For nearly 40 years Gwen and John Haspels lived as mission co-workers in Africa, teaching love and forgiveness in cultures of violence. In Ethiopia, the native Suri would often tell the couple that they could not understand the depth that kind of forgiveness requires, but on October 1, 2014, the tragic events that unfolded on a rural road in Ethiopia changed that.
On that day, as the couple traveled on a road to a house they were building for a Bible translator—a road they had traveled dozens of times—a gunman jumped out of the bush and fired. A car window was open, and a bullet hit Gwen just above the lip, shattering her jaw. Many of the 20 teeth she lost turned into razor-sharp projectiles and hit John’s arm and chest. A bone fragment hit him in the eye.
“The first of many miracles was that neither of us went into shock,” he said. “Gwen wiped the blood from my eye, and we drove away as fast as we could.” He said the four native Suris riding with them to the construction site immediately jumped out of the moving car, as self-preservation kicked in. One of them later told John that the man who fired the gun quickly disappeared into the bush with a blanket over his head, a sign of shame. Because they were driving a different vehicle that day, they felt certain he didn’t recognize them until after he fired.
They drove to the nearest town and then were transported by ambulance to a hospital in Addis Ababa. The couple’s doctor told World Mission’s regional liaison for the Horn of Africa, the Rev. Michael Weller, that more than 200 people gathered at the rural hospital to show their love and support. Almost 1,000 were present when the couple left the airport in Addis Ababa for a Level 1 trauma center in South Africa, one of the best in the world.
“They came through the emergency room wailing, and some collapsed with grief,” said Gwen. “Some even came into the operating room. There was no way to keep them out. It’s simply the way they show love and concern.”
Some weeks after the attack, a group of Suris told John they were going to find and kill the man who shot at them. He immediately said “no” and began an ongoing conversation about forgiveness. Daughter Heather spoke with the Suri representative to parliament, Lanjoy, who is a personal friend of the couple, to communicate the family's message and their sincere desire that the man who did this would come to know Jesus. The Suris were told that John and Gwen were not angry with them “and continue to love them as they always have.”
“We have always taught the importance of praising God, of forgiveness and reconciliation, and now we have the chance to live it,” said Gwen. “The cycle of killing and revenge must be broken among the Suri people. It can only be done by the heart-changing power of the gospel of Jesus Christ by forgiving and being forgiven.”
Safely back in Kansas after retiring from mission service on June 30, John and Gwen are still seeing doctors regularly as they recover from their injuries. Because of a detached retina, John has no sight in his damaged eye, but does have some light sensitivity. They are hopeful that his sight can be improved or restored eventually. Gwen has had several plastic surgeries, and the next step is to repair the inside of her mouth and replace lost teeth. She has been working regularly with a speech therapist. All four of the couple’s children are home now, including 14 grandchildren, ages 1–19.
On the anniversary of the incident, John is headed back to Ethiopia to baptize 1,000 new Christians. World Mission’s partner is the Ethiopian Church Mekane Yesus, which numbers more than seven million. John also hopes to see the man who shot at them and offer his forgiveness. “Our prayer is that he will come to know Jesus,” said Gwen. She hopes to head back in March or April of 2016, when her dental reconstruction is finished. She said closure is important, for her and for the Suri. John has been back and showed them photos of Gwen, but many refuse to believe she is alive until they see her.
The couple’s courtship began when they both attended high school in Alexandria, Egypt, and then continued at Sterling College in Kansas, which both their parents had attended. Gwen’s grandfather was a missionary in Sudan, and she was born there. Two of their four children have entered the mission field, the fourth generation in mission service.
World Mission is actively seeking support for new mission co-workers for Ethiopia. John and Gwen Haspels hope their supporters will continue their prayers and support for the next generation of mission co-workers in Ethiopia. To offer financial support, go to presbyterianmission.org/donate/E200509.