge impact on family, friends, youth and kids. In his death, he continues to inspire others to draw closer to the Lord,” Parry said.

Howell said Ward’ involvement with the El Salvadoran effort began at the 2006 MBC annual meeting.

“Karen had been to El Salvador twice with mission teams to help plant a church in that country,” Howell said. “They came to me at the annual meeting and said they felt God was calling them to take a greater part in the work in El Salvador.”

Ward is survived by three children: Jenny, 27, Matt, 22, and Christa, 18.

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  • Bob Baysinger