RICHMOND, Va. (BP)--Before the first wave of hot tears had dried, before the funerals had ended for four Southern Baptist aid workers killed by unknown attackers in Iraq March 15, the second-guessers had swung into action.
We told you so, said various domestic and international critics in solemn tones. We warned you. Western evangelical workers shouldn't be in Iraq -- or anywhere else in the Muslim world. They put themselves in unnecessary jeopardy. They endanger local Christians and secular relief workers. They hide their religious agenda behind a box of food or a rebuilding project.
Besides, added one professor of Islamic studies at a major American university, Christian work among Muslims has been "an exercise in futility for the past 14 centuries."
The same objections were raised after three Southern Baptist hospital workers were murdered in Yemen at the end of 2002. Decades of effective service by the three -- and heartfelt tributes from many local Muslims whose lives had been saved and enriched by their work -- didn't seem to count for much with the critics.
To be fair, some of the most pointed questions over the last 15 months have not come from open opponents of evangelical missions. They've come instead from friends, church members and others "in the family" who are struggling with anger and confusion about a world seemingly gone mad. Things have changed, they reason. Isn't it time to reconsider the wisdom of sending our best and brightest into dangerous places? If people don't want us there, why don't we bring the missionaries home -- or at least send them to someplace safe?
"Bring them home," applied widely, would mark the end of Southern Baptist involvement in international missions. Some other American church bodies have made that choice, as evangelical mission work has become more expensive and less socially acceptable. Do we want to join them?
"Send them someplace safe" sounds more reasonable. But let's think this notion through to its logical conclusion. Suppose we stop sending workers to places where they face actual or potential dangers: war zones, violent or chaotic regions, places where the government or the power structure opposes Christianity or mission work, isolated places where no one invited us, places vulnerable to extremist attacks.
One or more of those categories covers the communist world and the Muslim world -- in other words, a third of humanity. An increasingly anti-Christian brand of extremism grows stronger daily in India, home to 850 million Hindus.
Africa? Too much suffering, too much death. The "10/40 Window" stretching from North Africa to East Asia, home to most of the world's unreached people groups, would essentially be off-limits. Latin America teems with drug gangs and guerrilla groups who kidnap foreigners for ransom.
That leaves Europe, Australia and North America. Wait; scratch Europe. That continent is reeling from its own version of 9/11: the March 11 terrorist bombing in Madrid that killed hundreds. In late March, British security forces foiled what authorities called a "Madrid-level" bombing. They predict a major terrorist attack on London will come; it's not a question of if but when.
Oh, scratch North America too. We haven't forgotten about 9/11 and the Oklahoma City bombing, have we?
"Nowhere is 'safe,'" observed Wendy Norvelle, associate vice president of the International Mission Board. "We've got people who use the Madrid subway. We've got people in Haiti. We've got people in Africa. Almost anywhere there's violence or unrest, we've got people there."
Southern Baptists have lost eight international workers to terrorist bullets and bombs since Dec. 30, 2002. That is a heartbreaking number, a sobering number. To put it into some perspective, however, at least 29 Roman Catholic mission workers were killed last year alone, according to the Vatican. Both of these numbers are tiny fractions of the total number of believers who die or suffer for their faith each year.
Active, location-specific security precautions for missionaries and their families are common sense. Not to take them is foolish and irresponsible. Sometimes local believers should take the lead in public ministry, which is the goal of effective mission work in any case.
Not to be in places of potential risk, however, is disobedient to Christ. He is there, working through His followers to heal the hurting and give hope to the hopeless.
After the devastating Madrid subway bombing, missionaries who live in the area went among the shocked people of the city to pray, join them in grief and find ways to minister. One missionary, prayerwalking with a friend along the train platform, found a young woman on her knees crying convulsively.
"We both knelt down," he said. "I told her that we were Christians and would like to pray for her. She gave no reply except the unashamed sobbing that was surely for a lost one. When we finished praying she looked up and said, 'Help me, help me,' and I asked, 'How?' She gave no reply, but then said, 'How could they? How could they?' I had no answer. She just reached out to hold my hand and my heart broke for her.
"For what seemed like 15 minutes I knelt with her in an embrace while she did nothing but cry, and I began to cry. Then she asked me, 'Where is my God?' ... I began to share the Gospel with her and tell her that God, loving us so much, became a man named Jesus to pay for our sins so that we could have fellowship with Him.
"Christ whispered these words in my ear: 'Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.' In that moment, I realized what being a missionary is all about.... I found out later that her name was Mary and she was from Switzerland. Her boyfriend 'exploded in the train,' as she put it in her broken English.
"Was her life changed that night on the platform not far from the death place of her boyfriend? I know that I cannot answer for her. But God has changed my life for letting me bear some of that pain with her those few minutes, in His name and for His glory."
Erich Bridges is a senior writer with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board whose column appears twice each month in Baptist Press.