RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Why?
That anguished one-word question is being asked by many people after five Southern Baptist aid workers were shot in Iraq March 15.
Larry and Jean Elliott and Karen Watson died on the spot after automatic weapons fire and rocket-propelled grenade fragments tore into their vehicle. David McDonnall succumbed the next morning as U.S. military surgeons struggled to save him. His wife, Carrie, critically wounded, has been stabilized and is being treated after being flown to a hospital in Germany.
The why question encompasses multiple whys. Why were they attacked? Why were they in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul? Why did they go to Iraq in the first place? Why were they working there amid obvious dangers?
Why they were attacked — and by whom — remains unknown. But there’s no shortage of speculation as investigation of the tragedy gets under way.
With the new surge of assaults on foreign workers and Iraqi civilians involved in reconstruction, U.S. officials think terrorists and insurgents have changed tactics. Instead of “hard target” military convoys and outposts, officials say, attackers are seeking out “soft targets” — aid workers, other foreign civilians, Iraqis connected with the effort to rebuild Iraqi society.
“Clearly there has been a shift in the insurgency and the way the extremists are conducting operations,” said Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, ranking American commander in Iraq, March 16.
Whether the Southern Baptist workers fell victim to such a strategy or simply came upon the wrong place at the wrong time isn’t yet known — and may never be known.
Why they were in Mosul is an easier question to answer. They were looking for ways to assist the people of the city — particularly in producing clean water. Larry Elliott, with many years of experience in disaster relief ministries in Central America, had worked briefly in southern Iraq last year in several water purification projects. He had only recently returned to Iraq with his wife, Jean, to help in longer-term projects. The McDonnalls also had previously served in the region.
Karen Watson had worked in and around Iraq for more than a year, coordinating relief projects and the volunteers who came to carry them out. She had been studying Arabic in a nearby country and had just returned to Iraq to continue serving people in need.
Why did they willingly come to Iraq in the first place, despite its many and increasing dangers? That’s the simplest question of all. But the answers are hard for many of us to comprehend.
American Christians generally accept — in theory — that God might ask us one day to risk our lives for Him. For believers accustomed to freedom and comfort, however, the theory is easier to deal with than the reality. Viewers of “The Passion of The Christ” have learned anew what Christ Himself willingly suffered. He calls His followers to be prepared for similar treatment at any time.
That’s not what the Elliotts, the McDonnalls and Karen Watson had in mind as they drove through Mosul March 15. They were excited about the potential development projects they had identified. They were intent on serving needy Iraqis. They knew what general precautions they needed to take.
They also trusted in God’s protection. But they had no illusions about the continuing risks. Watson in particular had experienced several previous close calls in Iraq and was experienced in training other workers to avoid dangers.
“The thing about Karen is she loved people,” said one of Watson’s closest friends and co-workers. “She was there because she wanted to make a difference. She was always faithful, excited, passionate to be there. We watched the war on TV [from a neighboring country], and as soon as it cooled down, Karen was there. She was on the first wave of everything” — food distribution, relief projects, coordinating volunteers. “She was running the show for a couple of months as groups were coming in and out. She narrowly escaped a couple of bombings early on.
“She just wanted to give her life sharing God’s love with the Iraqi people. So that’s what she did.”
The Elliotts had the same motivation, as they had demonstrated for a quarter-century of service in Honduras.
“Larry was instrumental in relief work after Hurricane Mitch” in Honduras, said Jim Brown, a Southern Baptist human needs specialist. “He helped us with disaster relief in Mexico, after the earthquake in El Salvador, with a lot of the hurricanes that hit that whole area.
“He knew how to meet the needs of people, but to always share the love of Christ in a very effective way. He knew that they went hand in glove. He was not there to do one or the other, but to do both.”
Before they left for Iraq, the Elliotts visited their longtime home church, Baptist Temple Church in Reidsville, N.C.
“A lot of people were asking them, ‘Why would you go?'” recalled George Fox, pastor of the church. The Elliotts said, ‘You could die in traffic in Raleigh. It’s safer to be in the center of God’s will.’ Larry was excited that God could use some of his skills from Honduras to help people in Iraq get clean water.
“God has used them in this church to shape our hearts,” the pastor said. “It’s going to be a deep grief, but also a challenge, because they were willing to go despite the danger.”
The Elliotts sent an e-mail to family and friends shortly after they arrived in Iraq. “We are happy to be here and our call has been confirmed,” they said. “We love you all.”
The dangers in this world aren’t going away any time soon. But the needs of suffering people for help and hope continue. May the spirit of the Elliotts, the McDonnalls and Karen Watson shape our hearts for the challenge.
Erich Bridges is a senior writer with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board who writes a column twice each month for Baptist Press.