Rebel-held Missionary Returns to United States

Jan 21, 2003 11:53 PM EST

Nearly two weeks after arriving in the United States from Cote d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast), West Africa, where he was trapped by rebels for 29 days, Dr. William "Doc" Foster says his left ear still isn't back to normal.

When a band of rebels broke into his house in the village of Toulepleu, near the Liberian border, on Dec. 1, they tried to intimidate him by shooting an AK-47 assault rifle several times right next to his face, close to his ear. As a result, he said during an interview this week in St. Louis, he still doesn't hear too well.

Even though the experience scared him, "I knew that if I died I was going to heaven -- it was no big deal," said Foster, a big man whose African name, "Dweh," means "animal that cuts a broad path and many follow." Every day during the monthlong ordeal, he said, he felt like "God was with me."

Foster, a physician, has served LCMS World Mission for more than six years as a medical missionary in Cote d'Ivoire. He became trapped last month when several rebel factions -- totaling more than 100 men -- took up residence in the village.

Rebels had begun fighting in Cote d'Ivoire in an effort to oust current government leaders. In November, LCMS World Mission withdrew five missionary families from the country because of the escalating conflict, but Foster became trapped before he could leave.

Foster said he was under "house arrest" for just over a day, and then moved into a Red Cross compound, where he treated patients -- both rebels and civilians -- with shrapnel and gunshot wounds and a variety of injuries and illnesses. The rebels, he said, typically left the village during the day and returned in late afternoon.

"I prayed a lot," said Foster, 58. "I prayed with every person I treated." Five villagers died in rebel shootings, he said.

"When [the rebels] first came in, they wanted money, food, clothes -- whatever they could carry," he said. "And they took it. I gave it to them." They also killed Foster's pets -- a monkey, "Mel," and a cat, "Tom" -- that "grew up together."

Because of increasing pressure from U.S. government officials, rebels released Foster and two other foreigners on Dec. 28. Foster, a member of Zion Lutheran Church, Wellington, Colo., arrived in the United States Jan. 3.

Although his missionary position in Cote d'Ivoire has been eliminated by the Synod's mission board as part of a cost-cutting measure, Foster says he would gladly serve overseas again. "I have a call," he said, and wants to "return something to God."

He thanked Missouri Synod members for their prayers. Without them, he said, "I couldn't have slept as well as I did." He says his faith is "stronger now than it ever was."

Why? "Because I lived through it. God obviously has something else for me to do," he said.

Every Christian is a missionary, Foster said, "whether you go out and do it by leaving the country or just by talking to your neighbor.

"We all have the call."

By Paula Schlueter Ross