Three years and one day after our wedding I almost became a widow.
I paced in the little cottage we had rented during our week-long anniversary get-away; today was our last day and we were scheduled to head home 30 minutes ago. I had eaten alone, packed up all our luggage by myself, done a basic clean of everything, and had been waiting for Darwin for several hours. He had left nearly six hours earlier to go on a walk and hadn’t taken his cell-phone with him for fear of someone robbing it (as had happened a month or two ago), so I had no way to call and ask where he was. My thoughts accused him for what seemed to me utter absent-mindedness. How could he have so lost track of time?
Restless, I sprawled out on the cottage’s bed, frustrated with what seemed to be the irresponsibility of my loves-to-go-on-long-walks-and-not-take-his-cellphone-with-him husband. I opened up my Bible to read the book of Hosea, assuming at any moment he would walk through the door all sweaty and happy after having found some remote stream or untouched mountainside by which he had spent hours praying and meditating. After all, two other days on our vacation trip he had left to go on a walk and was away several hours, returning with a renewed mind and soaring spirit. He is the man who runs from our rural home to the other side of the city for fun, some 15 or 20 miles!
Regardless, this time he really was late and we needed to return home because we had promised Miss Isis, who had stayed to take care of our kids all week, that we would be home before 1:00pm. I lay on my stomach, my mind going in circles as I focused more on Darwin’s strange absence than on the paragraphs my eyes glazed over. I prayed a quick prayer – however odd it seemed and however put-off I was with his delayed arrival – that God would protect him if he were, in fact, in some kind of trouble.
A few minutes later I thought to check his cell phone, which had been on silent in his backpack all morning not a few yards from me. Mine had not rung, but his had six missed calls, all back-to-back from the same unknown number in the last couple minutes.
I returned the call. A policeman on the other end informed me that my husband had encountered some problems.
My pulse stilled for the first time that day after having passed the majority of the morning in busy activity with unclear thoughts blaming both my husband and me for his unexplained tardiness on our last morning of vacation together.
As the policeman’s voice met my ear, the only two thoughts that laboriously presented themselves to me in that moment — as if the channels of my mind had been clogged with peanut butter — were: Darwin was in trouble, but he’s alive. I have no idea what happened, God, but I thank you that he is alive.
At my request the policeman passed the phone to Darwin who, with an unusually upbeat voice trying to overpower a subtle shakiness, informed me: “Oh, I got kidnapped! But I’m okay. How are you?”
So the police truck came a few minutes later with Darwin in the backseat. As if paralyzed, I weakly braced myself for the worst, still wading through my own peanut-butter channels as everything happened as if in a dream.
Darwin came hobbling through the gate of the small hotel complex, t-shirt drenched and ripped at the shoulder, several bloody wounds on his face, bruises on his arms, tennis shoes almost destroyed, one cheek swelled, black eye, and dark red marks around his wrists and neck. He could barely walk, but his boyish smile as he saw me remained firmly intact.
The police escorted us to the local public hospital where Darwin shuffled in to the emergency room and lay on a bare table. At once Darwin recognized the emergency room nurse – an old classmate of his from college – and they began to converse. She, as well as I and all others present, seemed to be initially thrown-off by his big smile and this-is-nothing attitude as his cheekbone and chin left a long trail of blood on his face and neck. Answering her question as to what could have caused such damage to an early-thirties foster-dad music teacher, he smiled and said, “Oh, I got kidnapped by a gang who thought I was someone else and they beat me up a bit.”
Her eyes grew in shock as she asked empathetically, “But it was only for a few minutes, right?” (Because I suppose it is common and not so bad if it only happens for a few minutes.)
In the same upbeat tone he managed, “Um, four hours.”
After he had already been on the table several minutes, I asked the nurse tentatively if there was any possibility of acquiring AIDS if other bloody patients had used the same table. There was no covering, after all. She assured me that, no, that would not happen because they spray the table down with some kind of disinfectant between each patient. I looked at the bare table with its sparse surroundings wearily and didn’t know if I should believe her.
As we sat and stood near Darwin – the two police officers and Miss Isis’ dad who had very kindly accompanied us – we constantly swatted away pesky flies that wanted to land all over his body on his wounds. Another young man with similar fight-wounds and open sores all over his face and body sat on the table next to him.
X-Rays, shots, stitches on his cheekbone and chin. Buy pills, push him around in a wheelchair to different rooms of the hospital. Take his shirt off and find his entire back marked in a dark purple. Many distinct shoe-print bruises all over his back, open gash on his leg.
Darwin’s adrenaline running out, his body began to tremble as mine continued on in a very hollowed numbness. It was as though every thought or feeling my heart birthed that day had to push its way methodically through those channels laden with peanut butter before being expressed, felt.
Through very slowed thoughts – alas, I had not slept the night before coupled with the sobering reality of all that had happened to Darwin – I confronted with a certain somberness, humility, what I’ve known since the day I married him three years and one day ago: at any moment he –or I – may get killed. A long marriage – a long life – in this land torn by sin and sickness is no guarantee. I did not cry, did not scream, did not give in to the dominating power of fear, did not question why God allowed this to happen. Merely, I understood that this always could have happened, still can happen again. Death is always close. In any country, any place.
In a sense, the thought that overwhelmed all others on that weary day was this: God has truly liberated us from all fear. When push comes to shove, when things get dirty and difficult, we now know beyond a shadow of a doubt that we really believe all that talk about not fearing man, of only fearing God. This is actually real; it’s actually possible to live without fear even in the midst of a brutal kidnapping. These are not just words; God truly enables us to live free of fear. Thank you, Father, that even in the midst of all this neither Darwin nor I have given in to fear, have shrunk back and desperately clung to our earthly lives.
It is easy to preach a life free of fear when one has never been threatened too closely. It is easy to say, “I do not fear Man; only God!” when the evil powers of Man have never come reeling with all their fury so close to home. Only after having confronted such a situation – whatever the result may be – can we now proclaim triumphantly: “Even so, we shall only fear God! Man has no power over us!”
This we believe.
As one hour in the hospital turned to two I learned more of the story: Darwin had been walking off the beaten path – as is his terrible habit – and a group of four young men, all involved in a gang that makes its living off of extortion and murder, came upon him and found it suspicious that a man would be wandering down along a stream all alone on their ‘territory.’ Seeing it necessary to interrogate him to see who he worked for and why they had sent him, they mounted him on a motorcycle and zipped off with him to a nearby neighborhood – the neighborhood they control — where, in fact, three of our children go to school.
At one point the motorcycle crashed, Darwin tried to escape, and he was captured again as they threw him off his feet with a swift blow to the cheekbone. In the process of four hours of interrogation and torture, they tied his hands and feet with his own shoelaces and pummeled him with feet and rods as he lie in the dirt. There were many innocent passersby during the event, but the gang leaders called out, “He’s a thief! He deserves this!” and everyone else, controlled by fear, just kept walking.
The frustrating thing for the gang lords was that the rods they used broke on his back, so they had to constantly find more. Shoe-string around his neck to choke him out, punches to the ear which left him deaf for several days afterwards, a broken tooth.
They promised to cut his ears off; they promised to kill him. His response: “If it is God’s time to take me, then I’m ready.”
I think that only made them more mad; they shrieked and laughed at his responses, continuing onward, group growing to seven men as they mocked him for his ‘Christian’ claims. They howled: ¨Surely the Christians wear suits and ties, not shorts and tennis shoes! What a liar!¨ Hit him harder.
At the end of it all they spared his life without any apparent reason. Perhaps it was because he did not cling to it too tightly.
Several of our neighbors who have since become aware of what happened have begun telling us stories of fathers-in-law or nephews or this-and-that family member of theirs who have suffered very similar kidnappings and beatings over the years, each and every time ending in a brutal murder. After all, our 8-year-old special-needs son’s biological dad was murdered in the same way. They beat him brutally and then cut his ears off.
We have not heard even one story of anyone else who was granted their life back after such an intense encounter with these gang lords.
So they let him go; he did not beg, did not plead for his life. They simply let him go – he stumbled away as he took a very back-route through a mountain stream, zig-zagging across pineapple fields and then eventually arriving at the highway where he found the police station, collapsing upon arrival.
As he lay on the hospital table a few inches from me, he said something that put everything in perspective: “Just imagine, they were so scared. That’s why they did all that to me.”
Yes, scared. Fear controls you if you let it.
The normal mind says: “What? They were scared? How is that? Don’t you mean that Darwin was scared?”
No; those men, evil personified, went to the extents they did because they feared Darwin was from an opposing gang. Fear controlled them while Darwin, receiving the physical blows, received no blow to his peace, for it is not found in nor based on what happens in this world.
Now we get it. This is the peace that passes understanding. The life of Christ. Oh, we had talked so much of this peace before this incident – and how great it is to do so! – but I don’t think we had truly tasted it until now. And how sweet it is, that blessed assurance that this world is not our home, that our felicity is not to be found among the happenings in this place! Anything can happen in this world – to our lives, our bodies, our families – and our peace remains intact because God does not change.
So that evening – which was last Saturday, June 25 – after having arrived home from the hospital to be greeted by concerned kids and all the normal daily chores and activities – perhaps ten-fold because we had been away a full week and there was much to be caught up on – Darwin sat uncomfortably hunched over on a small wicker stool in our living room and told the story to our older girls, all of whom sat on the floor in front of him. I sat in their midst.
Cloaked in an utter transparency – and not in some hyper-fear or story-telling exaggeration – he told them calmly of both the physical events of the day and their spiritual implications. He truly felt close to Christ, came to understand even a little bit more the unjust sufferings of our Savior at the hands of evil men, the Evil One in our midst. Our girls sat cross-legged on the floor at his feet, tears welling up in their eyes at the thought of almost having lost the only loving (human) father they have ever known. 12-year-old Josselyn sat on the floor a few yards away on the other side of the door-curtain in her room, wanting to hear but not wanting to see.
As Darwin finished, I carefully added, fully convinced of my own words: “We should give thanks to God even for this; we are to give Him thanks in all things, both in difficulties and in times of ease.” As my heavy statement fell on young, scared ears, 12-year-old Jackeline’s eyes grew and her head shook back and forth in protest as she made eye contact across our semi-circle with 15-year-old Dayana. I could read her thoughts: “No! I will not give thanks to God for this.” I tilted my head to one side as my eyes gently met hers, and I prayed that some day she might understand.
So after a long afternoon of consoling our young daughters, cooking and serving dinner, unpacking bags and attending to the general needs of a very busy household with very needy and complex residents, late that evening I went to 11-year-old Gleny’s top bunk to kiss her good-night. With a big smile she showed me a white piece of paper taped to the wall next to her bed marked with her scribbly-scratched writing. Quite excited, she motioned for me to read that little paper she had just prepared moments earlier: ¨Goals for Gleny to fulfill.¨ My eyes passed over her sloppy cursive hand-writing as I came upon her second goal: I will give thanks to God for everything, in difficulties or trials or good things.
My heart swelled with gratitude as I read each of the four or five goals written in large print. She studied my face and told me, ¨This afternoon when you said we should give thanks to God even for what happened to my dad, I thought you were wrong. But then this evening God revealed to me that that is, in fact, what we should do. We should always give Him thanks, even when bad things happen!¨
I hugged her closely before bidding her good-night. A few minutes later I finally collapsed in bed next to Darwin, where he had spent the afternoon in an uncomfortable curled-up position. Exhausted to the bone but without the least sign of sleepiness, I took my Bible out and wedged our flashlight between my shoulder and ear to illuminate the page in the otherwise dark room.
Several moments passed before Darwin asked in a whisper, “What are you reading?” Feeling as though that simple question had just come from the mouth of a dead man, a man who very well might not have made it back to our bed that night at all, I let the flashlight travel up the wall in front of us to above our bathroom door, shedding light on the simple black sticker-letters that we placed there so many months ago that state: “He takes care of us.” Neither one of us said anything as we let our eyes trace and then re-trace the Truth. We must lay all our burdens on Him, for He cares for us.
Then, unexpectedly, a little collection of crumpled papers slid under our door, audibly heard on the tile floor in the silence of the night. I got up to retrieve them. They were from Gleny. She had prepared several love notes for her dad along with a rather long and thoughtful list of Bible verses she wanted to encourage us with. And so we sat propped up in bed with our little black flashlight and flipped through the Bible, searching for each of the verses Gleny had indicated for us to read. Psalm 86, several passages from the Gospels, some from Exodus and others from Paul’s letters.
Minutes turned to hours and Darwin had long since fallen asleep; I wandered into our little cave-like bathroom and sat. Still no tears, no fear, no questioning. As my head rest in my hands, more out of exhaustion than any overwhelming emotional burden, a new revelation – so simple, so obvious – dawned upon my heart: Life is incredibly simple. There are two opposing forces: God, Father of life and Truth, the good king of the coming kingdom, and Satan, Father of lies and death, prince of this fallen world. As this very real battle rages on in this world, we are given the simple instruction to love: to love God with all that we have and all that we are, and to love one another as we love ourselves. We run around, worried about our jobs and reputations and connections and technology and travels and our own desires, complicating — and possibly losing altogether — what is actually shockingly simple. Life can be taken at any moment; there are two opposing forces; we are to love as long as we are alive. God takes care of the rest; through Jesus we triumph with God in the end.
So now, nine days later, Darwin’s physical body is almost completely healed and I am trying desperately to cling to that revelation that God granted me alone in our bathroom during that midnight hour. In the midst of 5:00am daily get-ups, no-sleep nights, beautiful and trying situations with our teenage girls, generally demanding days and the overwhelming emotional, spiritual and behavioral needs of our 8 kids and many students, we plead God for such clarity as was granted us on the day when Darwin’s life was nearly taken. In this world we will have trouble, but we must take heart, for Christ has overcome the world!