By Andrew Mathe
July 15, 2012
For my in-laws, the Buchanan family, July 2010 will always be a month of memorial. My wife, Amy, her older sister, Jessica, and brother, Stephen, lost their mother unexpectedly. The world would read of Jessica’s ordeal when she was kidnapped in Somalia in 2011; but that experience came on the heels of the greatest loss in her life. Our family was devastated in July 2010 when Marilyn Buchanan passed away.
That month, Amy and I moved from Tucson, Ariz., to rural Pennsylvania, where I enrolled at Valley Forge Christian College (Assemblies of God) in Phoenixville, the same school I attended years before. Amy had graduated from VFCC in 2005, and Jessica graduated in 2007 after a student teaching experience in Africa the previous year.
Just as we were settling into our new residence off campus, news came that Marilyn was in a coma. As God’s grace would have it, Jess was home from Africa (where she served as a humanitarian aid worker) and visiting us at our apartment. We only made it about two miles from our house when my wife’s father, John, called.
“She’s gone,” he said.
Marilyn Buchanan was only 57. She had overcome the loss of her mother, father and brother while she was still a child, and God used her to raise two beautiful daughters and a son who would serve the Lord to this very day. Amy, Jess and Stephen would all commit their lives to Christ and follow Him to the mission field.
For Amy, the mission field had been working with at-risk youth in Tucson. For Stephen, it was serving troubled youth in urban Cincinnati. And for Jess, the mission field was the continent of Africa. Though Jess was not commissioned as a missionary, she was commissioned by God to do good works. That commission took her to lawless, pirate-ridden Somalia.
The year following Marilyn’s passing was the most difficult of our lives. After a year of holidays, birthdays and a wedding anniversary without Marilyn, the family slowly began to feel things were moving forward. For months it was like taking baby steps — in many ways, it still is. We had a lot of questions and doubts, but we felt that God was still in control of our lives.
“I don’t understand this,” John would often tell the family, “but I do know that we can trust Him.”
In October 2011, I was off to a good start to my junior year at VFCC, Amy had just settled into a new job, Stephen was working hard in college, and Jess returned to Africa with her husband, Erik. Their home was Africa, its people and their culture. Both Jess and Erik were dedicated to serving the critical needs of communities in Kenya and Somalia.
On Oct. 25, Amy called me while I was in chapel. I snuck out the back door, hoping to leave unnoticed, and answered the phone.
“Are you sitting down?” Amy asked.
Of course, I wasn’t sitting down when she told me, “Jess was kidnapped in Somalia.”
Amy left work early and never returned. She was forced to forfeit her job so she could travel to Africa with her family in hopes that Jessica would be released by Thanksgiving.
The next day I called the White House requesting to speak with the president. They told me the best way to contact him was to send a fax, so I used our church’s fax machine and sent about 40 faxes in big bold print, telling President Barack Obama my sister was in captivity and we desperately needed the help of the American government. I called our congressman’s office and the State Department.
For several days we didn’t know if Jess was alive or dead, and we didn’t know who had taken her. The FBI and the State Department worked tirelessly to provide us with all the information they could without compromising their investigation.
Our home became an open house for the FBI, who would regularly check on us to see if we needed anything, or if the Somalis had attempted to make contact with us. Then, after church on a Sunday, we received word that contact was made. Jess was alive.
Knowing she was alive propelled Amy, John and Stephen to refocus their efforts and travel to Africa, desperately clinging to the hope she would be set free. They returned from Africa about a month later with mixed feelings. Sometimes they were optimistic and sometimes they were discouraged, but we constantly prayed together.
We prayed that Jess would be comforted and that she would have renewed strength. We also prayed that she would know that her family loved her and was thinking of her.
At a special prayer meeting at Host Church in Bernville, Pa., where my wife and I serve, we silently wept with a community of believers around us. I was directed toward Psalm 46, and later Isaiah 59:1, which says, “Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear” (NIV).
Christmas came and went. I often say we “faked” Christmas last year. While the family was in Africa, I was buying and wrapping presents, decorating a plastic tree, and hanging stockings in hopes that Jess would be home in time to celebrate with us. When it dawned on me that this wasn’t going to happen, I just prayed there would be some joy in spite of our circumstances.
Amy especially struggled during the holidays. Where Jess and Amy had walked through the tragedy of losing their mother together, this year Amy felt alone without her mother’s voice and her sister’s strength.
Through all of this, we knew thousands of people across the country and around the world were faithfully praying for Jess’ release. Friends in Arizona and Colorado and family in New York and Indiana were all turning to God for answers. The entire campus of Valley Forge Christian College was praying daily for a miracle.
The most important ingredient for our family was unwavering faith in God. Jesus says in Matthew 21:21, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt ... you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done.”
In the New Testament, miracles always accompanied faith. We maintained faith through our anger, grief and hostility. I was angry — in fact, filled with hatred at times. I was desperate for this ordeal to come to an end. Even so, we had faith. We had questions, but we also had faith.
One of Amy’s fondest childhood memories of Jess was sitting at the front window of their saltbox home in Indiana waiting for her to come home from school. They would play together, and Amy would follow Jess around as an adoring younger sister. She always wanted her big sister to be proud of her, and this ordeal was no different. Amy wanted to make sure she was doing everything possible to get her sister out of captivity.
In late January, we were all invited to the J. Edgar Hoover Building in Washington for a meeting with the FBI. At this point, meetings with the FBI were a common occurrence. We had no reason to believe the United States government had any plans in place to extract Jessica. Amy and her father made the drive to Washington. I remained at home, trying to focus on my coursework.
When the meeting was over, it was late in the day. Amy called to share some details with me. It didn’t go as well as they had hoped. It sounded to them like it would be some time before Jess would be free. They settled into their hotel accommodations, and Amy called me again that night. We talked on the phone while watching the State of the Union address, expressed some of our discontent, and said goodnight.
About an hour later, I found myself at my lowest point. I couldn’t believe the family would be invited to Washington, then not get some good news.
Then I received a text message from my wife: “Dad is waiting for the president.”
A few moments later President Obama finished the State of the Union Address and called my father-in-law’s hotel room. That’s when we heard the news that Jessica Buchanan, our sister, had been rescued by American special forces.
It would be another week before we were reunited with Jess in Portland, Ore., and our sadness was replaced with joy. She had been through a terrible ordeal, and at the same time God preserved her.
For the Buchanan family, surviving tragedy involved faith, even if sometimes we found we were holding onto it by a strand. It required a support system of believers and wise friends and neighbors who allowed us to be who we are, in all our frailty. It also required listening for the still, small voice of God as He spoke to us, reminding us He has overcome the world (John 16:33).
For this family, tragedy was no stranger, but neither was a miracle. God intervened at just the right time. His purposes in our lives continue.
ANDREW MATHE is a senior at Valley Forge Christian College (Assemblies of God) in Phoenixville, Pa., and youth pastor of Host Church in Bernville, Pa.
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