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When God said, ‘I want you there,’ McDonnalls went to Iraq

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–Much has been written about the tragic day when five International Mission Board workers were shot in northern Iraq. David McDonnall, Larry and Jean Elliot and Karen Watson were killed and McDonnall’s wife, Carrie, was wounded when their vehicle was ambushed by assailants brandishing automatic weapons.

Less has been told about the early words of Good News that these men and women of God carried into a country darkened by the shroud of a dictatorship. This is an account of the McDonnalls’ work in Iraq before the shooting.

David and Carrie both knew the potential dangers that lurked in Iraq. They heard the daily reports of continued fighting. They knew it would not be easy. But they were also confident in God’s call to go there and carry His light to the Iraqi people.

“We went out of response to God saying, ‘I want you there,’” Carrie said.

In June 2003, the newlywed couple led a team of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary students to Iraq. David was a student at the Fort Worth, Texas, seminary and Carrie had taken classes as well. Both were familiar with the Arabic language and culture in the North Africa/Middle East region because both had already spent two years of service there with the IMB. David’s proficiency in the Arabic language was becoming well-known.

David and Carrie loved the people there, and their love not only gave them greater ease in leading the team but also spurred their desire to return again to the region.

“We both were just at a place where we wanted to be on the field more than anything because that’s where our heart was,” Carrie said.

Following the 2003 trip to Iraq with the Southwestern team, the McDonnalls returned to America and settled back into a routine of classes, work and an apartment ministry. They planned on David finishing the 20 hours he needed to complete his master’s degree at Southwestern and then they would return to the field.

An early autumn phone call changed everything. The McDonnalls were asked to return to Iraq as soon as possible to help in the work there. Since the request was unexpected, the couple decided they needed to spend the next day fasting and praying separately. They would then come together to share what they had heard from God.

David continued his study in the Gospel of Luke. During his fast, he came to chapter 18 and the account of the rich young ruler. David noted that in the passage Jesus called His followers to give up everything and follow Him.

“For David, that was it. We are called to give everything and to go,” Carrie said.

During Carrie’s separate time of fasting, she read John 6:1-14. There in the record of Jesus feeding 5,000 people with five loaves and two fishes, she was impressed by almost the exact same message as David.

“Just give what you have and God will use it, and in the end there will be abundance” was the message she found through the Scriptures.

“We just prayed there and committed it then, and we struggled with it even afterwards,” Carrie continued. “But it was such a strong calling and it was such a neat thing in our relationship that God basically shared the same thing with each of us, but individually, so that it was more powerful to us.”

That calling encouraged them in the days and months that followed. They agreed to pack up and move to Iraq by the end of November. God opened the doors for them to leave the commitments they already had. David made plans with his professors at Southwestern to finish his classes early. The leaders of their local apartment ministry also gave their blessings for David and Carrie to leave early.

They had confirmation after confirmation about their calling, but some people still expressed concern for their safety and urged them not to go. The couple knew, however, they were supposed to be in Iraq.

“We looked at it like, ‘This is now; we don’t know about later, but this is now,’” Carrie recounted.

As soon as the McDonnalls arrived in Iraq in November 2003, God began using them to meet an array of needs. One thing they did was to help the volunteer teams that poured into the country. Building pharmaceutical cabinets for a medical clinic was another example of the projects God had waiting for them.

They also jumped into a food distribution project with a short-term volunteer team. In several situations, volunteer teams were able to give food to both Kurdish and Arab people living in camps for internally displaced people (IDPs).

IDPs, Carrie explained, are people who were forced out of their homes during the reign of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. When they returned to claim their homes after the war, someone else had occupied them.

“We were just helping ease some of the food burden,” Carrie said.

Carrie told of one volunteer team of mostly women who came into the country, where it is well documented that under the former Iraqi dictatorship women were under-educated and repressed.

Carrie arranged for the mostly female volunteer group to work with an Iraqi women’s project aimed at helping women learn the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic while also teaching them a skill, such as sewing, that could produce an income. The volunteer team was able to teach the women another way to make a marketable item through the art of stamping.

“We were really able to get in and spend some time with the ladies, and I think it was a really successful time,” Carrie said.

Although David and Carrie were in Iraq working on humanitarian aid projects, she said there was a distinct difference in the way they went about their work.

“The difference is that we go in and we share that love,” Carrie said. “I really think that people see that. They see a difference in how we conduct ourselves and how we give out food.”

Carrie said the light of Christ seemed to shine most brightly through their willingness to go into areas where the need was great but the risk was greater.

“You go into a place that is so dark and a place that just does not have hope, and you go and you offer hope and you offer it because you have the love of Christ in you,” she said. “People see that. They ask, ‘Why do you do this?’ We tell them, ‘I love the Iraqi people and I love them because Christ loves me.’ The people just don’t have a hope, and some of that stems from being under Saddam and some of it is just from the fact that they don’t know Christ — a lot of it is from that.”

Carrie said she can recall conversations with several Christian volunteers from America who, after arriving in Iraq, said they found it difficult to pray. But she and David encouraged them to pray more diligently because Satan obviously did not want them there.

Circumstances “would make it hard and make it a struggle even just to pray, and that was a vital part of our ministry, especially in the [unreached] parts. We didn’t go anywhere unless that ground had been covered and saturated in prayer.”

David and Carrie felt led each day through those prayers and through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It was also through such guidance that they were able to meet people who will forever be changed because of the light of Christ in them.

Just a little more than a month after David and Carrie arrived in Iraq to serve as humanitarian aid workers, they were already exhausted from a full and taxing schedule. But it was then that God refreshed them with a tiny glimpse of the light He had long been shining in the land. They visited a small home church that had been planted before they had arrived. What they experienced that evening made their hearts soar with praise.

“It was just a reminder that God is at work everywhere and it’s just a matter of joining in on what He is doing when He calls us,” Carrie said. “We can sit back and say it’s too big, it’s too impossible, it’s too scary. Or we can just give what we have and be amazed.”

Part of the week before the drive-by attack was spent with a man who is developing a fellowship and education center for people with physical disabilities. This man was a victim of a chemical weapons attack Saddam Hussein ordered on his village in the 1980s.

Most of the people living in the village died that day. He lost all of his immediate family. The McDonnalls, Elliots and Karen Watson were all helping him in some measure with his plans for the center.

The week before the missionaries were attacked in mid-March also was spent assessing possibilities for water purification projects in the area. Larry and Jean Elliot were water purification experts because of their more than 26 years of missionary service in Honduras.

“All the people that we dealt with wanted to help,” Carrie said. “Even the day of the accident, we were in a village doing some assessing and looking at water projects … and they were welcoming to us, not just because we could help but because that’s just the people.”

Carrie said that, like any country, there are people who appreciate what they are given, and those who don’t. But she said she believes the majority of the Iraqi people appreciate the help.

“They are kind and friendly people and they just need a little bit of a hand to get on their own two feet, and just raw necessities like water. If you’ve got 120 degree heat and you don’t have water, things are going to get really rough,” Carrie said.

Carrie said she realizes that there are skeptical Christians who argue that Iraq is too dangerous for Christian workers to be there. She categorically disagrees.

She said that she and her husband did not go to Iraq because someone asked them to go, but because God had asked them to go.

“If we are truly doing what Christ says, the idea of it being dangerous is nothing. He suffered to the point of death on a cross. So for me to say, ‘No I’m not going to go because it’s dangerous,’ that’s a slap in Christ’s face.”
Reprinted from Southwestern News, the quarterly periodical of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

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  • Lauri Arnold