The Unsung Missionary Story of Karen Watson

I am always enamored when I read the last words of missionaries, whether they are self-written or known through a final conversation; often, they leave me in tears. When it comes to the missionary task, many missionaries (and potential missionaries) at some point ask the question: Will my service be worth it in the end? By and large, you’d be hard-pressed to find a missionary who used his last words to show regret. More often than not, they wished they had devoted even more of themselves to the fulfillment of the Great Commission. In their dying declarations is a great sense of gratitude for a life given in service to Christ and that soon they would see Him face-to-face. Consider these few:

  • Matteo Ricci (1552-1610): “I leave you at a door open to great merits, yet not without many perils and labours.”
  • David Brainerd (1718-1747): “I am going into eternity; and it is sweet to me to think of eternity; the endlessness of it makes it sweet. But oh! What shall I say of the future of the wicked! The thought is too dreadful!”
  • William Carey (1761-1834): “When I am gone, speak less of Dr. Carey and more of Dr. Carey’s Saviour.”
  • Adoniram Judson (1788-1850): “I am not tired of my work, neither am I tired of the world; yet when Christ calls me home, I shall go with the gladness of a boy bounding away from school. I feel so strong in Christ.”
  • David Livingstone (1813-1873): “All I can add in my solitude, is, may heaven’s rich blessing come down on every one, American, English, or Turk, who will help to heal this open sore of the world.”
  • Maria Taylor (1837-1870): “[Hudson], I am so sorry… not that [I am sorry to go be with Jesus]. You know darling, that for ten years past there has not been a cloud between me and my Saviour. I cannot be sorry to go to Him. But it does grieve me to leave you alone at such a time. Yet, He will be with you and meet all your need.”
  • C.T. Studd (1860-1931): “My only joys… are that when God has given me a work to do, I have not refused it.”

In 2 Timothy 4:17-18, we have some of Paul’s last written words. They, too, convey a sense of gratitude for the work: “But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion's mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen” (ESV).

Not too long ago, I had the privilege of visiting the  International Mission Board (IMB) training center. For decades, this has been the place where IMB missionaries have been trained for a life of missionary service. While there, IMB personnel informed me of a wall that contained the names of every known IMB missionary who had died while on the field, many of them martyrs. One of these names was Karen Watson. Prior to reading her name, I had never heard of Karen Watson, but I’ll not soon forget her.

In March of 2004, Karen Watson and three other humanitarian aid workers were killed after their vehicle was ambushed. They were in Mosul, Iraq working on a water-purification project. Through this work, opportunities to declare the gospel were surely going to present themselves. On that mundane sort of missionary day – a day where Karen was simply doing what she was called to do – gunmen fired assault weapons on the civilian vehicle. Sitting in the rear of the car, Karen was struck by one of these bullets in her back; she died soon after.

Prior to answering the missionary call, Karen lived a normal life in Bakersfield, California. She worked at the Kern County Jail as a detention officer and trainer. At her local church, she led Bible studies and often attended and helped with singles’ outings, being one herself. Her friends described her as a warm, fun-loving, and open-hearted woman. Before leaving to serve long-term, Karen participated in short-term trips to El Salvador, Mexico, Macedonia, and Kosovo. At some point, these short trips left Karen unfulfilled and wanting more. Karen felt the missionary call. And somewhere along the way, she likely had to consider the question: Will my service be worth it in the end?

Thanks to a letter she left behind, we don’t have to wonder what her answer was to this question. Next to the wall of names at the ILC is an actual letter Karen Watson wrote on March 7, 2003, a year before her murder. Her pastor was to open this letter only in the event of her death. After reading it – again, the actual letter – I was left speechless. When perusing the last words of Christianity’s most notorious missionaries, one can easily forget that those same kind of ordinary missionaries are still serving all over the world today. Those missionaries, too, have last words that we should devour when presented the opportunity. I’ll end with Karen’s letter. As you read it, please don’t miss what she says concerning the “missionary heart.” May her words encourage and embolden you to give your life, in some way, for the fulfillment of the Great Commission. His glory is your reward.

Dear Pastor Phil & Pastor Roger,

You should only be opening this letter in the event of death.

When God calls there are no regrets. I tried to share my heart with you as much as possible, my heart for the Nations. I wasn't called to a place. I was called to Him. To obey was my objective, to suffer was expected, His glory my reward, His glory my reward.

One of the most important things to remember right now is to preserve the work that continues. I am writing this as if I am still working among my people group.

I thank you all so much for your prayers and support. Surely your reward in Heaven will be great. Thank you for investing in my life and spiritual well-being. Keep sending missionaries out. Keep raising up fine young pastors.

In regards to any service, keep it small and simple. Yes simple, just preach the gospel. If Jason Buss is available or his dad have them sing a pretty song. Be bold and preach the life-saving, life-changing, forever eternal GOSPEL. Give glory and honor to our Father.

The Missionary Heart:

Cares more than some think is wise.
Risks more than some think is safe.
Dreams more than some think is practical.
Expects more than some think is possible.

I was called not to comfort or success but to obedience.

Some of my favorite scriptures are: Isaiah 6, you know the one. 2 Cor. 5:15-21, 1 Peter 1:3, Col. 4:2-6, Romans 15:20, Psalm 25 and 27. You can look through my Scofield and see where it is marked. Please use only what you want or feel is best.

There is no Joy outside of knowing Jesus and serving Him. I love you two and my church family.

In His care,

Salaam, Karen