I recently wrote a post detailing my experiences casting out devils as a missionary. I mentioned in the beginning of that post some other strange or harrowing experiences I had undergone as a missionary, including witnessing a murder. Reflecting further on this, I recalled hearing somewhat similar stories from other missionaries. I asked my wife, who served in Manila, Philippines, if she had ever been witness to extreme violence or murder and she affirmed that, among other things, she and her companion saw a group of men descend on another man and cut his head off with a machete.
Actually, being a missionary can be quite the extreme experience itself, sometimes self-inflicted. Missionaries are often bold to the point of stupidity and even disrespect in their interactions with others, and very often ignorant of their physical and cultural surroundings (and sometimes headdeskingly not so ignorant). I certainly was at times. This particular experience, though, (mostly) didn’t fit that bill, but it was haunting enough that I still think of it fairly often, even almost 13 years later.
I only had 1 or 2 months left in my mission. I was in Zona 13 of Guatemala City, which sits in a valley right beneath the airport. It was considered a semi-safe area to serve in within the city; among missionaries in my mission we would judge the safety of an area according to who would not be allowed to serve there. Sisters were not allowed to serve in several areas in the capital city, (like the one I was in, for example), and several other areas were open only to Latino, non-American missionaries. Because missionaries are always young and often stupid, we were constantly badgering APs and the mission president to allow us to serve in the more dangerous areas. We were missionaries after all, on a divine mandate from God and therefore subject to His protection. Nothing could harm us.
My companion and I (a greenie who had just arrived the month before) had just left the home of a family of church members and were headed to another appointment. Upon rounding a corner we heard the scuffle of feet to our left and turned to see 3 boys in their late teens bearing down on a man, about 40 feet from us. One of the boys pulled a gun out of his pants and fired several times into the chest and stomach of the man from about 10 feet away, as the man was trying to turn and run. He immediately collapsed onto the gutter. The 10 or so people in the street with us immediately scattered, retreating into homes and shops lining the street. My comp and I, on the other hand, were too stunned to move. We just stood there, even as the three boys crossed the street directly in front of us, only feet away. The shooter looked right at us as he was putting his gun back in his pants, a blank expression on his face. None of them said anything as they crossed our path and it felt like they were moving in slow motion. They kept on walking and I remember fervently praying they wouldn’t change their minds and turn around to eliminate the idiot witnesses who couldn’t be more obvious in their frozen state. I also kept thinking we should run the other direction but I couldn’t move. They never turned around and soon disappeared over the top of a small hill.
I looked back at the man lying in the street. He appeared to be moving slightly. I told my companion that we needed to see if we could help him. He was face down in the gutter. I had no idea what to do and looked around to see if anyone else was there. There was a girl watching from her window about 20 feet away and I yelled to her to call the police. She sat there for a moment and then disappeared into her home, hopefully, I thought, to call the police. Turning back to the man I could see a stream of blood running out from under him and down the street. He was twitching a little so I thought he might still be alive. I told my comp that we needed to turn him over but he was hesitant. I insisted, and he helped me roll him over. The dying man was a big guy and it took several attempts before we could get him onto his back. I could see he had been shot four times, twice in the chest and twice in the stomach. His eyes were closed but his body was twitching, and blood was seeping out of the corners of his mouth. I could hazily remember some CPR training from high school (and even more hazily a First Aid merit badge earned when I was 12) but had no clue what to do in this situation. His breath was rattling shallowly in his throat. Looking around I could see no other signs of help forthcoming and so I started to perform chest compressions. This only caused more blood to come out of his mouth and wounds and I immediately stopped. Rocking back on my heels I looked at my companion, who was white as a ghost. He didn’t say anything. I stood up and we waited. There was nothing else to be done. Two minutes later he stopped moving and breathing.
The police arrived a few minutes later and only then did some people begin cautiously venturing back onto the street. I told one of the officers that we saw the boys who did it pretty clearly but he declined to take a statement. He said that if he officially recorded anything we said it would be published in tomorrow’s newspaper and we were not exactly inconspicuous residents of this area, to say the least. We would easily be identified. Besides, he assured us, they (the police) had a pretty good idea of which gang this was and why they had killed the man.
After speaking to the police officer I noticed that my hands, much of my shirt, and nearly all of my tie were covered in blood. Not wanting to be seen walking around looking like that, we headed back over to the member family’s home for assistance. The mother of the family opened the door to greet us and screamed when she saw me. We quickly explained what happened and she ushered us in, telling one of her daughters to go find a shirt for me to wear. I had to dispose of shirt and tie, obviously, and was given a t-shirt to wear home. Upon arriving home I called the mission president to report the incident. He asked me how I was feeling and I told him I felt a bit shaken but generally ok. He said we should certainly take the remainder of the day off and assess how we were feeling for tomorrow before venturing out. The next day I obtained a copy of the newspaper and read about the incident. There was a picture of the body, covered with a blanket, and a short blurb about a shooting by a local gang that police were investigating. (Later at church several members would chuckle about the police “investigating” anything, saying that they were corrupt and likely on the payroll of the gang who committed the murder, which would explain why the killers were unconcerned about us as witnesses).
The next day we decided to continue to work but our conversation was focused solely on the events of the day before. We certainly thought we had been divinely protected as missionaries though we questioned the utility of trying to get involved in helping the man when we clearly had no idea what we were doing and it was unlikely he could have been saved in any case. I couldn’t shake the thought that I should have done more even though I had no idea what I would have done differently.
Looking back on the experience now, I see some well-meaning recklessness on my part. Missionaries often see themselves as more than just preachers of the word and bringers of the truth, but also as uniquely qualified and motivated to intervene in various kinds of situations generally. As mentioned above, this is partly due to to the exuberance of youth and partly because missionaries believe (and are taught) that they have divine approbation and protection to do so. So variously we see or hear of missionaries engaged in various kinds of spontaneous service and assistance, as well as, e.g., behaving brashly and rudely by saying condescending things about others’ religious beliefs or walking into churches and preaching to whole congregations with or without permission (I saw both frequently on my mission). I wasn’t overtly reckless in this case, but there was definitely a phenomenological sense of removal from my surroundings–I was with the people but not of them, in the world but transcending it at the same time. Many of my experiences had the subtle quality of feeling like I was a viewer as much as a participator; with some exceptions I thought and acted as if what I said and did were precisely the right things to say and do. Because I was a missionary. This emboldened me to say and do things I might not do now (or then if I’d been self-aware). Paradoxically, it helped me to enact love and compassion while at the same time be heedless of my surroundings and the people in them.
What about you? Any encounters with violence or murder in your missions?