Eight years ago, Karen Watson lost some loved ones to death. In her grief, she turned to church-Valley Baptist Church in Bakersfield, Calif., now 7,000 members strong. Here she became a devout Christian and, later, a mentor to college-age women. A county detention officer, she soon was taking time off to join other church members on short-term mission trips-two to El Salvador, one to Kosovo, Macedonia, and Greece.
She loved helping people in need, her friends say. Wanting to do it full-time, she gave up her job, sold her house and car, and signed up as one of more than 5,400 missionaries with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board. The IMB last year sent her to assist with refugee and relief work in Jordan and northern Iraq.
Natives of North Carolina, Larry and Jean Elliott were veteran IMB missionaries, having served 25 years in Honduras. In 1998, Hurricane Mitch swept the country, killing more than 5,600 and leaving over 200,000 homeless. The Elliotts emerged from the aftermath as experts in disaster relief. In February, the IMB transferred them to Iraq to help with relief efforts there. He was 60, she was 58.
Texans David and Carrie McDonnall first met while serving a two-year training term as Southern Baptist missionaries in North Africa and the Middle East. Fluent in Arabic, they came home and enrolled at Southwestern Baptist Seminary in Fort Worth to prepare for full-time missions work. Last summer, on their first wedding anniversary, they led a team of about a dozen fellow seminary students on a three-week volunteer trip to Iraq. They distributed food, renovated an elementary school, and explored needs in northern Iraq.
In November, the McDonnalls took a break from seminary, and with the blessings and prayers of their pastor and fellow members at a commissioning service at Travis Avenue Baptist Church in Fort Worth, they headed off to Iraq on a mission of mercy.
Miss Watson, the Elliotts, and the McDonnalls met up in Mosul in northern Iraq. The city is home to Sunni and Shiite Muslims and a small Christian community, and to diverse ethnic groups, mainly Arabs and Kurds. As a tactic in such sensitive areas, missionaries engage in "good works," reaching out through humanitarian efforts, and sharing their faith with appreciative and curious locals only when asked about it.
Dangers abound for Westerners visiting and working in Iraq, and for Iraqis cooperating with the Coalition Provisional Authority. Terrorists want to defeat rebuilding efforts toward democracy and drive CPA forces from the country. They've stepped up their killing and maiming of civilians in recent months. The five Americans were aware of the peril. They had discussed the dangers with their pastors and friends back home. Still, they said they would take the recommended precautions and proceed on faith.
One of the tasks of the missionaries was to scout locations for a water-purification project. On March 15, they were headed back to their quarters at suppertime when a car overtook their double-cab pickup. Gunmen in the car opened up with automatic weapons.
Miss Watson, 38, and the Elliotts were killed outright. An off-duty Iraqi police officer took the McDonnalls to a hospital. Four U.S. military surgeons worked for six hours to save Mr. McDonnall, 29. But he died early the next morning on a helicopter that was carrying him to a military hospital in Baghdad. Mrs. McDonnall, 26, remained in critical condition.
IMB officials expressed sorrow but indicated the work would continue. Citing security concerns, they declined to disclose how many missionary personnel are working in Iraq. (Other mission and church relief groups also are mum about numbers.)
Across the country, churches and seminaries held prayer vigils. At Southern Seminary in Louisville, President Albert Mohler challenged his students with the need for "four more missionaries" to take the place of those slain. At Southwestern, missiology student Erika Wiegand, 25-a friend of Carrie McDonnall who led a small group of students to do humanitarian work in Iraq over the Christmas break-told Baptist Press: "I want to go there even more now than before."
At Valley Baptist in Bakersfield, Pastor Phil Neighbors read from a letter Miss Watson wrote, to be opened only in the event of her death: "To obey is my objective. To suffer is expected. His glory will be my reward."
He told WORLD: "She said in the letter that one of her primary concerns was for the church to preserve the work in Iraq."