BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (BP)–Karen Watson counted the cost. Then she followed God with her heart and with her head as she entered the war zone of Iraq to share with people there the message that had made her willing to sacrifice everything.
“To obey is my objective. To suffer is expected. His glory will be my reward,” Watson wrote in a letter to her pastor, meant only to be opened upon her death.
Watson, 38, of Bakersfield, Calif., was one of four Southern Baptist International Mission Board workers killed March 15 when the vehicle they were riding in was ambushed in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. Also killed were Larry Elliott, 60, and Jean Elliott, 58, of Cary, N.C., and David McDonnall, 29, of Rowlett, Texas. McDonnall’s wife, Carrie, 26, remains in critical condition.
Phil Neighbors, co-pastor at Valley Baptist Church in Bakersfield where Watson had been a member since 1997, said Watson accepted Christ about eight years ago after enduring an intense period of grief. Her boyfriend whom she planned to marry, her father and her grandmother all died within a two-year span.
“That really shook her foundation,” Neighbors told Baptist Press. “Those crises led her to turn to the Lord. She came to know Christ and was one of the very special people that just loved the Word of God and the work of God. She was passionate about it.”
Watson immediately began taking part in short-term mission trips with Valley Baptist, including two to El Salvador and one to Kosovo, Macedonia and Greece in the fall of 2002.
“That experience led her to a realization that God was calling her into missions,” Neighbors said.
The church directed her to the IMB, and she was accepted to serve overseas. She resigned from her job as a detention officer at the Kern County Sheriff’s Department in Bakersfield and sold her house and her car.
“This girl sold out for Jesus,” Neighbors said, noting Watson had a good job at the sheriff’s department involving the evaluation and placement of inmates.
IMB personnel noticed Watson’s unique skills in administration and leadership, and they assigned her to coordinate refugee relief in conjunction with Operation Iraqi Freedom. She set up a base of operations in Jordan beginning in March 2003, but with the relatively quick end of major combat operations, the anticipated flood of refugees did not come. Watson was then assigned to Iraq with a change of plans.
“We talked about the danger numerous times before she left and while she was there,” Neighbors said. “She would always call me whenever anything would happen in country. For instance, when the [United Nations] building was bombed and numerous people were killed. She had been working with the UN in that very building coordinating relief efforts. She was in and out of that building daily, and just by the providence of God she was not there the day of the bombing. She quickly called me to say she was safe, and she did that several times when there was trouble.”
But March 15 was different. Neighbors and other church members heard news that five IMB workers had been shot in Iraq.
“I was thinking, ‘Well, maybe Karen will call in a minute. She always calls,'” Neighbors said. “But she didn’t call.”
Later that night Neighbors remembered the letter Watson had written to him before she left for work in Iraq with the instructions that he was not to open it unless she was killed. He opened the letter.
Neighbors called the letter a powerful testimony and evidence that if anything happened to her, she wanted him and the church family to know she had no regrets and died serving the Lord.
Roger Spradlin, co-pastor of Valley Baptist, described Watson as a person who deeply loved God and had a heart for winning people to Christ.
“She was very compassionate for people in need,” he told Baptist Press. “She was very committed to service and ministry to people.”
Spradlin recalled Watson’s enthusiasm for mission trips and the tremendous impact she had on college girls in the church as she taught and mentored them before she left for Iraq.
“She was very, very brave, and she knew the risk of being in that part of the world,” Spradlin said. “But she weighed that risk against the people’s need for the Gospel.”
In Bakersfield, Watson also worked with Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary graduate Andy Prince and his wife, Kristine, to start a new congregation, Sure Foundation Baptist Church.
“Karen was a real soldier in God’s Army and she will be greatly missed,” Prince said, “but we know that she is now celebrating and worshiping the God she served.”
Gerald Boyd, a member of Valley Baptist Church who accompanied Watson on the volunteer trip to Kosovo, told The Bakersfield Californian that Watson knew what she was doing in serving in Iraq.
“Karen was the most sincere person I’ve ever met,” he said. “She loved Jesus with all her heart. … She was the type who would stand up for the Lord anywhere in the world. She felt the Lord Jesus was worth it.”
Jerry Higgins contributed to this article. (BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: KAREN WATSON.