In 1997, I entered a country far different from my own. As a trustee of the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, I visited Yemen in July of that year. At that time, trustees were debating whether to keep Jibla Baptist Hospital open. The hospital workers requested the trustees see their work before making a final determination. I was ill-prepared for the experiences that awaited me.
Before my arrival, physician Martha Myers had been kidnapped and miraculously released. That news made my steps unsteady. After safely passing through customs and seeing men with machine guns on their backs and jambiyas (daggers) across their chests, I was alarmed.
After winding four hours through rugged terrain to Jibla Baptist Hospital, I heard alarming details that elevated my normally low blood pressure: Rabid dogs were wandering, malaria was spreading, water was scarce, electricity was sporadic, the hospital was under red alert due to threats from al Qaeda, and the airlines had just gone on strike. They had me at rabid. I was officially in culture shock. And who’s al Qaeda?
But this kind of news was status quo to the workers called to serve in Yemen. I would only sample a taste of their everyday lives. Yet, no complaints. Why, they should be begging me to rescue them from this. Instead, Bill Koehn, the hospital administrator, and others did their best to show me all God was doing, begging to stay.
My first day began with meeting the staff for devotions, prayer and a hospital tour. Hours later I was shuttled between prison and orphanage ministries. By the end of the afternoon, Bill escorted me to the sheik’s house. What an experience. As we prepared to leave, Bill’s face revealed his pain as he was unable to tie his shoes. A head-on collision on a winding mountain road had nearly disabled him, requiring hip-replacement surgery.
Sensing his pain and steeped in American culture, I leaned over, tied his shoes, and assisted him. I didn’t know my actions were taboo until I noticed all eyes glaring at me. In a culture where it’s forbidden for a woman to look a man in the eye, I shouldn’t have touched his foot. Bill quickly relayed my apologies in Arabic to the sheik and I was spared any punishment. The love and respect for Bill and the workers at Jibla protected me.
The last night of my stay, I apologized for any hurt board members had caused them. It was not that we weren’t pleased with their labor; it was a matter of safety and dollars spent at a time when Eastern Europe opened to us overnight. Before leaving I heard these unforgettable words from Bill, the hospital’s respected father figure: “Don’t worry about the danger. God protects us and we realize God may call some of us to give our lives to further his work.” My life has never been the same after spending time with such saints.
On Dec. 30, 2002, I was awakened to the startling news that Bill Koehn, Martha Myers, and Kathy Gariety had been shot and killed by a Muslim militant. Don Caswell, a pharmacist, was also shot and recovered. Grief shook me to my knees. Bill’s last words to me echoed through my mind.
Marty Koehn, Bill’s wife, was immediately summoned to his side. She held his hands as he passed into glory. Thirty minutes later as she made her way home, God spoke to her heart. He brought to her mind the example of Elisabeth Elliot, a woman who shared similar grief and pain, yet a warrior who returned to serve the tribe that speared her husband, Jim. Marty, just months from retirement, made a tough decision that day. She honored God’s call to stay in Yemen, serving four more years before returning to live in Texas near family.
Bill Koehn’s and Martha Myers’ predetermined requests were to be buried on a hill above the hospital grounds in Yemen. The outpouring of love and respect by the Yemeni people for these dear servants was extraordinary. Contrary to Islamic law, the people lovingly made their caskets and dug their graves with their own hands. They lined the streets to pay homage to these friends who had served them for more than 25 years, saying, “Surely, they are of God!”
To this day, their graves serve as a reminder of what their lives preached. The Bible tells us in John 15:13, “Greater love hath no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” To me they and their families are heroes of the faith. For it is easier to graduate to glory than to be the ones left behind—to be the ones left without a spouse and parent.
My brief but powerful time with them enabled me to see that freedom is so much more than having my American way. My definition of freedom changed. Bill and Marty, Martha and Kathy knew that true freedom and contentment was found in finding and following God’s will for your life. And I would learn from them.
Bill Koehn guided the hospital through tough times for nearly 30 years. Jerry Rankin, former president of the IMB, referred to him a “quiet giant.” His son-in-law called him “a nobody who became Christ to everybody who saw him.”
May others see Jesus in our lives and say … “Surely, they are of God!”
—Ginny Dent Brant is a speaker and former trustee of the International Mission Board and the author of “Finding True Freedom: From the White House to the World,” a memoir of life with her late father, Harry S. Dent Sr., who served presidents Nixon, Ford and George H.W. Bush. Her website is ginnybrant.com.