Erich Bridges/Baptist Press
RICHMOND, Va. (BP) – Karen Watson knew Iraq was dangerous.
She had left Iraq months before, exhausted and afraid, as the chaotic country descended deeper into violence. But she went back anyway. She was not a soldier, but a Christian relief worker, armed only with love and humanitarian aid.
That decision claimed the 38-year-old’s life on a dusty road 10 years ago. Still, she had no regrets about going back. She wasn’t big on regrets; she had experienced too many of them already in her short life. She was big on obedience.
“When God calls there are no regrets,” she wrote in a now-famous letter found in a sealed envelope marked “Open in case of death.” Departing for the Middle East, she had left the letter with Phil Neighbors, her pastor at Valley Baptist Church in Bakersfield, Calif.
“I tried to share my heart with you as much as possible, my heart for the nations,” Watson said in the letter. “I wasn’t called to a place; I was called to Him. To obey was my objective, to suffer was expected, His glory my reward, His glory my reward.”
She had joined the wave of foreign relief workers who rushed to Iraq after U.S. and coalition forces overthrew Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. But relief groups didn’t realize how quickly large areas of Iraq were becoming death traps as factional attacks and terrorism mounted.
On March 15, 2004, Watson and four other Southern Baptist humanitarian workers were driving back to Mosul after a day of visiting villagers in need of clean water. Gunmen pulled alongside their vehicle and opened fire, killing Watson and co-workers Larry and Jean Elliott on the spot. David McDonnall died hours after the attack. Carrie McDonnall, David’s wife, suffered multiple wounds but recovered.
In the 2005 book, Lives Given, Not Taken: 21st Century Southern Baptist Martyrs, I wrote about these workers and four other Southern Baptist missionaries killed in terror attacks since 9/11. I read their letters and journals, and discussed these workers’ lives with their widows, friends, colleagues, parents and children.
Watson’s story struck the deepest chord in me. She overcame a difficult early life, a broken family, devastating losses of loved ones and years of emotional pain to become a bold and joyful servant. She packed a lifetime of loving Jesus into the nine years she knew Him as Savior before her death.
“Don’t make Karen into a saint,” urged a close friend. “She would hate that. She was pretty wild when she was young. But when she became a Christian, she turned around 180 degrees.”
So who, exactly, was Watson? One tough woman, to hear some tell it. Before becoming a believer, she ran a pool hall. Later, as a detention officer with the Kern County (Calif.) Sheriff’s Department, she handled potentially violent jail inmates and trained other deputies to quell disorder, by force if necessary.
During her first year as a believer, she was offered the job with the Sheriff’s Department – and she seized the opportunity. Watson had a deep sense of justice – of right and wrong – which had been violated many times during her years of pain. Law enforcement represented a way to try to right some of those wrongs. And as a young Christian, Watson had by no means become a quiet, retiring nun. She was in charge – and when she felt it necessary, in your face.
“She was a straight shooter. She didn’t sugarcoat anything,” said Lt. Kevin Wright, her commanding officer and closest friend in the department. “I would hear her footsteps coming down the hall and know I was going to get a lecture about something. She would come in, close the door, sit on my desk and say, ‘We gotta talk.’”
Watson did her best at all times and expected everyone else to do the same. No slack, no excuses. Nearly everyone in the department liked her though, because she backed her words with action, commitment and loyalty. “She was the kind of person you wanted on your side when the going got rough,” Wright said.
Inmates liked her, too. She was firm, but fair. “She was compassionate with them,” Wright said. “They knew they weren’t going to pull anything over on her, that she was strict and would enforce the rules. But she was willing to listen to them.”
Once Watson gave her heart to Jesus, He began the patient process of softening her, a process revealed in the journals she kept throughout her walk with God. The journals are a series of love letters from God to her, and from her to God, recording her pursuit of Him with all of her mind, body and soul.
“I’m not going to give anything to my Lord that will cost me nothing,” she wrote, way back in 1998.
Many times during her life Watson – like other children of broken homes – battled anger, bitterness, depression, loneliness, perfectionism, insecurity and the compulsion to rebel against authority. She also struggled with fear throughout her time in Iraq and freely admitted it.
But courage isn’t the absence of fear, as one of her pastors reminded listeners at her funeral. Courage is the laying aside of fear to obey God, trusting Him with the consequences.
When she was assigned by International Mission Board to help coordinate post-war relief projects in Iraq, she sold her house and car and gave away most of her other possessions – whatever wouldn’t fit in a large duffel bag. After relief work began in earnest, she worked with others to coordinate the distribution of thousands of food boxes sent by Southern Baptist churches and the rebuilding of damaged schools, among numerous other projects. One of her most cherished ministries was the “Widows Project,” a program that helped mostly nonliterate Iraqi women learn to read, gain work skills and generate income.
“Karen built relationships everywhere she went,” a colleague said. “People remember her. They remember the light in her countenance. They remember her friendliness.”
The spiritual battle intensified for Watson as the brutally hot summer months of 2003 passed. Threats against foreign civilians were increasing. She personally experienced several close calls in the Baghdad area as bombings and street attacks mounted. Gunfire woke her up at night; sleep seldom returned. It became overwhelming.
Watson left Iraq for several months, not knowing if she would ever return. She rested – mentally, physically and spiritually. She savored the feeling of having lunch with friends at McDonald’s without having to look over her shoulder or listen for explosions and gunfire. She studied Arabic. She spent many hours in prayer. As time passed, she confronted her anxieties about what was happening in Iraq. She studied key passages of God’s Word with close friends – grappling once again not only with current fears but with old wounds and heartbreak.
“Lord, in all my weakness I need Your strength for the future,” she wrote in her journal.
Watson was convinced it was time to return to Iraq. Shortly before she left, she bought a beautiful gold ring with several small diamonds. The purchase surprised friends, since Karen usually saved much of her small salary and lived on next to nothing.
“It looked like a wedding band,” a friend said. “I wore a wedding band before I got married, too, to remind me that Christ was my husband, that I wasn’t alone.” She asked Watson if that was what she had in mind.
“Yes,” she replied with a radiant smile. “I guess that’s it.”
Her friend wept with everyone else when she learned of Watson’s death in Iraq only days later. Then she remembered the wedding ring, and her weeping turned to tears of celebration. “It was her wedding day. Christ had so prepared her as a bride that she was completely without blemish. I don’t know if I have ever been with anyone who was more ready to meet Him face to face.”
Only Watson – and her beloved Bridegroom – know all the reasons she returned to Iraq and died there. But in the end, her joyful sacrifice wasn’t for needy Iraqis.
Her sacrifice was for Jesus.