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Today's Christian, March/April 2002

Chet Bitterman

Missionaries have never been off-limits for terrorists

by Bonne Steffen

In 1981, anticipating his first actual linguistic assignment with Wycliffe Bible Translators, missionary Chet Bitterman, 28, prayed, "Lord, the tribe that's the most remote, the most difficult to reach because of location and culture, the tribe no one else might select because of those reasons, Lord, if it's okay with you, that's my tribe." Bitterman encountered "the tribe no one else might select" when he was kidnapped by Colombian rebels, an innocent victim caught in the midst of civil unrest.

The young missionary had first heard about Bible translation when he was a student at Columbia Bible College in South Carolina. After a Wycliffe presentation, Bitterman thought, That's what I'd like to do. But after graduation, Bitterman went to work for his father in the scale business back home in Pennsylvania.

At his home church during a social for college-age men and women, Bitterman met Brenda Gardner, a senior at Lancaster Bible College and the daughter of Wycliffe missionaries in Colombia. When Bitterman mentioned that he was thinking about attending the Summer Institute of Linguistics in North Dakota, Brenda couldn't believe it—she had spent the previous summer at the SIL facility in Oklahoma.

The linguistics studies proved trying for Bitterman, but Brenda's letters and his perseverence kept him going. By summer's end he was sure of two things: he wanted to continue to pursue a career with Wycliffe and he wanted to marry Brenda. In August 1978, the couple, now with a baby, successfully completed Wycliffe's jungle camp in Mexico as the final preparation for their arrival in Colombia the following year.

A country under siege

Two years before the Bittermans had arrived in South America, a bomb had gone off on the porch of the Wycliffe guest house in Bogota. For a decade, the missionary organization had been vilified in the press as being a front for U.S. spies. Whenever the missionaries came under scrutiny, they opened their doors for their host country to examine their files, revealing nothing secretive. There was also the ongoing debate about missionaries destroying the culture of the indigenous tribes.

The Bittermans first called Lomalinda home; there, Chet manned the radio tower. Relaying messages from missionaries in the bush, he longed for his assignment.

But the work in the jungle would have to wait. The Bittermans volunteered for a six-month service assignment in Bogota so that another translator couple, the Smothermons, who had been in Colombia for six years, wouldn't have to interrupt their linguistic project.

When the Bittermans returned to Lomalinda, it seemed that the threat from Colombian guerrillas had intensified. Chet was made security coordinator of the complex, now housing government soldiers, too. Still, the goal of doing linguistic field work with a new tribe—the Carijona—seemed to be falling into place.

An unwanted wakeup call

On January 19, 1981, at 6:30 in the morning, the Bittermans' doorbell rang. Seven armed terrorists burst through the door, demanding to see the SIL director. Told that he wasn't there, the rebels pointed at Chet, "We'll take you."

Before being marched out the rear office at gunpoint, Chet held baby Esther and kissed three-year-old Anna. He asked Brenda to remain calm for the girls' sake.

Four days after the abduction, the terrorists' demands were made known: Wycliffe must stop their work and leave the country. For 48 days, Chet's whereabouts were unknown. His family received some letters and an audiotape, later saw his photograph in the newspaper, all assurances that he was doing okay. In moments of anxiety, Brenda realized that her husband was sharing the gospel with Colombians who have never heard it before—his captors.

But on the morning of March 7, police found Chet's body in a parked bus south of Bogota. There were no signs of torture, just one shot to the chest. Honoring his wishes, Chet was buried in Lomalinda.

The year after the tragedy, applications for overseas work with Wycliffe doubled. Two years after the kidnapping, one of the rebels told a Colombian pastor that he had decided to follow Jesus Christ because of Chet Bitterman. Though guerrilla activity hasn't been eradicated in Colombia, Wycliffe continues to carry out their mission of translating the word of God into every language. Learn more about Wycliffe at www.wycliffe.org.

A Christian Reader original article.

March/April 2002, Vol. 40, No. 2, Page 11



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