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Baptist Missionary Finds Meaning in Amazon Tragedy

Peru: His wife and daughter were killed when they were mistaken for drug smugglers.


CARY, N.C. — When Jim Bowers was working as a missionary in Peru, he shared his faith with the people living along the Amazon River. Now Bowers, whose wife and daughter were killed last year when bullets pierced the small plane in which they were flying, is sharing his faith with a far larger audience.

Later this month, Bowers, 39, will travel to Portugal and England, and then crisscross the United States, stopping in California, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and North Carolina. On each stop, he will recount to fellow Christians how on April 20, 2001, the single-engine Cessna floatplane carrying his family was mistaken for a drug-smuggling operation and was shot down by the Peruvian air force in conjunction with CIA surveillance aircraft.

More important, he will try to use his personal story to inspire others to take up the mission work that he and his wife, Roni, left behind.

"I do this with the intention of challenging young people to follow in Roni's footsteps and not let danger scare you away," said Bowers, whose steely determination masks all signs of grief.

Promoting Book

These days, Bowers is also plugging a new book, "If God Should Choose: The Authorized Story of Jim and Roni Bowers," by Kristen Stagg. When he's not doing radio interviews or talking to seminary graduates, he's helping start up a congregation of Spanish speakers at his church, Bethel Baptist, in Cary. He lives with his mother, Wilma, and his 7-year-old son Cory, in nearby Garner, N.C.

Bowers is convinced that, though the death of his wife and daughter might seem senseless, it is all part of God's plan.

"The goal Roni and I had is to convince people of the truth," he said. "Because of her death, many more people have been convinced. I have a huge open door, much more than I would have had if we went on with our life. There's so much evidence God was in this."

In March, on the eve of his trip to Peru, President Bush pushed a bill through Congress that offers the survivors, including the family of Kevin Donaldson, the Cessna pilot who suffered serious leg wounds, $8 million in compensation. The Bush administration also acknowledged the downing of the plane "should never have happened," though it stopped short of admitting liability.

The compensation package is much less than the $35 million that attorneys for the Assn. of Baptists for World Evangelism had sought on behalf of their two missionary families. But it is not the money that Bowers wants. Despite his belief that God was behind the events, Bowers said he would like to see someone take responsibility. After three investigations, no one involved in the crash has lost a job or gone to jail, he said.

"You'd think somebody would stand up and say, 'You can't get off scot-free acting like that,' " Bowers said. "They continue as if nothing happened."

But Bowers doesn't want to dwell on the negative. He said he has forgiven everyone involved.

He envisions spending the next few years in North Carolina, working at his church. When he is at home, he and Abel Grande, a Latino leader at Bethel Baptist, go into the immigrant neighborhoods of Cary, knocking on doors and inviting people to church services, Bible studies or soccer games.

Child of Missionaries

In some ways, it is not too different from the life Bowers knew in Peru or the life his parents led as missionaries along the Amazon River in Brazil.

Bowers was groomed to be a missionary. Long before he and Roni settled into their houseboat near Iquitos, Peru, the 8-year-old Jim Bowers attended a boarding school for missionary children in the same town. After graduating from the Grand Rapids, Mich., Baptist Academy, Bowers enrolled at Piedmont Bible College near Winston-Salem (now Piedmont Baptist College), a school that offered training in missionary aviation.

There, Bowers met Roni Luttig, a fellow student. Like him, Roni had wanted to be a missionary since she was a child, and the two became fast friends. They married in 1985.

After Jim served a short stint in the Air Force, the couple made plans for their life's calling. Instead of setting up a house in Iquitos and traveling up and down the river to reach indigenous Indians, the couple hit on a novel idea. They would build a houseboat and live in it.

In 1997, their dream became a reality. Roni taught women's Bible studies and children's Sunday school. She home-schooled Cory.

Off to Get a Visa

After adopting newborn Charity, the couple needed to arrange a residence visa for her. Peruvian regulations required that the girl get her visa stamped upon entry into the country, so the couple decided to fly to neighboring Colombia and secure a visa at the Peruvian Embassy.

They were on their way back to Iquitos when bullets hit their small plane. One bullet hit the back of Charity's head and penetrated Roni's heart.

Despite all that has happened, Bowers said his call to missionary work overseas has never wavered. He would like to return to the Amazon, though probably not to Peru.

But first, he said, he would need to remarry.

"Not enough people are willing to go," he said. "Why shouldn't I? I'm ready and willing. It doesn't make sense to stay here. But I can't go back without a mother for Cory."

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