By Michael Ireland
Special Reporter, ASSIST News Service
SOMERSET, WI (ANS) -- 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.
Short term missionaries Grant Lind and Pastor Bill Hieb stand by an advertising poster for the event with 600 Guatemalan pastors.
"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 told ASSIST News in an exclusive interview.
"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 and we've had experiences with pick pockets and muggings and things but and we had 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 and 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 and he was going to make sure that everything was successful and that we came home with 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 and myself. Another brother from a local church, and then another brother who's our host a Guatemalan who lives in the city of St. Paul. So there were a total of nine of us 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.
Grant Lind, Jorge Romero, and Pastor Hieb relax after their kidnap ordeal.
"Well, yes, I mean we'd been praying and preparing for some time. You know, we plan these trips a year in advance. So we travelled to Guatemala City where we had tremendous security because of the relationships that we've had with the officials at the airport and government so it was we were given the red carpet treatment from day one of going to Guatemala. We were whisked away in a nice van and we headed five hours towards our destination and 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 car full of people as far as what I felt the Lord was going to do and there was a real sweet anointing in the car and we began to worship. And we were worshipping in the car when a pickup truck with three men in the back and a driver pulled alongside of us screaming and driving, pushing us off the road and 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 the driver slumped and I was in the front seat and I ducked down thinking that the bullets were in fact coming in the car but they weren't, it was just a surprise and shock. They were professionals, there's no doubt that, this was not their first experience at this sort of thing. In seconds they were in the car with guns. One pistol was shoved into my ribs, one pistol robber got into the side door of the van and one gentleman jumped into the front seat literally threw our driver into the back seat. He was a very large man, but they threw him like a puppet. And they were screaming at us and telling us not to look at them shut our eyes and don't talk," said Hieb.
The three men were dressed as civilians, and were 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 and our driver had inadvertently stepped on the emergency break so the van that we were in was roaring with the rpm's and 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 and 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, and 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 the moment all we were really thinking about was our lives. So there was a man out in front of them with a flashlight who said this is a good place to stop and that's where we stopped. And they got out of the car, held everybody in the back seat at gunpoint and took me out first, put my hands against the vehicle and commenced to empty my pockets. Then he told me to put my hands behind my back and he tied my hands very tightly with shoe laces from my tennis shoes and brought me over, and as he was grabbing me the Guatemalan host began to yell at him 'don't hurt him, don't hurt him.' And they commenced to start kicking him assaulting him. It was very traumatic to see that, and they grabbed me by the collar and dropped me over and knelt me down which I thought at that moment that I was going to take a bullet in the back of the head but. He pushed me to the ground and I hit my face on the dirt and he said don't move. And then they did the same thing to every single person in the van. Tied them up and laid them next to me and 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 and we were saying to her 'cooperate, please cooperate.' She finally did laid down and they tied her hands and then they tied her leg to the gentleman lying next to her. And 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 and iPads, a laptop, cell phones and iPods.
"Then they took our jewelry and our watches and our rings they got almost all the money," said Hieb.
"They just scattered the medicine and the clothing which we brought, about three-hundred dresses handmade dresses for little girls and shorts for the boys. They had just scattered them and 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. But they left the keys to the van and they left all of our passports except one, we lost one passport. The American Embassy was gracious enough to expedite that for us.
The team was told not to move for three hours, but Hieb and the other missionaries didn't wait that long.
Pastor Hieb preaching in Guatemala
"When they were leaving they said to us don't move for three hours do not move and they left into the night. We laid there for probably twenty minutes which seemed like three hours and somebody got untied and began to untie the rest of us and of course we were exuberant to be alive and half the team was saying be quiet be quiet they're still there. We could hear them whistling, it was harrowing," said Hieb.
At one point during their terrible ordeal the team were also praying and praising God.
"When we all gathered together, began to get our senses and we were hugging one another people were crying, some people were sick to their stomach, some were in shock. We held hands and prayed and then we sang a song and gave God glory and honor that He had. You know like John and Peter I believe in the book of Acts when they were beaten and told not to do any teaching in this name and 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 and they never searched his top pocket and we also had managed to salvage approximately thirteen-hundred dollars that they didn't recover from us which really gave us the impetus to get home safely without having to borrow any money or wire any money. But had that cell phone gone off two and a half hours while we were laying there we would probably have had some problems. But we did call our pastor and he came with a vehicle and another man and they came into the woods and found us after we had sent two men to the road to make the call and to wait. Actually they came with just the pastor and another Christian and no security and we were very happy to see them. And they said that they had called the police and the police were on the way.
"Shortly after that the police did arrive and it was kind of amusing one of the policeman had a machine gun and he cocked it and 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. Life isn't really worth a whole lot in that particular section or segment of society. So we were able to get with the police and get out of there and go down to the highway to a lit up area where we gave the police a report, and they wanted us to come to the police station and we just said no we're going home. We commenced to load up and went to the house where we'd been staying for the last three years and we prayed and went to bed. The next morning we could tell how traumatized the team was we determined that five team members needed to return home immediately. So we rescheduled their tickets sent them home the next morning and three of us stayed behind," Hieb recalled.
Even after this awful experience Hieb and two others who chose to stay in Guatemala 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.
Pastor Hieb and Grant Lind were joined on the platform by Guatemalan pastors.
"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. And I asked those that wanted to stay certainly could and there was another couple that elected to stay and one of the gentlemen is a teacher, he did the conference with these six-hundred leaders pastors and the topic was eschatology. The End Times, signs of the End Times. So obviously it played really well into our most recent experience of being able to talk about the love of man growing cold and boasters, proud and lovers of self, and that the darkness would surround us and that the Lord would one day rescue us from the wrath to come. We preached and taught from a dispensational perspective of a pre-Tribulational rapture, and it was very well received."
Some of the local Guatemalan people offered help to get the team back on its feet.
"Sure they did, 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, 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 it sounded like, and just handed it to me because she said the Lord wants me to give you this. And then there was food that was brought to our house and tears and hugs, the love that we received from our Guatemalan friends. We have no resentments, no blame against the Guatemalan people, or no 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 and that is 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 and He will glorify himself and He will not share it with us and 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."
Earlier, Hieb described how he has been to about ten to fifteen countries travelling on between fifty and sixty short-term missions trips, "and we've encountered a number of things along the way."
Hieb has been to Africa several times, specifically Uganda, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania.
"In Asia, I've been in to India a number of times as well as Indonesia, actually Sumatra where they had that horrible tidal wave and earthquake several years ago. We were right on that close location there. And I've been to the Ukraine half a dozen times as well as Mexico twenty times and Guatemala four times. Pretty well seasoned in different cultures and travels."
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. So I instead went on a missions trip came home from the Ukraine and felt that was my call and I was supposed to be a missionary. And so I was like a Jonah trying to escape the pastoral ministry. But god had other plans and he and he actually had me do both. And our church's DNA is very missionary minded. Most of the people in my church both those that are there now and those that have passed through 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 w e 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 and 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 a serpents and gentle as doves. Americans tend to be gregarious and outgoing," he said.
"We need to be a little bit circumspect, a little bit more cautious, 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. I as the shepherd of this flock 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 and 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. And whether or not we return to Guatemala I would say that I don't know that much 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 and I don't believe that that's the heart of God. But I think it's a wakeup call and that our future missions trips whenever that happens will be done a lot more efficiently and cautiously and deliberately."
Did he have 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? What would he 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 and to remember that it is the Great Commission and that we must not shrink back because of the fears of dangers or toils or snares and 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 basically meaning Jesus is alive and he said to me 'I know.' And before he released us he said something else, he said 'you guys are Christian missionaries, God will save you.' And 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 in history than right now. We are in the end days we are in the End Times and God is standing at the door and we need to be ambassadors and servants of the Most High and we need to open our mouths and trust that God will fill it with the Gospel and 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 and recognize that our lives are hidden with Christ in God and to 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."
How can those reading this article pray for Hieb and his team?
"They can absolutely pray for us, as you imagine or as I've already spoken we are wounded but we will recover. We need prayers to keep our team unified. Spiritual warfare seems to be sometimes increased when you get home and there are doubts and fears and murmuring. Pray for our team unity. Pray for our emotional and mental health. Pray that we'll see this as an opportunity and a blessing as opposed to any kind of victimization or defeat. To God be the glory."
Hieb mentioned the team lost about $15,000 in cash, plus their airfares, as well as much needed medical supplies for the clinics the team was planning to hold for the Guatemalan people.
** ANS would like to thank Robin Frost for transcribing this interview.