Members of a Livingston County church experienced a "terrifying" encounter during a mission trip in Kenya this month when they were held hostage and robbed at gunpoint by a group of men that invaded their living quarters.
The missionaries — from Brighton Nazarene Church in Genoa Township — were robbed March 7 while stationed just outside the Kenyan capital of Nairobi. The group was preparing to leave their gated compound for church when the incident occurred.
"When they opened the gates to get ready for church, that's when six men came running in," said the Rev. Ben Walls, pastor of Brighton Nazarene Church. "They had guns; one of them had a machine gun."
Although no one was seriously injured during the incident, Walls said he and 11 other church members present at the time were forced into a dining area, where the robbers yelled for them to lie on the ground with their heads down. The bandits took all of the group's possessions, including money, laptops, cell phones and wedding rings.
"The scary part for most of us was when we couldn't get our rings off; (the robbers) were getting a little frustrated," Walls said. "They were making threats, saying 'We'll kill you, we'll kill you. Keep your heads down.' "
Walls said one robber "tapped" a male church member on the forehead with a gun when he could not get his ring off "fast enough," causing a small scratch. He said the robbers then searched the remainder of the compound for valuables while he and others in the group prayed.
"I was praying that they wouldn't hurt my daughter (who was the only female present at the time)," Walls said, choking up. "I was afraid they might rape her or something. To me, that was the most terrifying."
He added: "We were just praying and asking God to watch over us — and later, we prayed for those men. I do not believe they were there to hurt us. If this would have happened in America, it probably would have been motivated by greed. There, it was motivated by great, great poverty, hunger and desperation."
After the robbers left, the group was able to call for help with a cell phone that had been locked away on the second floor of the compound. Walls said police officers came and took reports on the incident, which occurred in the group's off-campus living compound of Africa Nazarene University. He said the robbery was reportedly the first incident of its kind in the entire 17-year history of the university.
Two days later, Walls said his daughter's purse — which the robbers had taken — showed up at the university along with other items, such as group members' identification cards and credit cards.
Walls said word had spread about the incident, and he believes someone likely found the items the robbers left behind.
"At that point, we had to decide whether to go home or to stay," Walls said. "We decided to stay, and many of us are glad we did.
"Obviously, those 15 to 20 minutes in the middle of it all were scary, but we didn't want it to define the entire two weeks," he added.
Walls said the group stayed on-campus of the university for the remainder of the trip while they continued working on the reason they traveled to Kenya: to help those in need and to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ. He also said many members of the group plan to return to Kenya.
"We hope we can convince anyone who hears this story that it doesn't make Kenya or Africa a horrible place," Walls said. "It was one event. Obviously, I wouldn't sign up for that, but it doesn't take away from the cultural enrichment and wonderful things that came out of us going there."
While in Kenya, the missionaries helped build a three-story dorm-like unit for students at Africa Nazarene University. They also worked on building relationships and partnerships in preparation for a church and school the Livingston County group plans to build in a small town about two hours from Nairobi.
Before the mission trip, Brighton Nazarene Church raised $57,000 to send to officials in the town, which is suffering from extreme drought and hunger. The money provided food to residents and will also fund the development of a water well.
Walls' daughter, Crystal Gibbons of Brighton, wrote a blog about her experience in Kenya for the Brighton Nazarene Church congregation to follow at home. On the last day of the trip, March 12, she wrote: "I came to Africa because I felt that God had called me to come, and I leave Africa knowing that he has used me and grown me. I have seen the hand of God on this trip and with this team, and I see his spirit here with the Kenyan people."
Category: Mission Trip/Missionary Security