Missionary Continues Witness After Tragedy (Jan-Feb 2002)

By Matt Dabbs

by Ted Parks
Copyright 2002 Religion News Service

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn.—”He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”

Quoting evangelical Christian missionary Jim Elliot, martyred in Ecuador in 1956, the Rev. Scott McCurdy, assistant pastor of Highland Park Baptist Church, Chattanooga, Tenn., now applies the phrase to another Jim—Jim Bowers.

In Ecuador’s neighbor, Peru, and almost 50 years later, Bowers paid an almost equally high price to follow the missionary call—he didn’t lose his own life, but that of his wife, Roni, and baby daughter, Charity. Bowers and his family were flying to the city of Iquitos in northern Peru on April 20, 2001, when their plane became mistakenly identified as a flight of drug traffickers.

Fire from a Peruvian Air Force jet pursuing the civilian missionary pontoon plane killed Bowers’ wife and daughter and wounded pilot Kevin Donaldson, who nevertheless managed to land in the Amazon River. Donaldson, Bowers and Bowers’ young son Cory survived the attack that was part of an antidrug program supported by the CIA.

Bowers is in big demand these days at evangelical Christian colleges to talk about the incident and its implications for faith. He is scheduled to participate in a missions conference at the end of January at Highland Park Baptist organized by assistant pastor McCurdy.

The independent church is affiliated with Chattanooga’s Tennessee Temple University. McCurdy said the university had produced scores of missionaries over the years and that interest in missions at the school continued high.

But before the conference, Bowers is making his third trip to Peru since the April tragedy—but the first with his 7-year-old son Cory.

Before the April 2001 accident, Bowers taught and encouraged local church leaders along a 150-mile stretch of the Amazon. To carry out their river ministry, Bowers and his family lived aboard a 60-by-16-foot houseboat. Complete with solar power, a satellite phone, air conditioning and a microwave, the boat was “a real comfortable home,” Bowers said.

While Bowers has been back on the boat since the accident, Cory has not. “I’m hoping this return will be good for Cory to think through … what happened to his mom and sister as he boards our floating home and spends a week there without his mom’s constant presence—the only thing he knows of life there,” Bowers said. “I think it will be good for him, but quite emotional to be certain.”

With his mother serving as teacher as well as mom, the boy was “boat-schooled,” said David Southwell, executive administrator for South America for the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism (ABWE), the Pennsylvania-based missions agency that sponsored Bowers in Peru.

During the trip, Bowers will meet with church leaders, host a crew shooting a docudrama and documentary, and speak in the city of Iquitos. He will also attend a conference in Lima for regional ABWE missionaries.

Though Bowers is currently involved in a ministry in Raleigh, N.C., he tries to stay on top of what he started in Peru by e-mail and short trips back.

ABWE’s Southwell said the shootdown radically altered the mission agency’s Amazon River outreach. “Basically … our future was wiped out in a lot of ways,” Southwell said. “We have confidence God’s in charge, mind you. And we believe he knows what’s going on. We don’t.”

Bowers minces no words when talking about who’s to blame for the incident.

“It was completely, 100 percent the fault of the Peruvian Air Force and the CIA,” he said, adding that a subsequent investigation had cleared pilot Donaldson of any responsibility in causing the accident. “It was just completely out of hand.”

The missionary and others are frustrated by what they see as a stubborn United States and Peruvian refusal to admit error. While both Peruvian officials and President Bush offered condolences, neither government acknowledged guilt in shooting down the plane, Bowers said.

“Both the CIA and the Peruvian government have done their best to hide and to be quiet as much as possible,” he said. “Especially our government shouldn’t be in the business of helping foreign soldiers shoot at innocent civilians.

“To my knowledge there has been no public statement, by either the Peruvian Air Force, their national government, or the CIA or U.S. State Department, to acknowledge … any wrongdoing in this event,” he said.

Bowers also said that “not one penny has been given” to pay for the damages of property, expenses, or loss of productivity by the missionaries.

Southwell said that ABWE still had not replaced the downed aircraft, despite other missionaries already in the pipeline waiting to resume flying.

The Embassy of Peru in Washington, D.C., insisted Peruvian officials expressed sympathy after the event, including sending two consuls general to the funerals for Bowers’ wife and daughter.

“We continue to regret this unfortunate incident,” an embassy official told RNS.

Asked to respond to the criticism that the CIA neither took responsibility for its actions nor offered compensation to the victims, agency spokesperson Tom Crispell declined comment.

But amid the frustration, faith seems to eclipse Bowers’ pain. “When I mourn, I think about how much I miss them,” Bowers said. Thoughts of loss, however, rest on a confidence that his wife’s and daughter’s deaths are in no sense the end of a tragic story, but the start of a happier one. “All that happened to them is … they went on to heaven sooner.”

Soon after the incident, Bowers said he began searching for something positive. “I switched gears basically and started thinking about the good that could come out of this.” That something good, he said, will be a sports complex to minister to the youth of Iquitos.

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This author published 1598 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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