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Volunteers stranded 33 hours in riot-torn Peruvian city

ARDMORE, Tenn. (BP)–“It was a God-thing,” said pastor Kevin Shearer of the events which led to the rescue of 11 members of Cash Point Baptist Church, Ardmore, Tenn., from an airport besieged by rioters in Peru.

The Tennesseans were stranded in the airport in Arequipa, Peru’s second-largest city, for 33 hours as rioters opposing the sale of two state electricity companies looted businesses, blocked roads and targeted the airport because of the large tourism industry of the city. Arequipa is located in the Andes Mountains.

Rioters hurled rocks on the runway and hundreds entered the airport just as stranded airline passengers were flown from the airport by military helicopters. Not all of the about 60 foreign passengers were evacuated, Shearer said. Martial law was declared in the region on the day the passengers were evacuated, June 16, according to the Associated Press. It will be in effect for 30 days, so little will be learned about the situation until that is past, Shearer said. Ninety-six people were injured in the rioting and one man was killed.

God helped the Tennesseans throughout the ordeal, Shearer and other volunteers reported. They were part of a 19-member team from the church who served in the city of more than 1 million for a week.

On Sunday the team realized that authorities must not be not aware of their situation and that the rioting was getting worse because of the responses of airport officials. Shearer and his wife, Pam, speak fluent Spanish because they served as International Mission Board missionaries there for 12 years. They resigned and returned to the United States in 1999.

The American passengers were contacting the American Embassy in Lima, but rarely reaching a staff person and then not receiving responses. Shearer also was in contact with team members who had flown from Arequipa to Lima before the airport was closed on Friday, and in contact with missionaries in Lima and with the church in Ardmore. Members of the church were asking U.S. government officials for help.

At one point, the Tennesseans saw airport employees running from the airport carrying computers, and Shearer said an airport authority “vascillate[d] in his stories.”

Those stranded endured breathing tear gas. They covered their faces with dampened cloth items, Pam Shearer said. Unfortunately, Kevin Shearer hurriedly picked up a dirty sock to protect himself, he added, laughing.

Thankfully, the tear gas dissipated in about 15 minutes.

The group went without food. Some of the Tennesseans also went without medication, including heart medication, for several days. They dealt with a lot of chaos, reported Randy Atchley of the team. About three times officials announced and prepared for evacuations which did not occur.

What finally instigated the evacuation, the Tennesseans believe, was a chance encounter by missionary Mike Weaver with Ambassador John Hamilton on Sunday morning at an English-speaking church in Lima. Weaver, who was accompanied by other Cash Point members, identified Hamilton who was wearing an identification badge bearing his name and title.

Weaver met with Hamilton during the service, describing the situation in Arequipa. Hamilton told Weaver he had different information and would try to help.

Kevin Shearer explained it could be that other embassy employees knew of the situation in Arequipa and had not informed Hamilton, but it does not seem likely.

Several hours later, most foreign passengers were evacuated safely by the Peruvian military just before the airport was overrun. They learned about 800 rioters were just a wall away from the airport.

Seven Tennesseans flew home Monday morning, June 17, and the final 11 members of the Tennessee team arrived home Tuesday morning. They originally were scheduled to arrive home Saturday morning.

Almost all of the team who endured the experience say they would return to Peru, even Arequipa.

“If one soul had come to know Jesus Christ, it was worth it,” Atchley said. As a result of the team’s work in the city with five churches, 100 Peruvians made professions of faith and 103 people made other spiritual decisions.

Atchley, who has been on several other missions trips, served with his wife, Judy, leaving their three children in Tennessee. He said he didn’t want to go on this trip, but a week before the team left on June 7 the couple decided to join it. He said he is glad he did.

“I’ll go back if God leads me to. I met some wonderful people and I made some very, very good friends.”

Team member Sharon Quaife is a single parent of four children who left behind an 8-year-old child. Quaife endured the experience with her daughter, Susan, 18. She said she would definitely be willing to return to Arequipa because she met a lot of people there who don’t know God.

“If you have full faith that God is going to take care of you, what do you have to be afraid of? There’s nothing,” Quaife said.

Harold Lord, who at 66 was the oldest member of the team and was in danger because he ran out of his heart medication, said he was impressed by the embassy personnel who met him in Lima with his medication. The Tennesseans arrived in Lima about three hours after being evacuated.

Lord later learned that was arranged by team members in Lima and Deda McCown, secretary of Cash Point church. McCown spent many hours at the church over the weekend to provide help.

Lord said he realized the stranded passengers were in danger but hoped it would be limited to beating which they could endure. He admitted he prayed “that God would give me grace to die right.”

Kevin and Pam Shearer explained residents started marching in the streets on Wednesday but it was peaceful and not unusual in Peru. “It suddenly turned violent,” Pam said, with Kevin adding, “just like a cork popped” on Friday night. Residents beat drums and banged pots all night.

Kevin Shearer is proud of the missions volunteers and the church, which draws about 240 to Sunday morning worship. He has seen good results from the experience already, he said. For example, the media have reported on the experience, which has given a chance for a Christian witness, he said.

A team member feels called to missions because of the experience. Team members practiced their faith, he added. Pam noted one of the calmest team members was Elizabeth Baxley, 15, who was separated from her father, Ron, and brother, John, 13, who were in Lima. And she was separated from her mother, Katie, who was in Tennessee.

Baxley, like most of the team, Pam said, realized they were in danger but “had a peace about it.”

Kevin Shearer said of the experience, possibly reflecting the number of times he had made the statement, “And yes, yes, yes, it was worth it.”

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  • Connie Davis