Persecuted in 1980, Sapecho, Bolivia
It was midnight, and the jungle lay quiet in the moonlight. Miles from any city, Sarah Corson was certainly not expecting visitors in the remote South American village where she was spending the summer. Yet as she stood on the porch and bent to pull up the blanket over her sleeping son, she heard a sudden thump. Startled, she saw that a soldier had slipped into the water barrel. Peering across the clearing, she saw many more soldiers advancing through the shadows toward her hut.
That summer, the American missionary organization SIFAT (Servants in Faith and Technology) had sent Sarah with a team of seventeen young people to this Bolivian village as part of an ongoing project to help the impoverished residents develop sustainable agricultural practices.
A military junta had recently co-opted the national election, and unrest had broken out in the rural areas. The junta suspected that the American missionaries were encouraging the resistance, and had decided it was time to eliminate them from the equation.
She bravely stepped up to the closest soldier and uttered words she would never have thought to say on her own. “Welcome, brother.”
Sarah was terrified. Her heart was beating so fast she thought her blood vessels would burst. She knew she had a responsibility for the team members inside the house, but she couldn’t even call out to them. She was paralyzed with fear.
She had only seconds to pray before the soldiers found her. “God, if I have to die,” she prayed, “take care of my family. And God, please take away this fear. I don’t want to die afraid. Please help me to die trusting you.” She was suddenly aware of the presence of God. She was ready to die, and even thought that through their deaths her group might accomplish things that they had not been able to accomplish with their lives.
She bravely stepped up to the closest soldier and uttered words she would never have thought to say on her own. “Welcome, brother,” she called out. “Come in. You do not need guns to visit us.”
The soldier jumped, then blurted out, “Not me. I’m not the one. I’m just following orders. There’s the commander over there, he’s the one.”
Sarah raised her voice and repeated, “You’re all welcome. Everyone is welcome in our home.”
Sarah received an unexpected message from the commander who had raided the village: he wanted to attend church on Sunday.
The commander ran up to Sarah, shoved the muzzle of his rifle against her stomach, and pushed her through the doorway. Thirty soldiers rushed into the house and began pulling everything off the shelves and out of drawers, looking for guns. They were convinced that Sarah and her team had political motivations.
Sarah picked up a Spanish Bible and turned to the Sermon on the Mount. “We teach about Jesus Christ,” she said, “God’s Son, who came into this world to save us. He also taught us a better way than fighting. He taught us the way of love. Because of him, I can tell you that even though you kill me, I will die loving you, because God loves you. To follow him, I have to love you too.”
“That’s humanly impossible!” the commander of the troops burst out.
“That’s true, sir,” Sarah answered. “It isn’t humanly possible, but with God’s help it is possible.”
“I don’t believe it.”
“You can prove it, sir. I know you came here to kill us. So just kill me slowly if you want to prove it. Cut me to pieces little by little, and you will see you cannot make me hate you. I will die praying for you, because God loves you and we love you too.”
The soldiers rounded up the missionaries and many villagers and were about to haul everyone off in trucks. Suddenly the commander changed his mind and brusquely ordered the women back to their houses. He told Sarah that they would have been gang raped in the jungle camp and he wished to spare them that, but that if it were discovered that he had released them he would probably pay with his life. The men who had been captured were loaded into trucks and driven away. Before leaving, the soldier said, “I could have fought any amount of guns you might have had, but there is something here I cannot understand. I cannot fight it.”
“Brother, we don’t like what you have done to our village, but this is the house of God, and God loves you, so you are welcome here.”
As Sunday approached, the villagers warned the missionaries not to hold a church service, since the military would assume any gathering had a political agenda. But on Saturday night, Sarah received an unexpected message from the commander who had raided the village: he wanted to attend church on Sunday, and said that if Sarah did not come to pick him up in her vehicle, he would walk the ten miles to be there anyway.
The request sounded suspicious. Sarah decided that only those who were ready to risk their lives should attend church on Sunday. She sent around a message: “We will have a service after all, but you are not obligated to come. In fact, you may lose your life by coming. No one knows what this soldier will do. Do not come when the church bell rings unless you are sure God wants you to come.”
When Sunday morning came, the church was packed. Shaking in their boots, the villagers gathered. The commander and his deputy arrived fully armed and sat down in the congregation, their faces giving no indication whether their purpose in coming was friendly or hostile. It was customary for the congregation to greet visitors personally with a handshake and hug during a welcome song before the service. Although Sarah was going to waive all but the song, the congregation spontaneously took up greeting the two visitors with handshakes and hugs. The first one to do so said, as he hugged the commander, “Brother, we don’t like what you have done to our village, but this is the house of God, and God loves you, so you are welcome here.” The others followed his lead.
“This is the first time I ever knew my enemy face to face. And I believe that if we knew each other, our guns would not be necessary.”
The commander was completely taken aback. He addressed the people: “Never have I dreamed that I could raid a town, come back, and have that town welcome me as a brother.” Indicating Sarah, he said, “That woman told me Thursday night that Christians love their enemies, but I did not believe her then. You have proven it to me this morning. . . . I never believed there was a God before, but what I have just felt is so strong that I will never doubt the existence of God as long as I live.”
Two weeks later, all the men who had been imprisoned were returned to the village. The commander’s last words to Sarah would stay with her the rest of her life: “I have fought many battles and killed many people. It was nothing to me. It was just my job to exterminate them. But I never knew them personally. This is the first time I ever knew my enemy face to face. And I believe that if we knew each other, our guns would not be necessary.”
From Bearing Witness: Stories of Martyrdom and Costly Discipleship. Based on “Welcoming the Enemy,” by Sarah Corson, Sojourners 12, no. 4 (April 1983).