NOTE: I met Gary Witherall once for only a few moments just as he was about to speak to over a thousand students at Taylor University where he was the Friday keynote speaker for their annual missions conference over 10 years ago now. Gary was a friend to several Moody alums that I have known or met and he was also a student of my late father-in-law, Ken Hanna, who taught missions at Moody Bible Institute.
I mentioned this connection to Gary in our brief conversation and he replied, “KEN! He was like a brother to me!” He gave me his business card and scribbled an updated cell phone number on it for me to give to my mother-in-law. I did give her the number, but I kept the business card. I wanted to keep it in my wallet so I’d always have a tangible reminder of a brother who counted the cost and paid the ultimate price in missions ministry. Gary is certainly a dear brother even though I don’t know him personally. He counted the cost in following Christ and truly he lives affirmatively to the question, “Is what you’re living for, worth dying for?”
The article is a bit dated now since Gary’s life and ministry continues. He remarried, has several children, and they minister in Europe with OM.
Three years ago, Gary Witherall and his wife, Bonnie, were missionaries in Lebanon providing medical assistance, aid and the Good News until Bonnie was killed by a Muslim extremist on November 21, 2002. Gary spent nearly 10 years on the mission field and plans to continue the mission God has given him, preaching and doing all he can to promote missions and the needs of the poor around the world, especially in the Middle East. Gary’s story has been reported by international media.
Gary Witherall is from the U.K. In 1983, he was speeding on his motorbike and crashed into a car at 65 mph. After they extricated him at the crash site, the police later said he should have been killed. When he got out of intensive care, Gary felt that God permitted him to remain on this earth for a reason. Later, when Melody Green came to England to do a memorial service for her late husband Keith Green, Gary committed his life to missions.
In 1986, Gary joined Operation Mobilization (O.M.) and for 5 years he visited many countries with O.M. ships. He desired to do more for God, and when he felt God directing him to go to Bible School, he decided to attend Moody Bible Institute (MBI). Many professors and coaches at MBI impacted his life for God and years later, Gary would recall his coach’s words, “keep running; keep running”, whenever he felt discouraged. He was at MBI from 1992-1996.
In 1996 on a field trip to a mosque, Gary met Bonnie and his first impression of her was that she was a “princess of the Kingdom of God”. Though Gary and Bonnie did not officially date, they both felt that God had put them together, and so they got married. They first moved to Portland where Gary was a college pastor. Then, when they went back to O.M., none of the ships were open. Although Bonnie became confused and discouraged, God impressed upon Bonnie’s heart, “I’ve not called you to a place, I’ve called you to MYSELF!”
Later they were sent to work with unreached peoples in Lebanon, where no other witness or ministry had ever been. They led a busy and fulfilling missionary life, living in an apartment overlooking the Mediterranean sea. They were learning Arabic, and were teaching and preaching in the villages of south Lebanon, ministering in 2 churches, and had a great sense of God in their lives everyday. Gary said he felt he had everything.
Then on the morning of November 21, 2002, Gary received a frantic phone call from a friend to quickly come to the clinic just outside of Beirut. His wife Bonnie had been shot. Gary dashed over to the clinic, and tried to get into the room where Bonnie lay. Dozens of soldiers surrounded the clinic. Gary was pushed back by the soldiers and eventually wrestled down. He found out Bonnie, his wife, was dead. He saw her lifeless legs on the floor in a pool of blood. He wanted so much to be with her and to hold her once more, but the soldiers would not let him in. In his anger and frustration, he was put into another room. At that moment, as he was crying his heart out, Gary heard a still, small voice very clearly saying, “Gary, there’s a seed planted in your heart today. That seed can grow into hatred and bitterness, or grow into love and forgiveness. Choose!” And Gary, by the grace of God, said “I choose forgiveness.”
At the memorial service for Bonnie, where the world press surrounded him, and with dozens of cameramen literally in his face, a wonderful thing happened. Gary, by God’s grace, got up and preached to that nation, and because of the world press, he preached to many other nations around the world as well. “I forgive this man, because Jesus has forgiven me!” was his ringing message. The Gospel had seldom been preached so powerfully in Lebanon, Syria and the Middle East as on that day.
Bonnie Witherall had finished well. In fact, her missionary co-workers described her as “sprinting” across the finish line. Everything had been going so well for her, her ministry, her relationship with her husband and with her team, and her relationship with God was at its peak. Why would anyone want to kill Bonnie? They know that Satan hates faithful workers like Bonnie. These missionaries are dangerous and the devil wants them out of the way. “Precious is the blood of the martyr! Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints!” These were the words with which they comforted one another. And in a fitting and moving tribute to Bonnie’s memory, all of the missionary co-workers, each one, rose to their feet and re-committed themselves as they prayed, “Jesus, give me more boldness, let us take your message to those who have yet to hear no matter what the cost,” because this message is the hope of the entire world.
Another of Gary’s close friends also had hurried to the clinic that day upon word of Bonnie being shot. Bonnie’s body had already been removed by the time this friend arrived. But upon seeing the pool of blood where she had died, a jarring thought impacted him powerfully, “This is martyr’s blood. This is precious! This is precious!”
Incredibly, the local authorities gave Gary only two minutes to pack up and leave their beautiful apartment. The press was by now all over the place. Gary, who just the day before had felt he had everything, now felt everything had been taken from him. As he mournfully brought Bonnie’s body home, he sat eighteen hours on airplanes with Bonnie in the cargo holds. At her burial, as he watched her being lowered into the grave, Gary heard Jesus say to him “Gary, the tomb’s empty!” His friend testified how the grace of God was poured out on Gary’s life, and they could see how Jesus held him up to be incredibly strong in the worst time of his life. And Gary was able to testify that “even though everything was take from me, I’m standing on a rock. The storm came through, but I’m still standing firm on a rock. Until you get stripped, you don’t realize how strong your faith is.”
Some days, when Gary looks back and recalls that dark day in November, as he lay on the floor of that clinic, in tears and in despair, there are moments he just feels Jesus’ arms squeezing him tight, and the Holy Spirit saying peacefully, “God is alive! Jesus is alive! And he is searching out who he wants to touch.” And he remembers the words of a song of surrender that pours into his heart of surrendering one’s will, and laying all on the altar for Jesus.
Gary’s challenge is that life is all about surrender, of giving it up for Jesus. Whatever things stand between you and Jesus, “cast it down, burn it away, give it away, step aside. Who’s on the throne of your life?” He said that “Jesus tore the temple curtain so that we could be with him. But we’ve built new curtains of religion that have closed it up. Tear those curtains away, rip them up, because that’s what Jesus did on the cross. Will you surrender your heart to Jesus?”
The Voice of the Martyrs organization states that 160,000 people every year are martyred for Jesus. About one every three minutes.
A veteran missionary exhorts us, “the gospel shall be preached to the whole world, and then the end shall come. Are we in the last days? The gospel has yet to be preached to the whole world. Many dark places have yet to hear the gospel of hope. Yes, we are in the last days, but it ain’t over yet.” His appeal and Gary’s appeal is, “will you help us finish this task? We have lost one of our own, but we are looking for 1000 more to come. We believe God has given us a commission, but we need your help.”
Tyndale Press just released Gary’s new book Total Abandon. (check out http://www.totalabandon.com) Gary will use this as part of his platform in sharing about ones authenticity and what it truly means to lay down your life for the Lord in this life. It’s when we abandon ourselves fully to the Lord that we are able to experience life with passion and fullness. The thief’s purpose is to steal and kill and destroy. My purpose is to give life in all its fullness. John 10:10
New Years Eve, 2004, Gary was blessed with marriage and he is enjoying life with his new wife in Georgia.
I also came across the following tribute to Bonnie written shortly after her death and is worth sharing:
A Tribute to Bonnie
November 25, 2002
Bonnie entered our lives like a whirlwind. Gary, a friend of Ryan, my oldest son, moved in with us in the winter of 1997. A Brit by birth he spoke with an English accent and a sparkle in his eyes. But that sparkle glistened when he spoke of Bonnie.
Finally, we met her. What a smile! What a personality! What a love for God! I had the privilege of walking them through premarital counseling. And the greater privilege of watching her walk down the aisle toward her husband, as Celtic music played in the background. I cried during the weeding — I loved them deeply. And then I pronounced them husband and wife.
For three years they worked at a bank in Portland, Oregon. We spent untold hours together–laughing, talking, enjoying life. I grew to love them deeply.
Eventually they moved to Lebanon because they felt called by God to care for hurting people they felt needed them the most. In her last email, written four days before her death, she penned these words: “I had a wonderful walk. Every morning I take a walk along the boardwalk here in Saida. I was listening to my praise music and walking and singing along to the music. I felt this overwhelming joy in being here in this place and also believe that God is here with us. Thank you for all of you who have really prayed for us the last few weeks. It seems like lots of good things are happening for us in the way of ministry.”
On Thursday, November 21, at 11:00 AM a reporter called my home to talk with me about the killing of a missionary in Lebanon. I didn’t know what he was talking about. “Bonnie Witherall was shot in the head three times,” he said. “No,” I said. “You must be talking about someone else. You don’t mean Bonnie Witherall.”
“She was killed Mr. Perkins. Didn’t you know?” I began to weep–uncontrollably. “Call me back in two hours,” I managed to say between sobs.
I’m still crying for a woman who loved God and was struck down in her youth. I’m crying for her husband who will never hear her laugh, bathe in her smile or melt in her embrace. I weep for the women of Lebanon who had grown to love Bonnie.
And then I recall the words of my oldest son, Ryan–one of Gary’s closest friends. “Dad, she died living for what she believed. How many people can say they have dedicated their lives to something for which they will die?” My son comforted me with those words. And I contemplated them. I still am.
I spoke with Gary this past Friday. He said the night before her death Bonnie boldly shared her testimony with a group of women who met to discuss spiritual truth. She taught from Hebrews 10. Little did she know that in a few short hours she would join the martyrs of Hebrews 11.
“My last memory of her occurred the night before her death,” Gary said. “She would get up to go to the restroom and roll over me. When she would return to bed she would always jump on me. Not to wake me up,” he assured me. “It was her way of saying she loved me.”
Early the next morning Gary got the call that she had been shot in the head. He rushed around his apartment searching for money for a cab. “I finally found some change and raced downstairs where I hailed an old Mercedes. About a quarter-mile from the clinic where she worked, the driver stopped to buy petrol. I leaped from the car and ran to the clinic. When I got there the guards would not let me in. They held me back. Her brains were blown out and they didn’t want me to see her.”
And then Gary made an amazing statement. “They should have killed me,” he said. “Now I’ll be more aggressive than ever in proclaiming Christ.”
Bonnie’s story is now on 6,000 websites. It was a major story in the London Times, NY Times, The Oregonian and many other papers in the world. Every major television news network has carried her story on consecutive days. South Korea declared a day of prayer. The widow of Keith Green called Gary and offered to help him in the next two years as he grieves and tells Bonnie’s story around the world. A publisher has already approached him about a book. The police chief of Portland, who knew her, called her a Jr. Mother Teresa. A European journalist called her a 21st century Joan of Ark.
To me she was Bonnie. And I loved her.
Please join me in praying for Gary–his loss is great, as is his platform to extend God’s grace. Pray for her parents, Al and Ann–they have suffered a loss you and I hope we will never know. And pray for her sister Cheryl and brother-in-law, Jason.
Please pray for me and my family. There is a massive hole in our lives–we are heartbroken. Pray that we might be wrapped in the warm blanket of God’s mercy, so we can wrap it around others who grieve.
A picture of Gary Witherall kissing his wife, Bonnie, on her 31st birthday last month.