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'Bullets won't stop us'

International | Missionaries mourn slain clinic volunteer

Issue: "Daniel of the Year 2002," Dec. 7, 2002

IN LIFE AND IN DEATH, BONNIE Penner Witherall showed what caring for others in the name of Christ is all about.

On the morning of Nov. 21, she arrived to open the prenatal clinic at a church complex in the predominantly Muslim city of Sidon (pop. 250,000) on Lebanon's southern coast. Shortly after that, an assailant shot her three times in the face and chest with a pistol. Investigators theorize the attacker was a male who knocked on the door to gain entry.

Mrs. Witherall, 31, was the first American murdered in Lebanon since the end of the brutal 1975-90 civil war. Lebanese politicians expressed shock, outrage, and sorrow. Officials wondered whether she was slain because she was an American, or a Christian, or both. The U.S. State Department cautioned Americans in Lebanon to be extra "vigilant," and some missions and relief groups withdrew workers temporarily.

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Mrs. Witherall and her husband, Gary, had arrived in Sidon in January 2001 for two years of language study. They were looking forward to deployment as missionaries within the next few months. A year ago, Mrs. Witherall began volunteering at the clinic as a nurse's assistant and administrator. The church that runs the clinic is affiliated with the Christian and Missionary Alliance denomination.

"We had a discussion with Muslim clergy in Sidon.... They don't want anyone to be converted to Christianity," Beirut pastor Sami Dagher, who heads CMA churches in Lebanon, told Reuters. "They asked me to stop any Muslim coming to the church, and I told them I cannot do that. It is the house of God, and anyone is allowed to come." The Sidon center will remain open, he added.

"Actions of killing and bombings that target Americans in any place ... are an expression of Muslim condemnation of U.S. policy," declared a leading Sunni cleric in south Lebanon. Sheikh Maher Hammoud said he doesn't condemn Mrs. Witherall's killing, "but we do want a different method than this one to show that our whole society is against American policy."

To those who knew her best, Bonnie Witherall was a very special person: attractive, vivacious, caring, a serious thinker, and above all, a dedicated Christian. She grew up in Vancouver, Wash., where she and her family were active in a Baptist church. She took part in efforts to help homeless and other needy people. While in high school, she led her co-workers at a Vancouver McDonald's in prayer before each shift. She took summer church-mission trips to the Philippines, Mexico, and Britain.

Sensing God wanted her to be a missionary, she went off to 1,700-student Moody Bible Institute in Chicago in 1993. There she met a student from England, Gary Witherall, who also had his eyes on the mission field.

They married in 1997 and settled in Portland. Gary worked on the youth ministry staff at Greater Portland Bible Church for a while; Bonnie worked at a bank. The couple eventually joined New Song Community Church; its members became their most enthusiastic supporters.

The Witheralls signed on with London-based Operation Mobilization, which sent them to Sidon to learn Arabic. Mr. Witherall told reporters that some people urged them not to go to the Middle East because it's too dangerous, but "both of us made the decision together. We were ready to lay down our lives." He added: "We knew the threats. We were diligent and careful."

Gary Witherall was at home when someone called and told him Bonnie had been slain. Frantic, he raced to the clinic. A crowd had gathered outside. He forced his way inside but two officers restrained him.

"I was broken," he told an Oregonian reporter. "There was my beautiful wife who I lived for in a pool of blood in the next room, and they wouldn't let me see her." Cheryl Newman, Bonnie's older sister in Portland, told WORLD that Gary's grief quickly turned to resolve. She remembers him saying on the phone: "Bullets won't stop us from speaking up."

Mr. Witherall organized a memorial service for that Sunday afternoon at the church center's chapel. More than 400 mourners packed the chapel; an overflow crowd stood outside in the rain. Mr. Witherall told them of his love for Lebanon and the town where he and his wife spent 18 months--"my hometown of Sidon."

"So many people think my wife's death was a waste ... but we believe that coming here with the message of Jesus would never be a waste. It is a message worth laying our lives down for," he said. Sobbing, he added, "Whoever did this crime, I forgive them. It's not easy. It took everything that I have but I can forgive these people because God has forgiven me."

Edward E. Plowman
Edward E. Plowman

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