News Articles

Wives wait, pray 5-plus years for missionary husbands’ release

CAMDENTON, Mo. (BP)–“Very soon. We will arrange it.” Those were the last words Patti Tenenoff heard the intruder speak the night a group of armed men stormed her house and kidnapped her husband, Rick.
That was five years ago.
Today, Patti and two other wives still wait the return of their husbands. New Tribes Mission missionaries Rick Tenenoff, Dave Mankins and Mark Rich were kidnapped Jan. 31, 1993, from their homes in a Kuna village in southern Panama, 12 miles from the Colombian border. Their wives believe a guerrilla group in Colombia continues to hold the three men hostage.
“I have never asked God why this has happened,” Patti Tenenoff said. “I have asked him, ‘Why so long?'”
She and her children – Dora, 13, Connie, 8, and Lee, 6 – live on the New Tribes Mission campus near Camdenton, Mo. They attend Concord Baptist Church in Jefferson City. Family friends Lee and Annie Merchen – whom the Tenenoffs met six years ago in Panama City – are members of Concord.
“How she copes is nothing short of the divine work of the Holy Spirit,” said Annie Merchen, whose husband, Lee, was stationed at the U.S. military base in Panama City, when they met the Tenenoffs. “I can see it in her relationship with her children; she’s very quiet, very gentle. She’s a beautiful example of someone walking very close with the Lord.”
Patti said some words shared with her a few years ago have helped her deal with being separated from her husband. “This friend said, ‘God picked three special men to be missionaries to this guerrilla group,'” she recalled.
“I didn’t see it as a privilege, but then, through time, I realized you’re not going to get people to volunteer to go to a guerrilla group.
“But I think after five years, I’m at a crossroads with God,” Patti continued. “I don’t doubt his sovereign plans for us, but after five years, I sometimes (ask God), ‘Do you really know what you’re doing?’
“Moses was 40 years in the desert before God spoke to him; Joseph was in prison many years, so I know there are a lot of time elements in the Bible, and it’s OK to question God.
“I need prayer. It’s harder now. There’s no closure. I need to know how he’s doing.”
A crisis team for New Tribes Mission, a nondenominational missionary-sending organization based in Sanford, Fla., has been working since the kidnapping to resolve the situation with the guerilla group, known as FARC (acronym for Spanish name of Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia).
“Over the years, we’ve had the opportunity to talk to Indians who come out of the jungle who say they’ve seen the men, and guerrillas who have been captured by the Colombian military have said they are still alive,” said Scott Ross, New Tribes attorney and member of the crisis team.
“As recently as Christmas, we’ve heard of high-level FARC representatives talking to high-level government (representatives) and saying that our men are alive and well.”
Today, New Tribes Mission does not send missionaries to southern Panama because the area is deemed too dangerous. But five years ago, there was no cause for concern. The Tenenoffs had been on the field since 1988; Dave and Nancy Mankins had been there since 1986; and Mark and Tania Rich had been there six months.
The future was looking bright for the Kuna people, Patti said. Wycliffe Bible translators were just finishing a New Testament in the Kuna language. Bible studies and medical programs were in place.
Patti pointed out the aim of the Colombian guerrillas was to overthrow their country’s government. So the missionaries had nothing to fear in the Panamanian village in the jungle, 12 miles north of the border.
Jan. 31, 1993, was a normal Sunday afternoon in the Kuna village of Pucuro. After a regular church meeting, Rick and Patti had spoken by two-way radio to their 8-year-old daughter, Dora, who was attending a boarding school for missionary kids in Chame, Panama.
At about 7 p.m. on the already-dark evening, Rick was lying in his hammock talking to a Kuna man. Patti was getting 3-year-old Connie and 1-year-old Lee ready for bed.
“We read their devotions and went out to the living room to kiss Daddy ‘night night,'” Patti recalled. “We went back to the bedroom, and I was tucking in their mosquito nets when I heard a scuffle in the living room.
“Rick yelled in Spanish, ‘My wife is in back of the house.’ By now, I’m sitting on the floor, holding the kids and thinking, ‘Do I go out or not?’
“I thought maybe it was some Kuna men scuffling, but by the third time Rick shouted in English, ‘My wife is in back of the house,’ I heard the panic in his voice,” she said. To this day, she does not know what he meant by that statement.
“I could see out the hallway and see Rick was on the floor, face down, and a guerrilla was tying his hands behind his back; I could see the guerrilla’s gun over his shoulder.
“I leaned back in the bedroom and heard footsteps and the door close, and then I heard a gunshot,” Patti continued. “There was a gunshot from each of the houses. We (she and the other two wives) feel like they signaled each other.”
As soon as the guerrillas left, the Tenenoff house filled with Kuna men. Patti threw together an overnight bag to stay in a Kuna house.
The men from the village left. Then, two guerrillas came back and started yelling at her in Spanish.
“They were wanting clothes, money, food, batteries,” she said. “God was gracious and allowed me to focus on what the older man was saying. The older man wanted me to get a suitcase together for Rick – things he would need in the jungle.”
Patti, holding Lee and Connie clinging to her skirt, walked back and forth between the bedroom and the kitchen table, where the kerosene lamp sat, so she could see what she was packing. Pants, T-shirts, a New Testament and a family photograph were among the items she tossed into the suitcase while the guerrillas ransacked the house.
“I was numb,” she recalled. “I thought, ‘This can’t be really happening.’ But even as those two men were in the house, I never feared for my life or my children’s.”
As the older of the two guerrillas was leaving, Patti followed him to the door and asked when she would see her husband again. “He said, ‘Very soon. We will arrange it.’ And I believed him.”
With the help of the Kuna chiefs, Patti and the other two wives, Nancy and Tania, decided it was too dangerous for them to stay. They could not radio for help because the guerrillas had taken the radio.
The next morning, using the mission motorboat, the three women, four small children and three Kuna men set out on a seven-hour trip on the river. They stopped at a small town two hours into the trip and used a short-wave radio to contact mission headquarters in Chame.
An administrator in Chame arranged to have a mission airplane pick them up at the nearest airstrip – in El Real, Panama, – still about four hours away by river. After arriving in El Real, they hiked about half an hour to the airstrip. The flight to Panama City took an hour.
“The hardest part was when I was on the airplane and could see the jungle below,” she said with tears. “We knew our husbands wanted us to leave, and it was best for the children, but I thought, ‘I’m leaving without my husband. I know he’s down there and I could do nothing about it.'”
New Tribes Mission immediately formed a crisis team and informed the wives that the organization’s policy was to evacuate families to their home country. In this case, there was a U.S. military base in Panama City, so they could stay there temporarily. Then, on Feb. 9, they heard from the guerrillas. Their demand: $5 million ransom. “On Feb. 10, because of that demand, we were evacuated to the U.S. for our safety.
“On the plane to the U.S., I thought, ‘Now, I’m leaving the country where my husband is. But I know my husband would want me to do what the crisis committee wanted me to do.'”
New Tribes Mission’s policy is not to meet ransom demands. Radio contact continued with the guerrillas – who were convinced the missionaries were government agents – over the next several months, but the guerrillas cut it off in 1994. There has been no contact since.
“Guerrillas are very hard to influence – it’s not like they’re a government organization,” Ross said.
“They are accountable to no one. They’re out in the jungle – a massive jungle, as big as some of our states; it’s not like our men are being held in a building we can locate. They are not forced to talk or negotiate with someone until they reach out, which is what they’re doing now to try to get international attention,” Ross continued.
That is why, now, New Tribes Mission and the three families are traveling around the world to make people aware, particularly in Latin American nations and the United States, of the situation.
In 1997, Patti, who has lived on the Camdenton campus since 1993, and the other wives, who live in Sanford, Fla., began meeting with government officials and making media appearances.
“We thought we would keep it quiet and try to give the guerrillas the opportunity to quietly release our husbands,” she said. “But, last year, we decided we’d given them long enough.”
Since last June, the wives have visited government officials in Colombia, Venezuela and Costa Rica. They also have met the queen of Spain and the president of Colombia. They plan to testify in front of the House International Relations Committee March 31 in Washington.
“We want to put international pressure on this guerrilla group,” Patti said. The guerrilla group believed to be holding the men is the largest in Colombia.
“FARC wants to be a legitimized political group in countries around the world,” she explained. “We want the nations to see they are holding three innocent American missionaries hostage. Then, maybe the nations can apply pressure to have our husbands released.”
Besides meeting with Amnesty International and the human rights department of the United Nations, the women have been hitting the media circuit. Their appearances include “Larry King Live,” “Inside Edition,” NBC’s “Today” show, Focus on the Family and “700 Club.” They hope the publicity will raise awareness of their husbands’ situation.
“Pray our congressmen will be hearing what we say and will take action,” Ross said. He also encouraged readers to write letters to their congressmen.
“I asked the Lord to help me create a stable family, and that the children would not be angry or bitter,” said Patti, who chose to stay in Missouri even though she is from Florida. “And they aren’t.
“They talk like Daddy’s coming home tomorrow. But I didn’t pray that for me, and now after five years, I’ve got to work on not allowing anger or bitterness in my life.”
Patti said the children are leading normal lives. “I don’t want the children to think life stopped when Daddy was taken and starts when he comes back again,” she said. “They can have fun, grow, have a normal life and miss Daddy.
“We don’t want Satan to get the victory here.”
The two youngest children don’t remember their father because they were so young at the time of the kidnapping.
“At bedtime, they ask me to tell them stories about Daddy. Each child has a picture of himself or herself with Daddy. Connie has kissed hers good night.”
Patti clings to the hope that somebody, somewhere, holds the key to what can be done to free her husband and the others.
“We know God is sovereign, but he wouldn’t have us sit around, either,” she said.
“Please pray. We don’t want our husbands to be forgotten.”

    About the Author

  • Stacey Hamby