Divine Intervention


The missionary is home from Peru, in the church of his parents and grandparents, to preach the good news about the bullet that was fired by God at his wife and baby.

Standing at the pulpit, he pulls out a list of evidence pointing to God's hand at work. Actually it's only half the list. There's no time for the whole thing, says Jim Bowers.

"You tell me if this was God or not," he says to the congregation of 1,200.

He is all tautness and understatement. Imagine a younger Joe Friday preaching. Just the facts, ma'am, pointing to the identity of the Gunman. At the front of the church, a single white casket contains the bodies.

Bowers transports the congregation back with him to the cockpit of the Cessna 185 float plane, high above the green jungle and the brown river.

Gunfire is spraying the plane from behind. The pilot is screaming into the radio: "They're killing us!" Bowers's son, Cory, 6, is unscathed, and very quiet, as pilot Kevin Donaldson executes an emergency dive to the river.

"Of the many bullets that penetrated the aircraft," Bowers tells the congregation, "not one of them hit Cory or me despite the fact that one of the first made a big hole in the windshield in front of my head. None of them incapacitated Kevin completely."

He lists detail after detail of the miraculous landing on the water, the miraculous rescue. It sure seems Someone was watching over them.

Yet Veronica "Roni" Bowers, 35, and the couple's 7-month-old daughter, Charity, lay dead in the back seat, killed instantly by one round. Didn't God care about them?

"Would you say that was a stray bullet?" Bowers asks.

The church is absolutely still. This is the question the people have been wrestling with. It's one of those deceptively simple queries, with a trapdoor covering bottomless depths of why-are-we-here fear and trembling. Think of possible explanations for the bullet: bad luck, official incompetence, the Devil's marksmanship. Camus would say it proves the absurdity of the universe.

Bowers's voice gets so low that people strain forward to hear. "That was a sovereign bullet." Fired by the King.

There is quiet weeping in the church. Not tears of grief, tears of joy. Yes! This is what they hoped -- needed -- to hear the missionary say.

The State Department may not be ready for the findings of this spiritual investigation, but here they are: God pulled the trigger. And it was good.

Bowers reports he and Cory feel "an inexplicable peace." And he asks one more question.

"How could something so terrible be good?"

Confusion to Compassion

Bowers crawled out of the Amazon and into the middle of an international incident that U.S. and Peruvian diplomats are still sorting out. The Cessna was mistaken for a drug courier and shot down April 20 by a Peruvian air force jet, after an American surveillance team hired by the CIA located the small plane. The Americans say the Peruvians ignored warnings that the plane appeared innocent. The Peruvians say they followed proper procedures.

For a day or two, Bowers, 38, couldn't make sense of the bullet, and the hole it ripped in his family. Then he began to understand.

Skeptics may discern in the scene at the church an elaborate, collective coping mechanism. They won't understand how the missionary can so quickly say he forgives the Peruvians. "How could I not," Bowers replies, "when God has forgiven me so much?" Roni forgives them, too, he says.

Perhaps the skeptics have never journeyed to a town like this one in western Michigan, dominated by a yellow water tower with a smiley face, where apples no longer are shipped by inland waterway to Lake Michigan but acres of blueberries still are grown. For generations, another significant export has been missionaries, special-delivered all around the world.

They come from the churches that seem to be planted every few blocks. Many of these are what their members call "Bible centered" churches. The words of the Scriptures are literally true. The theory of evolution is false. Anyone who has not accepted Jesus Christ as his personal savior is going to Hell -- including villagers living in grass huts along the Amazon. If no one told them about Jesus -- tough luck. This is why these churches believe the stakes are so high in missionary work.

"In west Michigan, this is the Bible Belt and we're just inundated with this stuff," says Eric Strattan, associate pastor of Calvary Church, the independent Baptist congregation that sent the Bowerses to Peru. He means inundated in the best sense -- that the flood of believers can flow to other areas that are spiritually dry. A missionary need not go all the way to the Amazon to find work. He could go to New York or Massachusetts.

So the sovereign-bullet theory isn't a coping mechanism. Here, it's the truth. During the ordeal, something interesting and unexpected has happened. The missionaries -- a stock type as old as the Apostle Paul -- were revealed to be human. They feel loneliness and self-doubt, even as the people back home hail them as death-defying heroes. This revelation has given their message more power.

For 10 straight days television trucks have camped outside the churches of the missionaries and their families, in Fruitport as well as Pensacola, Fla., near where Roni's parents live and where mother and daughter were buried Sunday. While Bowers has not granted interviews, his fellow congregants have used the story, with the sincere and shrewd promotional savvy of, well, missionaries. They lovingly embrace reporters as another inscrutable yet promising tribe. And God has responded: The story went around the world.

In life, Roni Bowers was an obscure example of the estimated 420,000 Christian missionaries worldwide. In death, her friends and pastors believe, she may achieve her greatest accomplishment.

"God," says the Rev. Terry Fulk, missions pastor at Calvary, "is going to capitalize on this."

Twin Passions to Preach

He asked her on a date to go roller-skating.

As a freshman at Piedmont Bible College in Winston-Salem, N.C., Roni had resolved to date only those men who shared her aspiration to become a missionary. That life became her dream at 13, soon after her peripatetic family settled in Poquoson, Va., and began attending church regularly. She crammed all her courses at Poquoson High into three years so she could graduate and get to Bible college as quickly as possible.

Jim Bowers met her criterion. He grew up on the Amazon, in Brazil, the son of missionaries who had been sent by Calvary Church in 1963. He wanted to return.

"They had a strong sense they wanted to share the Gospel abroad," says Todd Rexford, a friend and member of Calvary. "Roni felt an urgency to get in the mission field."

After three years, Jim ran out of money for college and joined the Army to take advantage of the GI Bill. Roni also left school, and they were married in 1985. After Jim's Army stint, they returned to Piedmont, holding down jobs while they studied, and graduating in 1993.

Since early in their marriage, they were puzzled why Roni never became pregnant. After graduation, they became members of Calvary. They also began to see fertility specialists, who told them Roni couldn't have children.

They started the adoption process as they laid plans to become missionaries. Calvary agreed to pay 25 percent of the $40,000 a year they would live on in Peru. Visiting other potential supporters, they would unfurl a map of Peru they had drawn on a piece of cloth the size of a blackboard, showing the 200-mile section of the Amazon where they hoped to work.

It was understood that Roni would assume a supporting role in the mission, as they believed the Bible prescribes for women. Nevertheless they came off as a team, with Jim looking to Roni for advice.

"Jim had vision and passion, and Roni put on the finishing touches," Fulk says. "Jim was more reserved, Roni was very get-up-and-go. She was quite bubbly. Not ditsy, but energetic."

The members of Calvary became enchanted with the Bowerses' quest. They helped them build a houseboat in a barn owned by Bill Rexford, Todd's father. Roni and Jim wanted a houseboat because they intended this to be a family mission. They were sure they would have children, somehow, and they would travel the river together.

"After many years of waiting, our dreams were finally coming true," Roni wrote later in a personal testimony used by a Baptist missionary group. "Now we only lacked children in the home with whom to share those dreams.

Cory was born to a teenage mother in Michigan in the fall of 1994, and a few weeks later, Roni and Jim adopted him.

After more preparations, they were getting ready to launch the houseboat on the Amazon in the summer of 1997 when Roni felt unusually tired. She took a test and discovered she was pregnant. God was answering her prayers again. She bought a pile of maternity clothes.

Ten weeks later her water broke. After an agonizing labor whose pain she knew would be for naught, she lost the baby. She felt her faith seriously shaken.

Eventually she recovered. She figured that this had been the great trial of her life, giving her an inspiring testimony to share with other Christians, perhaps even the Peruvians. This is when she sat down and wrote the testimony. It became available to a wide audience when the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism put it on the Internet (www.abwe.org/family/roni_story1.htm) after her death.

"I couldn't understand all the emotions, the deep depression I was feeling," Roni wrote. "What kind of a Christian was I? After months of struggles, I realized I was putting the baby I wanted before my relationship with God. I finally realized what I was doing and begged God to forgive me. More than anything, I wanted my relationship with Him back. God has not taken away the desire for the baby, but He has helped me put my priorities in order."

Days in the Wilderness

A famous description of missionary work was written by Paul. "Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles." (II Corinthians 11:25-26)

That's the romantic, swashbuckling-for-Christ image still conjured by folks back home. For most missionaries, the reality is different. Inside the houseboat, if you didn't look out the windows, you might have thought you were in a neat little home in Michigan. There were family photographs on the walls, fluffy pillows on the couch, a quilt in the master bedroom, a children's room with a bunk bed, a kitchen area with stove and refrigerator, a television.

Outside was the river and the jungle. The air was thick and wet. There were piranhas in the water and poisonous snakes on the land. To supply the shower and the washing machine, they would motor up a tributary, where the water was less brown. A pump sucked it up to a tank on the roof. They drank rainwater.

Roni often cooked American food -- pancakes for breakfast, chicken Parmesan for the main midday meal, egg salad sandwiches for dinner. But they acquired a taste for local cuisine as well. Yuca could be fried into something like french fries.

Visitors from Michigan would ask Roni if she felt safe, and she replied: "It is safer to be in the Lord's will rather than somewhere else not in his will."

Painted white, with a flat roof and riding on pontoons, the houseboat would chug 200 miles downstream from the city of Iquitos, Peru, and back. Jim and Roni had a huge file on board, with one index card for every villager they knew along that section of the river.

They would pull up to a village of huts with thatched roofs. The villagers were subsistence farmers and fishermen. Children would cluster around the boat. Jim might play soccer in the afternoon with the men and boys, while Roni taught the children games and listened to confidences from the women. In several villages, Jim and Roni helped with the construction of churches and a Bible institute.

In the evenings, Jim would go door-to-door, inviting everyone to church. Services would be held in a large common building. He would bring a generator to power a light bulb, and sometimes he'd bring the television set ashore to show an inspirational video.

Many of the towns have little churches, along with village leaders who serve as pastors. The Bowerses' goal was to help the local congregations become self-sustaining, with no need for missionaries.

"They were very much interested in training people and moving on," said Dan Enck, a member of Calvary who also visited the houseboat.

Roni would point to the villages along the river and tell her visitors, "This is why we're here." But there were also moments of doubt, tests of faith.

Two hundred miles of river, with 56 villages to keep in touch with, and more to discover, turned out to be a huge territory. The physical and medical needs of some of the poorest villages seemed so great.

The Rev. Dave Buckley, associate pastor of a Michigan church, shot some videotape of his visit. Most of it includes amusing or uplifting scenes of frontier spirituality. But at one point Jim tells the camera of his concern about being spread so thin that they are not accomplishing enough.

Roni wonders if sometimes the women come to her as much for Tylenol as for Bible study.

'God's Letter to Her'

Charity was born to another Michigan teenager last September. By December, the blond, pudgy girl was a hit among the women of the Amazon.

Roni saw God's hand at work, and she duly noted it in her Bible.

Covered in blue leather with her name stamped in gold on the front, the worn volume is a record of her life, a chronicle of answered prayers and daily challenges. She scribbled notes in blue ink in the margins, or on the blank pages in the front. The Rev. Bill Rudd, Calvary's pastor, photocopied the pages in preparation for his eulogy, and in an interview he provided a detailed exegesis.

"She read the Bible as if it were God's letter to her," Rudd says.

In the 23rd Psalm, Roni circled the words "He restores my soul." She drew a line from the circle to a phrase she wrote in the margin: "Answered with Charity."

Next to a verse in Psalm 113 -- "He settles the barren woman in her home as a happy mother of children" -- Roni wrote, "A promise He kept to me."

In the front she pasted a note from Jim, which says: "Honey, One of the things I appreciate most about you is you always want to do the right thing no matter what! Thanks for the example! Everybody should be married to someone like you. Love, Jim."

There's a page in the front to list special events. The only thing recorded is a trip to Toronto with Jim to see "The Phantom of the Opera." That was during a recent furlough from the mission.

On a blank page she wrote bits of her own proverbs. "The 'why's' and the trials happen so God can be glorified. Then people turn to him."

She made a list of things to do this year. One is to memorize Philippians, a work of that old missionary Paul, the theme of which is "joy in trials," according to Rudd.

First on the list is: "Continue to have regular quality personal devotional time, despite the distractions of the new baby and people from the village constantly coming to the boat."

Also: "Exercise three times per week apart from my usual active lifestyle. Drink more fluids and less caffeine and sweets."

And: "Work on applying the fruits of the spirit more consistently in my life."

Rudd is incredulous about that one. "Most people look at her life and say, 'Wow, the fruits of the spirit are already there consistently.' "

The last item: "Keep my sanity!!!"

The Lord's Work Goes On

Now Roni and Charity are in the white casket, and Jim Bowers sees the work of God, as Roni saw the work of God in bringing Charity into their lives. Cory is in the front row, sometimes with his head bowed, sometimes looking up at his dad.

"I believe God directly intervened to spare Cory and me because he still has some sort for work for us to accomplish," says the missionary. He confesses he doesn't know if he is equipped for the work, but says that is when God's influence is strongest.

Two days later, at Sunday morning services, the congregation prays for two other missionary families. One will leave for Togo, the other for Kenya.

Up in the church's sound booth, a videotape from the Amazon is spooling with the sound off. The 28 minutes of images have been playing nearly nonstop all weekend on big screens in the church, a visual accompaniment to the proceedings.

Now Roni is on the screen, addressing the camera. She's dressed the way she often is in the jungle -- skirt and blouse, hair pulled back -- as if she could be in west Michigan.

This scene was shot three weeks before her death. Roni has just been asked if there's anything church members back home can pray for. Her lips are moving. If the sound were turned up, the congregation would hear:

"From a wife and mother's point of view, my main concern is always our health and our safety. The Lord's been very good. We've been healthy and safe. We continue to pray for that."