Missionary Slain in Iraq Mourned

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Times Staff Writers

“You’re only reading this if I died,” began the letter that Valley Baptist Church Pastor Phil Neighbors held in his shaking hands.

“To obey was my objective, to suffer was expected, his glory my reward.”

Written just before she left for Iraq last year, that epistle became Karen Denise Watson’s self-penned epitaph after she and three of her missionary colleagues were gunned down Monday night.

Watson, 38, a onetime jail officer who sold her home and possessions to focus on missionary work, was riding in a car in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul when attackers wielding AK-47s fired on the group.


Her death left grief-stricken friends from this churchgoing town to the Richmond, Va., offices of the Southern Baptist missionary group that dispatched her halfway around the world to offer humanitarian assistance to a desperate people.

“It was very shocking” to learn of Watson’s death, said Lt. Kevin Wright, her former supervisor at the Kern County Sheriff’s Department. “There were some of us that knew she was in a dangerous situation. But we never expected this.”

“In times like this, there are no words that will take away the pain of a loved one’s violent death,” said Jerry Rankin, president of the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. “Everyone in the IMB family and everyone who loves Southern Baptists’ overseas workers are grieving with the family members and co-workers of these precious souls.”

Besides Watson, a member of Valley Baptist Church in Bakersfield since 1997, also killed Monday were a married couple, Larry and Jean Elliott, 60 and 58, of Cary, N.C. David E. McDonnall, 28, of Rowlett, Texas, died a few hours after the attack while being flown to a military hospital in Baghdad. McDonnall’s wife, Carrie, 26, was in critical condition, according to the IMB.

There were conflicting accounts about what the missionaries were doing at the time of the attack. Church officials in Bakersfield said Watson and the others were working on a water purification project, while the IMB said they were on a trip to survey the needs of people in the region. The Elliotts had served with the missionary organization since 1978, mostly in Honduras. Watson, a relatively recent convert, joined a year ago.

Watson was born in Bakersfield, attended high school in Arroyo Grande, and knew firsthand what cruelties life could visit on the innocent. Church officials said the deaths of her fiance, her father and her grandmother, all within two years, led to her relatively late conversion to Christianity.


“That was a crisis point in her life,” Neighbors said. “Things like that could make you better or bitter. For Karen, it made her better.”

Watson began working as a detention officer at the Lerdo jail for the Kern County Sheriff’s Department in 1996.

“She was a very hardworking, professional employee,” said Wright. He said other former colleagues were too broken up by her death Tuesday to come forward.

Despite being quiet, even a little shy -- her favorite cut-loose activity was going out for Mexican food -- she was a natural leader at work and in the missionary ranks, friends said. She headed her Iraqi team, despite her relative inexperience.

“That girl could coordinate anything,” Neighbors said.

Maybe because she had seen her share of trouble, “she had great compassion” for others, said Wright. So when she saw a chance to make a difference in the lives of some of the world’s most downtrodden people, she jumped at it.

After becoming a three-times-a-week churchgoer at Valley Baptist, she began looking into missionary work. Two years ago, she took a leave from her job to go on short missions to Kosovo and El Salvador.


“It opened her eyes to the needs of the world,” said Neighbors, who keeps a large map in the church hallway with Watson’s picture on it.

Watson underwent six weeks of instruction at the IMB’s Missionary Training Center outside Richmond early last year in preparation for going to Iraq.

The IMB has served as the mission agency for the Southern Baptist Convention since 1845. It says it is “one of the largest evangelical mission organizations in the world.” The IMB said it had 5,411 personnel serving around the world.

It has been estimated that as many as 100 missionaries from various Christian sects have moved into Iraq in recent months, and some Muslims are not happy about it.

“The presence of missionaries in the majority Muslim country is highly resented,” said Al Jazeera, an Arab satellite TV channel. Al Jazeera reported that the International Bible Society had distributed 10,000 Christian-themed manuals in Arabic.

IMB spokeswoman Mary Jane Welch said its workers were not there to proselytize. “They are free to answer questions if they are asked,” she said. “Basically, we want to help the needs of the people there and share God’s love.”


Welch said the organization “will examine the situation” before deciding whether to pull its personnel out of Iraq as a result of the murders. “I’m not sure what decision will be made.”

The organization has suffered losses in other world hot spots. A year ago, a missionary in the Philippines was killed by a terrorist’s bomb at the airport in Davao City. A few months earlier, three workers were killed by a terrorist at the Baptist hospital in Jibla, Yemen, the organization said.

Before she left for Iraq, Watson left her life in America for good. She sold her home, her car and all her possessions, explaining that she needed to travel light. Missionaries had to be able to leave Iraq on two hours notice.

She also wrote a two-page letter in longhand, cautioning her pastors not to open it unless she died. Thoughtful as always, she wanted them to break the news to her mother, three sisters and a brother.

Watson, who still hoped to marry and have children, had been in and out of Iraq since the end of major combat. She had returned just two weeks ago. Whenever she was in an area hit by violence, said her second pastor, Roger Spradlin, she made a point of calling home to let everyone know she was all right. When they didn’t hear from her this week, church officials grew worried.

Then on Monday night, a friend of Watson who had been holding the letter brought it to the church office. Neighbors said he was shaking as he opened it. Besides assuring the church leaders that she had known the risks she was taking, the letter contained messages for her family, as well as her favorite Bible verses.


A section dealing with her funeral was characteristically straightforward. “Keep it simple,” it read. She had underlined the word simple.