Nancy, Tania and Patti watched in horror through their tears, as the heavily armed guerrillas led their husbands away into the jungle. ‘Will we ever see them again?’ they asked. They are still asking that question seven years later.
Dave and Nancy Mankins, and Rick and Patti Tenenoff were instructing a group of believers in the Kuna Indian village of Pucuro in Panama, close to the Colombian border. Mark and Tania Rich were recent additions to the missionary team. On 31 January 1993 the men were taken into Colombia by the guerrillas.
A ransom demand for five million dollars was made. New Tribes Mission does not pay ransoms, so the crisis team tried to reason with the kidnappers. Even though they threatened to kill the men, sporadic contact was maintained throughout 1993. In December of that year, the hostages themselves spoke over the radio. A month later the guerrillas promised to be in contact within a few days, but no further contact has been made nor proof of life given.
Although many reports have indicated that the men are still alive, the crisis team has been unable to verify whether this is true or not. Meanwhile, the families wait. Although work continues among the Kuna Indians in other parts of Panama, the area south of the canal has become too dangerous for foreign missionaries. A year later, on 16 January 1994, guerrillas stormed the New Tribes School for missionaries’ children near Villavicencio, Colombia. They took missionaries Tim Van Dyke and Steve Welsh as hostages. Eighteen months later, Tim and Steve’s bodies were found after a skirmish between the guerrillas and the military. In April 1994, Ray Rising of Wycliffe Bible Translators was kidnapped. He was released unharmed on 17 June 1995, a year to the day after Tim and Steve were killed.
Things got worse
We hoped and prayed that things would get better, but they only got worse. Presidential elections last year brought a slim glimmer of hope for something better, but those illusions vanished, leaving only a feeble administration that cannot resolve the serious issues it faces.
Encouraged by promises of peace talks with the guerrillas, the government demilitarised an area of Colombia as large as Switzerland, and handed it over to the guerrillas. Instead of engaging in peace talks, the guerrillas are using this demilitarised zone to demonstrate their capability to govern, while they wreak havoc in the rest of the country.
How does all this affect the work of missions in Colombia? Should foreign missionaries stay in a country with such high risks to personal safety? There has been a steady flow of missionaries leaving Colombia for security reasons, and this has grown to a flood in recent months. Both missionaries and their boards must look to the Lord for guidance in the light of the high risks involved.
It is not easy for Colombian believers either. When the guerrillas or paramilitaries attack a town, the Lord’s people also suffer. One family lived in a small town for over thirty years where they faithfully witnessed and pastored a little church built beside their house.
Last year, the guerrillas attacked this town, aiming their offensive at the police station. It was of no concern to them that the Evangelical Church and its pastor’s house were between them and the police station.
As they propelled their home-made butane tank bombs towards the police station, some fell short, demolishing the church and all but one room of the house – the room in which his whole family was huddled in a corner!
God is still at work
God tells us in Isaiah, ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways’ (Isaiah 55:8). We do not understand why the Lord allows evil men to apparently hinder his work, but we must trust him to do what is right. He is far more interested in reaching the lost than we are.
God is still at work accomplishing his positive purposes in the salvation of souls, the planting and strengthening of local churches, and the equipping of believers to take the gospel to those who still have not heard it.
We need to pray for the release of Dave, Rick and Mark, and for all the Lord’s people that they will have the grace to stand firm, no matter what Satan hurls at them. Ask God to open these doors that are closed and bring peace and stability to the beautiful land of Colombia.