SANA’A, YEMEN – Jarring images of how an Islamic extremist burst into, of all places, a hospital in the last days of 2002, to fire bullets from his Kalishnikov into the heads of our friends will linger for a while.
My wife Jean and I and some colleagues are still laying to rest what has become known across Yemen as ‘The Jibla Tragedy.’
At Jibla’s mission hospital, we lost loved ones. Violently. Life will never be the same. Indeed, as we discovered later, victim Dr. Martha Myers was about to phone Jean for a consultation on a patient just moments before the crazed gunman burst into her world to kill her.
It’s tempting to think that, as Christian aid workers, that is Christian “missionary” aid workers, the three slain Americans — Myers, widely known as “Dr. Martha”, administrator Bill Koehn, and purchasing agent Kathy Gariety — had no business bringing their faith to the Muslim world.
“With Missionaries Spreading, Muslim Anger is Following” was the headline on a New York Times analysis after Jibla.
It’s a popular view among those who would never consider putting a toe of their own into the waters of foreign aid work. And it’s wrong.
Consider this. Hundreds of Yemeni lined the gates of Jibla hospital on the day Bill and Martha were buried on its grounds. Why? Because these three mission workers — Kathy’s body was flown back to the U.S. for burial — were loved deeply by the Yemeni.
The day after, when most American and foreign staff left the hospital, hundreds of locals lined the gates again to say farewell.
But isn’t Yemen the reported new home of big, bad Osama, with gun- toting, wideeyed crazies running amok? Unfortunately, yes. Then again, have you been to downtown Toronto lately? What is its murder rate?
Several Yemeni have actually approached Jean and me with more collective embarrassment over Jibla than anything else. They know their country is backward and impoverished and they’re thankful aid workers are raising standards in all kinds of ways. It’s true that aid workers may be targeted more these days.
The United Nations says about 200 were killed worldwide in a 30- month period up to January, 2001. That’s a rising rate.
But while such workers, especially from the west, are increasingly in the crosshairs of religion and politics, missionary activity per se is hardly the main cause.
Here it’s more that Arabs feel like 90-pound weaklings on Mr. America’s beach.
Western policy on Palestine is one kick of sand in the face. Another is the looming war with Iraq.
As far as the activities of Bill or Kathy or Dr. Martha go, judge for yourself. Dr. Martha’s reputation in particular was legendary among locals. If a Yemeni needed food, she’d give it. If they needed money, OK. Children? Bring them over.
By example, she showed how we are all in fact starving beggars in need of the same piece of bread.
Further, if the blood of martyrs is the seed of something new, how much more precious is the blood of those who give up their lives while working in the lands of their foreign friends?
So while murder is a terrible thing, these three aid workers were very much honoured in their deaths.
They died how they lived, sacrificially.
And they died doing what they loved. As one friend put it, “They died happy and joyful.”
In the end, of course, every one of us will die. What will you leave behind? That’s perspective.
This is what these three souls have given Yemen and now much of the world. They’re not the first. They won’t be the last.
But if love is stronger than death, and I believe it is, then something very powerful happened in Jibla.
It’s called leaving something beautiful for God.
Bill, Kathy, Martha: Jean and I and many others look forward to seeing you again sometime. Until then, thank you. May you rest in peace.