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WORLDVIEW: Karen Watson: Christ’s joyful bride

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–It’s been a year since they died at the hands of nameless killers in northern Iraq.

On March 15, 2004, five Southern Baptist humanitarian workers were driving back to Mosul after a day of visiting villagers in need of clean water. Gunmen pulled alongside their vehicle and opened fire. Karen Watson and Larry and Jean Elliott died on the spot. David McDonnall died while being transported to a Baghdad hospital. Carrie McDonnall, David’s wife, continues to recover from multiple wounds — and boldly challenges Southern Baptists not to retreat from a dangerous world.

For much of the year since, I’ve been given a wonderful opportunity to get to know these servants of God better. The opportunity has come through working with International Mission Board President Jerry Rankin on a book about them — and the four other Southern Baptist missionaries killed in attacks since late 2002: Martha Myers, Bill Koehn and Kathy Gariety in Yemen; and Bill Hyde in the Philippines.

It’s been a privilege to read their letters and journals, to talk to widows, friends and colleagues, parents and children of these workers about their lives. And though they share the violent deaths of martyrs, it’s the lives of these eight servants that inspire.

They varied in age, background, skills and gifts. Six were veteran workers; several were approaching retirement. David McDonnall and Karen Watson were on the front end of very promising careers of service, but had already made major contributions.

The better I get to know them, the more I admire them. Their commitment, their joy in serving, their passion for God and compassion for hurting people challenge the rest of us to follow them into a lost world.

But we shouldn’t let their flesh-and-blood humanity fade into the rosy glow of untouchable sainthood. That would make it too easy for us to rationalize our own disobedience and lack of passion for the world. We’re not like them, we tell ourselves. We could never be that brave, that faithful, that committed to God’s purpose.

Why not?

They were flawed human beings, sinners — just like us. Perhaps the only difference is that when God said go, they went. When He said give all, they gave it. We can do the same, if we choose to obey God. He doesn’t call every believer to martyrdom; He does call us to obedience.

Of these eight lives, perhaps Karen Watson’s strikes the deepest chord in me. She overcame a difficult early life, devastating losses of loved ones and years of emotional pain to become a bold and joyful servant. She packed a lifetime of loving Jesus into the nine years she knew Him as Savior before her death at age 38.

“Don’t make Karen into a saint,” urges a close friend. “She would hate that. She was pretty wild when she was young. But when she became a Christian, she turned around 180 degrees.”

So who, exactly, was Karen Watson? One tough gal, to hear some tell it. Before becoming a believer she ran a pool hall. Later, as a detention officer with the Kern County (Calif.) Sheriff’s Department, she handled potentially violent jail inmates and trained other deputies to quell disorder — by force if necessary.

Once Karen gave her heart to Jesus, He began the patient process of softening her — a process revealed in the journals she kept throughout her nine-year walk with God. They are a series of love letters from God to Karen — and from Karen to God, recording her pursuit of God with all of her mind, body and soul. That was her life’s mission, after all, and not church work or mission work.

“I’m not going to give anything to my Lord that will cost me nothing,” she wrote, way back in 1998.

Many times during her life, Karen — like many children of broken homes — battled anger and bitterness, depression and loneliness, perfectionism and insecurity, the compulsion to rebel against authority. She also struggled with fear throughout her time in Iraq — and freely admitted it.

But courage isn’t the absence of fear, as her pastor reminded listeners at Karen’s funeral. Courage is the laying aside of fear to obey God, trusting Him with the consequences.

When she was assigned to help coordinate post-war relief projects in Iraq by the International Mission Board, she sold her house and car and gave away most of her other possessions — whatever wouldn’t fit in a large duffel bag. After relief work began in earnest, she worked with others to coordinate the distribution of thousands of food boxes sent by Southern Baptist churches and the rebuilding of damaged schools, among numerous other projects. One of her most cherished ministries: the “Widows Project,” a program that helped mostly illiterate Iraqi women learn to read, gain work skills and generate income.

“Karen built relationships everywhere she went,” says a colleague. “People remember her. They remember the light in her countenance. They remember her friendliness.”

The spiritual battle intensified for Karen as the brutally hot summer months of 2003 passed. Threats against foreign civilians were increasing. She personally experienced several close calls in the Baghdad area as bombings and street attacks mounted. Gunfire woke her up at night; sleep seldom returned. It became overwhelming.

Karen left Iraq for several months, not knowing if she would ever return. As time passed, however, she confronted her anxieties about what was happening there. She prayed and studied key passages of God’s Word with close friends — grappling once again not only with current fears but with old wounds and heartbreak.

“Lord, in all my weakness I need Your strength for the future,” she wrote in her journal.

“She was walking in total brokenness and surrender,” remembers a friend. “Nothing mattered to her anymore except God and Him being glorified. It brought incredible healing to her heart.”

Karen was convinced it was time to return to Iraq. “I’m going back,” she told her friend before heading to Baghdad for the last time.

Shortly before she left, she bought a beautiful gold ring with several small diamonds. The purchase surprised friends, since Karen usually saved much of her small salary and lived on next to nothing.

“It looked like a wedding band,” says her friend. “I wore a wedding band before I got married, too, to remind me that Christ was my husband, that I wasn’t alone.” She asked Karen if that was what she had in mind.

“Yes,” Karen replied with a radiant smile. “I guess that’s it.”

When Karen’s friend learned of her death in Iraq only days later, she wept with everyone else. Then she remembered the wedding ring — and her weeping turned to tears of celebration: “It was her wedding day. Christ had so prepared her as a bride that she was completely without blemish. I don’t know if I have ever been with anyone who was more ready to meet Him face to face.”

Only Karen — and her beloved Bridegroom — know all the reasons why she returned to Iraq, and why she died there. But in the end, her joyful sacrifice wasn’t for needy Iraqis.

It was for Jesus.
Erich Bridges is a senior writer with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board whose column appears twice each month in Baptist Press.

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  • Erich Bridges