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WORLDVIEW: Living & dying for God in a dangerous world

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–The bullet that took Martha Myers’ life came from a weapon disguised as a sick child.

What a bittersweet irony.

Myers, 57, delivered, vaccinated, healed, comforted and cared for thousands of children during her 24 years as a physician at the Baptist hospital in Jibla, Yemen. Her Southern Baptist colleague, hospital administrator Bill Koehn, made toys for Yemeni kids in his spare time.

The Yemeni man who got a semiautomatic pistol past hospital guards Dec. 30 by cradling it like an infant apparently knew what he was doing: targeting American Christians. He killed Myers, Koehn and purchasing agent Kathy Gariety, and wounded pharmacist Don Caswell. Why he did it — and whether he plotted the attack alone — are now subjects of investigation.

But Myers knew what she was doing, too.

She fell in love with the people of Yemen the first time she visited the impoverished Arab land in 1971 as a young medical worker. “I felt a special assurance from the Lord that this was where I would be and, single or not, I would be happy,” she reflected in a 1994 interview. She returned there as a career Southern Baptist doctor in 1978 — and never looked back.

She was happy, despite the crushing workload and chronic understaffing at the hospital, the overwhelming physical needs of the people, the loneliness of endless responsibility. Between patient rounds, surgeries and emergencies, she found time to visit countless Yemeni homes, make countless friends, immunize countless kids and save countless lives through her pioneering community health work in isolated Yemeni villages, which she reached by bouncing a land cruiser down rough roads.

“She had an insatiable compassion for people, especially people in need,” said her father, Alabama physician and former state public health director Ira Myers.

Martha Myers and her fallen co-workers also knew the risks of working in a place like Yemen, particularly as Islamic radicalism increased in recent years. She survived a kidnapping by Muslim militants several years ago and continued her medical ministry.

“This [gunman] did not take their lives; they chose to give their lives” to Yemen long ago, said John Brady, the International Mission Board’s regional leader for North Africa and the Middle East. “Loving God, they loved the Yemeni people.”

The Yemeni people who knew them loved them back — as demonstrated by the outpouring of respect and grief after their deaths.

“All Jibla weeps for them,” Malka al-Hadhrami, a longtime friend of Myers told a reporter through her own tears.

The deaths of Myers and her colleagues follow the murder of American missionary Bonnie Penner Witherall by a Muslim gunman in Lebanon in November. Attacks and threats in other areas raise new questions about how to protect Americans living and working abroad in the post-9/11 era.

Students, business people, diplomats, aid workers and missionaries abroad are what security specialists call “soft targets” — easy prey for organized or freelance terrorists. Missionaries in particular, by the very nature of their service to local people and communities, are vulnerable. They don’t work behind reinforced walls or travel in armed convoys.

Following the deadliest day in 157 years of Southern Baptist mission work, a somber new year greets the nearly 5,500 Southern Baptist missionaries working in more than 180 countries — a new year clouded by threats of war, terrorism, anti-Christian hostility and growing global anti-Americanism.

Security precautions have become a higher priority in missionary training since 9/11 and will take on even greater urgency as threats increase. Yet, as IMB President Jerry Rankin stated after the killings, “We would not choose to end our ministry and service because of risk and danger to our personnel. If we did, we would probably be ending our ministry in many countries throughout the world.”

That’s not going to happen — unless we succumb to fear or anger. We need the spirit of Martha Myers, who remained faithful to God — and to the Yemeni people. She loved them because God loves them.

“No prayers are wasted on Yemen and the other countries, because the needs are so great,” she once said. “The fields are white unto harvest, and we need to pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out folks to help.”
Bridges, whose column appears twice-monthly in Baptist Press, is a senior writer with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board. (BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: MARTHA MYERS and ERICH BRIDGES.
— Photos, video of slain Yemen workers: www.imb.org/urgent.

    About the Author

  • Erich Bridges