A decade after IMB shootings, Middle East remains on widow’s heart

The same seven pictures that hang in the International Mission Board (IMB) headquarters in Richmond, Va., hang above her couch in her living room inside her suburban home in Texas. The pictures, though, hang out of order—at least in relation to those at the IMB. In this living room, the depiction of the Middle East hangs front and center.

For retired IMB missionary Marty Koehn, the Middle East hangs in the center of her heart as well.

On Dec. 30, 2002, after a fairly normal morning routine in Yemen—then her home of almost 30 years—Koehn heard an “extremely urgent and atrociously loud” knock at her door. Koehn recalls being irritated at the nuisance on her way to answer the door.

“But when I opened the door and saw the face of the man standing there, my irritation disappeared,” Koehn said. “He said, ‘There’s been a shooting, come to the hospital.’ And he took off running.”

When Marty arrived at the hospital, she found that her husband Bill, an IMB missionary serving at Jibla Baptist Hospital as an administrator, along with three other IMB missionaries—Martha Myers, Kathy Gariety and Don Caswell—had been shot by a Muslim militant.

Marty had made it to the hospital in time to be with her husband for his last moments on earth—the memory of which remains etched in her mind. Myers died almost instantly. Hospital workers tried desperately to save Gariety and Bill Koehn. Only Caswell survived.

But as clearly as she can remember the events of the Dec. 30 shooting, Marty remembers the Lord’s hand of provision, comfort and faithfulness before and after her loss.

The missionary said the Lord worked to give her and Bill a few extra moments together that morning that they normally would not have had. She recalled having to make some copies at the hospital. After she finished, she stopped by Bill’s office to visit with him before chapel that morning.

“It was just neat that God gave me those precious extra moments with him that day,” Marty said.
The Lord had also orchestrated that Marty’s house helper was with her in her home when she had to answer the door that morning. Thus, she didn’t worry about locking the house or taking her keys. She just ran immediately after the man who was running back to the hospital.

Marty said the Lord in his foreknowledge even had his hand on Marty and Bill regarding their respective calls to the mission field.

As a young girl, Marty felt the Lord calling her to the mission field during a presentation a Nigerian missionary doctor gave at a Vacation Bible School she attended.

“She spoke to us and God just touched my heart,” Marty said. “I knew then that was what I was supposed to do.”

Years later Marty met Bill and married him in 1963. A few years later, she recalled, God reaffirmed her childhood calling to missions. Bill, though, did not sense the same call.

Despite her eagerness to pursue work on the mission field, Marty resisted the urge to convince Bill to share her calling. That, she said, was the Lord’s work.

“I was really grateful after the shootings to look back and say, ‘I am so glad that I did not manipulate my husband into going,’ because I would have felt terrible, if he had not been supposed to go, and I had made something happen that resulted in him dying,” Marty said. “It was a hard thing to do to stop and wait, but I’m really glad I did it that way. I’m sure the Holy Spirit had a lot to do with that, because I really wanted to barge on ahead. But he wasn’t ready, and I wasn’t ready.”

Nine years after Marty’s call to missions had been reaffirmed, Bill felt the Lord call him to missions as well. The two were commissioned as IMB missionaries in October 1974 and arrived on the field in Yemen in June 1975.

Once Bill died, Marty realized many decisions faced her. Should she stay in Yemen? Should she return to America? If she stayed, what would she do? Her chief responsibility had been as wife and homemaker. That had all changed in an instant.

God did not let these questions consume Marty, though; he gave her clear answers, she said.

“All of the sudden, out of the blue, the Lord brought to mind Elizabeth Elliot’s story,” Marty recounted, speaking of a time within 30 minutes after Bill had died. “I had never read the book, and of course the movie wasn’t out at that point, but I had heard a brief summary of her story, and the Lord reminded me of it. To me, this was his clear indication that I was supposed to go back to Yemen.”

In fact, she added, “It’s just remarkable because I hadn’t thought of that story for years. In Scripture God tells us that he will bring to our remembrance the things we need, and he did. And it was very powerful because I needed that assurance.”

So after returning to the states to grieve and spend time with her two daughters, Marty returned to Yemen—to a land that had become her home and to people who had become her close friends. When she returned, the Lord had already provided her a role in which to serve. Gariety, one of the missionaries killed in the shooting, had worked as the purchasing agent and warehouse manager for the hospital. That position needed to be filled.

“To me, this was another indication God wanted me to go back,” Marty said. “That was the one job I could do because it required someone who knew both English and Arabic and it was a non-medical position. [The Lord] was preparing everything.”

Marty said the Lord’s provisions before, during and after the tragedy reaffirmed to her that she had indeed placed her trust in the right place.

“I learned that I could depend on him,” Marty said. “He was right there directing decisions and blessing my life.”

She said in addition to his protection and provision, the Lord dealt her a heaping dose of peace.

“I was never afraid,” Marty said. “I was surrounded totally by people of the same ethnicity as the man who had just killed my husband. I’m sure part of it was that they were my friends, but it was a blessing to not be afraid. It was peace that didn’t make sense. We should have been afraid.”

“There was just a keen sense of his presence and assurance that I was where I was supposed to be and the contentment of knowing that,” she recalled.

Jibla Baptist Hospital, begun by missionary doctor Jim Young in 1967, was to be transferred from the ownership of the IMB to the Yemeni government on Dec. 31, 2002—the day after the shootings. The Yemeni government reopened the hospital in February 2003, and continued to employ Southern Baptist workers, including Koehn, alongside their Muslim counterparts.

Jibla Hospital finally closed in May 2007 (see related story on page 10), and Koehn retired to Texas to be near family.

In retelling her story, Marty said her desire is for God alone to be glorified and shown faithful to those who obediently follow him. Though her decision to remain in Yemen after her husband’s death would easily lend itself to applause for her firm resolve, dedication or Christ-like love, Marty eschews the label of heroine.

“That was my life. That was all I knew. What else would I do?” she said, marveling that people are impressed that she returned after Bill was killed.

Marty takes pleasure in knowing that one of her granddaughters, who visited her and Bill in Yemen as a child and saw them minister there, is eyeing the mission field.

Former IMB trustee Ginny Dent Brant, who visited the Koehns and others during their service in Yemen to help decide if the IMB would continue with missionaries at the Jibla Baptist Hospital, said Marty’s story testifies to the faithfulness of God and the strength and grace he gives to those who endure hardship for his name.

“She is one in a million,” Brant said. “She just completely trusts God, and she keeps going no matter the circumstances, and honestly, her husband was the same way.”

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