By Michael Ireland
The pastor of a small church in the upper Midwest and his missions team were kidnapped, beaten and robbed on the first day of a 14-day missions trip to Guatemala. Rev. Bill Hieb of Riverside Church in Somerset, Wisconsin, and a team of eight others, five members of his church, including three women, were likely followed from the airport in Guatemala City while driving to the home of their host five hours away, on Wednesday, January 23rd.
The team was in a van being driven by a Guatemalan national when they were forced off the road by four armed men in a pickup truck, about 30 minutes away from their destination. “I’m sad to say we were not prepared. We had been always cautioned about the dangers of this world, but you know there was a sense of invincibility in that we’d been on so many (missions trips) ,” Pastor Hieb said.
“We’d escaped so many different crises. In India we once we were stoned and at one point we thought our car was going to be overturned. You know we’ve had experiences with pickpockets and muggings and we lost some of our supplies. But we’ve never had the threat beyond that India episode of physical harm by another person. In Malawi, I inadvertently walked into a mine field. That was kind of tense as to how I was going to get out of there. But beyond that, no, we felt that God was with us, that He was going to make sure that everything was successful and that we came home rejoicing,” said Hieb after his return from Guatemala.
“Actually there were nine of us — my former youth pastor from California, seven people from the river valley between Wisconsin and the state of Minnesota, six of whom are members of my church, myself, another brother from a local church, then another brother who was our host, a Guatemalan who lives in the city of St. Paul. So there were a total of nine Americans that went on this trip.” Hieb said the trip was uneventful until four and a half hours into the drive to the home of their Guatemalan host.
“Well, yes, I mean we’d been praying and preparing for some time. You know, we plan these trips a year in advance. We traveled to Guatemala City where we had tremendous security because of the relationships that we’ve had with the officials at the airport and with the government. We were given the red carpet treatment from ‘day one’ of going to Guatemala. We were whisked away in a nice van and headed five hours towards our destination. We actually got within about four and a half hours of where we were headed when this particular incident took place. The incident itself was very harrowing, nothing that we could have imagined. We can’t even begin making something like this up,” Hieb said.
“I was ministering to the van full of people as to what I felt the Lord was going to do. There was a real sweet anointing in the van and we began to worship. We were worshiping when a pickup truck with three men and a driver pulled alongside of us screaming, pushing us off the road. As we began to slow down they fired three pistol shots over the bow, if you will. We saw the flashes of the gun and (our) driver slumped. I was in the front seat and I ducked down thinking that the bullets were in fact coming in the van, but they weren’t. They were professionals, there’s no doubt about that. This was not their first experience at this sort of thing. In seconds they were in our van with guns. One pistol was shoved into my ribs. One robber got into the side door of the van and one gentleman jumped into the front seat, literally throwing our driver into the back seat. He (our driver) was a very large man, but they threw him like a puppet. They were screaming at us and telling us not to look at them, to shut our eyes and not talk,” said Hieb.
The three men were dressed as civilians, carrying pistols but their faces were not disguised, Hieb said. “Their faces were not covered. Two of them spoke fluent English, the driver did not. They drove ahead about, I don’t know, a hundred yards. Our driver had inadvertently stepped on the emergency break so the van that we were in was roaring with rpm’s. They were screaming at one another and trying to shift it. We were just silent, and they veered off into the forest at a high rate of speed with the engine roaring and the gears shifting. They were terrorists you know. I’d like to say they’re robbers… I say yeah, they might have been robbers, but they were terrorists. And the van was just rocking back and forth hitting stumps and bumps and rocks — it was the most horrible ride that I’ve ever had. I’ve been on some pretty bad airplane rides with turbulence, but this was horrifying.”
Hieb continued: “The gunmen went into the woods about a quarter mile, maybe a little more, then there was a gentleman out front. Forgive me, I keep calling them gentleman, but they did show some gentleness eventually. We do forgive them, and we pray the Lord would bless them. But at that moment, all we were really thinking about was our lives. The man out in front of them with a flashlight said ‘this is a good place to stop’, so that’s where we stopped. The rest got out of the van and held everybody in the back seat at gunpoint. They took me out first, put my hands against the vehicle and commenced to empty my pockets. Then they told me to put my hands behind my back. They tied my hands very tightly with shoe laces from my tennis shoes. As the man was grabbing me, the Guatemalan host began to yell at him ‘don’t hurt him, don’t hurt him.’ They commenced to start kicking him, assaulting him. It was very traumatic to see. Then they grabbed me by the collar, dropped me over and knelt me down. I thought at that moment that I was going to take a bullet in the back of the head but they pushed me to the ground. I hit my face on the dirt and they said ‘don’t move’. Then they did the same thing to every single person in the van. They tied them up and laid them next to me. We were all laying there like cord wood.”
Hieb said the three women in the group were quite worried. “One of them, this was her first missions trip. Two of the men, it was their first time missions trip. And the last woman to be tied was really frightened because she didn’t want them to tie her hands. We were saying to her ‘cooperate, please cooperate.’ She finally did lay down. They tied her hands and then they tied her leg to the gentleman lying next to her. We laid there for a good two hours; a time of real reflection for each of us.”
The gunmen emptied the team’s fourteen suitcases and cleaned them out of cameras, iPads, a laptop, cell phones and iPods. “Then they took our jewelry, our watches and our rings, and almost all the money,” said Hieb.
“They just scattered the medicine and clothing which we brought, about three-hundred handmade dresses for little girls and shorts for the boys. They just scattered them. When they left there were fourteen suitcases with all of our belongings strewn within a radius of about seventy-five feet. We had one flashlight. They left the keys to the van and all of our passports except one. We lost one passport. The American Embassy was gracious enough to expedite that for us. When they were leaving they said to us: ‘don’t move for three hours’, then they left into the night. We laid there for probably twenty minutes, which seemed like three hours. Then somebody got untied and began to untie the rest of us. And of course we were exuberant to be alive. Half the team was saying ‘be quiet, be quiet, they’re still here’. We could hear them whistling. It was harrowing,” said Hieb.
At one point during their terrible ordeal the team were praying and praising God. “When we all gathered together, we began to get our senses. We were hugging one another. People were crying. Some people were sick to their stomach. Some were in shock. We held hands and prayed, then we sang a song and gave God the glory and honor that He had delivered us. You know like John and Peter, in the book of Acts, when they were beaten and told not to do any teaching in His name. It says that they left there rejoicing in the fact that they were counted worthy to suffer for the Name.”
Hieb was asked how they got out of the woods and to the house where they were staying; “We had one cell phone, oddly it was in a top pocket of one of the people. They never searched his top pocket. We also had managed to salvage approximately thirteen-hundred dollars that they didn’t recover from us which really (got us) home safely without having to borrow or wire any money. Had that cell phone gone off two and a half hours while we were laying there we would probably have had some problems.”
“Shortly after that the police did arrive. One of the policeman had a machine gun. He cocked it, stood there rather alarmed and said to us ‘this is very dangerous here; we need to get out of here now’. Guatemala near the Mexican border is a haven for narco-trafficking and gangs. A life isn’t really worth a whole lot in that particular section. So we were able to get out of there and go down to the highway to a lit-up area where we gave the police a report. They wanted us to come to the police station but we said ‘no, we’re going home’. We commenced to load up and go to the house where we had stayed the last three years, prayed and went to bed. The next morning we could tell how traumatized the team was and determined that five team members needed to return home immediately. We rescheduled their tickets and sent them home the next morning. But three of us stayed behind,” Hieb recalled.
Even after this awful experience, Hieb and two others who chose to stay carried out a pastor’s conference with six-hundred pastors from all over the country. They were expecting Hieb and his team from Wisconsin, and Hieb didn’t want to disappoint them. Hieb said he was able to carry on with the planned meetings, “only by the grace of God, only the grace of God”.
“Everything in us felt that we needed to go home, but there was no way. There was no way that I could consciously abandon that work. I said that those who wanted to stay certainly could. There was another couple that elected to stay and that gentlemen is a teacher. He did the conference with these six-hundred pastors. The topic was eschatology, the end times, signs of the end times. So, obviously, it played really well into our most recent experience by being able to talk about the love of man growing cold, about boasters, proud lovers of self; that the darkness would surround us, and that the Lord would one day rescue us from the wrath to come.
Some of the local Guatemalan people offered help to get the team back on its feet. “People were coming up to us handing us money. I remember in particular this young man gave us two-hundred dollars and all he did was look at us. Two-hundred dollars in that economy is incredible. Another woman at the conference, weeping, reached in her purse and fumbled through envelope after envelope to dig out this one hundred dollar bill that she’d been saving for years. She just handed it to me because she said ‘the Lord wants me to give you this’. Then there was food that was brought to our house with tears and hugs; and love from our Guatemalan friends. We have no resentments, no blame against the Guatemalan people, nor confusion regarding the sovereignty of God. Our Lord is an awesome God. All things work together for good for those who love him, and for those who are called according to his purpose. My theology is summed up in this sentence: that God is never wrong, and He is absolutely sovereign and in control.”
Hieb went on to say “You know there were some choices that were made along the line but God was in it. He will glorify Himself and He will not share glory with us. He did it for a reason and a purpose. I don’t have to know what it is. All I have to know is that my God is never wrong and that He loves us with an everlasting love. The result of this is yet to be, but we are hopeful and we have our eyes on the prize.”
Because of these experiences, Hieb considers himself to be a hardened missions traveler. “I think so. I’ve learned a lot along the way, you know, most of the time we learn by virtue of our mistakes — Lord knows I’ve made many of those. But I’ve learned how to travel. I’ve studied a lot. I wrote my Master’s thesis on missions, so I’m familiar with it. It’s a passion of mine. Actually I escaped into missions because in the early days I believed the Lord was calling me into the pastorate and I didn’t want to do that. Instead I went on a missions trip, came home from the Ukraine and felt that was my call; that I was supposed to be a missionary. I was like a Jonah trying to escape the pastoral ministry. But God had other plans and He actually had me do both. Our church’s DNA is very missionary-minded. Most of the people in my church have been on missions trips. When you talk about those fifty, sixty missions trips, there’s been an average of six, eight, ten people on every trip. So there’s a lot of good training in our ministry for missions and we have networked around the world with other ministries. At one time we had nearly a thousand churches and ministries that we had access to for the purposes of evangelism, with a special emphasis on medical ministry. We do a lot of medical missions as well.”
Hieb was asked how the team got out of Guatemala, would they go again and what have they learned from this. “The U.S. embassy was helpful; they did get us in contact with tourist security and we were given a police escort all the way back to the airport (both teams, the one that left right away and the last one). We were given security all the way. We learned a lot about being wise as serpents and gentle as doves. Americans tend to be gregarious and outgoing,” he said. “We need to be a little bit circumspect, a great deal more cautious, whether it’s riding at night or driving with ten suitcases on your roof. There’s a lot that we learned. Are we finished with missions? Absolutely not. Is our missions program on hold? Yes it is. There’s some healing that needs to take place. As the shepherd of this flock, I have some wounded sheep and the shepherd has been struck. I can’t say that I’m perfectly emotionally and mentally stable. I’ve had a few nightmares, but I know that we will all recover, that we will stick together and that we will pray together, worship together and glorify God together. And for some of our team members it may take a little more time to recover, but we are not victims. We are more than conquerors through him who loved us; and the war has been won. This was a skirmish where we took some wounds, but we are hope-filled and encouraged by all of this. Whether or not we return to Guatemala, I would say that I don’t know that it’s the particular country that’s the most dangerous. I mean I had a visa to go to Pakistan a couple of years ago. I’m really not afraid to serve the Lord. If this was something that would knock us out of the ministry that would be a great loss. I don’t believe that’s the heart of God. I think it’s a wake-up call and that our future missions trips will be done a lot more efficiently, cautiously and deliberately.”
Heib was asked if he had anything to say to young American teen-agers or older adults who are going on missions trips now that he has been on this very dangerous trip, and what he would like to say to them about going on a missions trip to a difficult part of the world. “I would like to tell the adults that your children are going to be called by God to do some of these tasks and missions for the Lord. Remember that it is the Great Commission and that we must not shrink back because of the fears of dangers, toils or snares. That God will protect you.”
Hieb mentioned something one of their captors said to the team during their ordeal. “When I turned back and spoke to him in Spanish, I said to him ‘Jesus lives’ in Spanish. He said to me ‘I know.’ Before he released us, he said: ‘you guys are Christian missionaries, God will save you.’ So I want to tell the parents that are afraid to allow their children to respond to the call of God: be cautious certainly, know who they’re going with and where they’re going, but don’t quench the Gospel. At this time in history (‘His Story’), missionaries are needed more than at any other time. We are in the end days and God is standing at the door. We need to be ambassadors and servants of the Most High. We need to open our mouths and trust that God will fill it with the Gospel, that many will come to know and serve the Lord Jesus Christ. We need to count our lives as nothing. We need to reckon ourselves dead to sin and alive to Christ. Recognize that our lives are hidden with Christ in God and never forget that ‘he who seeks to save his life will lose it, but he who loses his life for My sake will save it’. Don’t shrink back. The enemy would love it if we dug a hole and jumped in it”, said Rev. Heib.
Please pray for the missions team as they continue to heal and continue to do God’s missionary work.