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When Prayers Are Answered

He just wanted to serve. But Ray Rising, part of a Huntington Beach-based ministry, spent 2 years in Colombia's rain forest hoping his kidnappers would free him.

August 29, 1996|DENISE MARIE SIINO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

After two years of being held hostage deep in the Colombian rain forest by armed rebels, of being moved constantly, of his hair turning from brown to gray, American missionary Ray Rising is unharmed and free.

There was no ransom paid, though his captors had every intention of collecting one when they grabbed him.

Ultimately, they became convinced that their best move was simply to set Rising free.

Rising's release June 17 was a huge relief not only to his family, friends and colleagues at Wycliffe Bible Translators in Huntington Beach but also to others in the rugged region of Colombia who have been the target of kidnappers.

There is still plenty of reason for concern: Two missionaries--Tim Van Dyke and Steve Welsh of Florida-based New Tribes Mission--were killed during the time Rising was held; three are still being held.

In a country seemingly numbed by years of political violence and one of the world's highest kidnapping rates, the deaths of the missionaries triggered shock and concern among the Colombian people.

"This reaction was helpful because it sent a message to Ray's captors that missionaries being killed while in captivity was not acceptable," says Bob Klamser, 42, a former police negotiator from Ventura County who has become a specialist in missionary hostage cases.

Klamser was involved in the negotiations for Van Dyke and Welsh as well as for Rising, who was taken hostage March 31, 1994, outside the Lomalinda Center, a missionary compound near the city of Puerto Lleras where he lived with his family and other Wycliffe missionaries.

The center, which had 250 residents, was evacuated after Rising's kidnapping; last February it was turned over to the Colombian government.

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Rising, 54, an expert in radio communications, spent three decades in South America, most of that time in Colombia. He worked for the Summer Institute of Linguistics, the field operation for Wycliffe, which has 5,000 translators and other personnel in 51 countries.

The nondenominational missionary group was founded in 1934 by William Cameron Townsend of Santa Ana with the goal of translating the Bible into every language. Today Wycliffe's international headquarters are on Beach Boulevard in Huntington Beach, and it is the largest linguistic enterprise in existence.

Rising, a ham radio enthusiast as a teenager in his home town of Baudette, Minn., became interested in Wycliffe after reading a Reader's Digest article about the organization and its need for electronics specialists.

"It seemed like a good way to use my talent and serve the Lord at the same time," he says today.

Initially his job consisted of improving radio communications between remote missionary centers and their urban bases.

As he became fluent in Spanish and more familiar with the communities in which he served, he spent more time on civic and health concerns, encouraging children to continue their education, serving as a liaison between the people and town leaders, drilling wells and dispensing medications. "I've even pulled some teeth," Rising says.

On the day of his abduction, he was distributing food in poor neighborhoods of Puerto Lleras. Only a dirt road connects the community to Bogota 100 miles to the northwest.

Rising is not certain why he was singled out to be taken hostage, but, in a telephone interview this month from Wycliffe offices in Waxhaw, N.C., he said he believes it was for the sole purpose of collecting a ransom.

Wycliffe, Klamser and Rising all declined comment on the identity of the group responsible for the abductions.

In Colombia, well-organized leftist guerrillas have battled the government for decades--including its U.S.-backed anti-drug campaigns. They are known to fund their causes through kidnappings--asking for multimillion-dollar ransoms in high-profile cases--and by protecting drug operations.

The rebel groups are composed of hundreds of smaller, autonomous fronts, which has made the negotiating process very complex, Klamser says.

"Just because we've gone through this whole process with one front does not mean the others will get the idea. With each hostage situation, we have to begin the entire process all over again," he says.

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In a highly publicized 1981 case, Charles Bitterman of the Summer Institute of Linguistics was kidnapped and killed by Colombian rebels who accused the organization of having ties to the CIA.

Rising says that he has no connections to the CIA and that his captors could have easily checked with independent sources to confirm that. Had they believed there was a connection, he says, "they would not have released me."

It was after Bitterman's death that Klamser, who had handled crisis negotiations for the Simi Valley Police Department, first took an interest in the missionary hostage cases.

"Bitterman's case was a wake-up call for the missionary organizations--many of them began to think about this possibility," Klamser says.

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