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Murder In The Caribbean
Southern Baptists Martyrs In The Dominican Republic

Paul Potter, thirty-three, was a young seminary-trained pastor in Missouri with a devoted wife, Nancy, and two sprightly children when he heard a missionary on furlough ask, "Why has God called so few to serve the rest of the world while so many serve in the United States?"

"It isn't fair," Paul told Nancy. From that time they began praying for God's direction in missions.

That year, 1965, the Southern Baptist Convention met in Atlantic City to celebrate the jubilee of the SBC's mother Triennial Convention which had been founded in Philadelphia 150 years before. The mission-minded Potters were there.

The call came for 5,000 missionary volunteers who sensed God's leadership to come to the front. Paul and Nancy joined the stream of those answering the call. They moved through the appointment process without a hitch, volunteering to serve in the Dominican Republic (called by natives "the D.R."), the war-racked island nation adjoining Haiti.

Those who knew the Potters saw them as the ideal couple for missionary work in a desperately troubled small country that was rich in history. Columbus was buried in a tomb at the capital of the D.R. Here was also the first European university, the first Catholic cathedral and first monastery, the first mint for manufacturing coins, and even the first Masonic lodging in the Americas.

Paul was known as a caring father to his children, Susan, seven, and David, five, and an ideal keeper of the flock that made up his small church. Nancy, a warm, exuberant young mother, had felt God's leading to serve on a foreign field through teaching mission study courses at their church. At Cottey College in Nevada, Missouri, she had been chosen by the faculty as the student who had the greatest "wholesome influence upon her associates."

I met the Potters a year later in the D.R, known popularly as the tiny country which Columbus reputedly "loved most," calling the tiny nation, "The land of God." I was sent there by publisher Word Books to write a missionary documentary on recent happenings in the island nation. My principal character was to be rangy Howard Shoemake, a Texas missionary, who with his wife, Dorothy Dell, had been serving in the D.R only three years when the country was plunged into chaos by left-wing revolutionaries supported by Communist Cuba. Fearful of a Castro-style takeover that would boost Soviet influence in the Caribbean area, President Lyndon Johnson sent in troops to preserve a democratic government.

Shoemake began a television ministry that attracted viewers of all political stripes. He used a powerful ham radio to send messages to refugees and others in danger of being killed by leftists attempting to take control of the government following the downfall of long time dictator Rafael Trujillo.

A terrible epidemic of gastroenteritis threatened the lives of thousands of children. Shoemake and a corps of missionary associates joined U.S.-based Medical Assistance Programs in setting up clinics in the neediest areas. Patients paid a dollar for a doctor's treatment and received life-saving medicines free from U.S. pharmaceutical companies.

After the fighting ended, more clinics were set up around the country by missionaries and national church leaders. The Potters arrived in 1966 and were assigned to begin evangelistic and medical work in Santiago, the D.R's second largest city, which had twice been destroyed by an earthquake and had no organized Baptist witness at that time.

In March of 1967, Paul and Nancy began services in a rented residence. In their first evangelistic service they won eleven Dominicans to Christ. These came to the Potters' home for further instruction, bringing four friends who wanted to receive Christ. They established a clinic, resulting in more Dominicans coming to services and receiving Christ.

Howard Shoemake and I drove up from Santo Domingo to visit the Potters in Santiago. We found the clinic crowded with needy people seeking medical help.

That evening we attended services conducted by Paul in a rented house. The building was crowded with mostly dark-eyed young men. I engaged one in conversation. "I've trusted in Jesus," he said. "Brother Paul told me how."

The Dominican youth looked across the room admiringly at Paul who was shaking hands with all comers. The young Dominican, whom I judged to be about eighteen, whispered, "You know, I have two heroes."

"Who are they?" I asked.

"Paul Potter and Fidel Castro. Fidel talks to me on Radio Havana about a new world in which I think I would like to live. Brother Paul tells me how I can find a new life with Jesus who will help me get a job."

"Will Fidel help you when you are sick?" I whispered in his ear.

"No, Fidel only talks to me on the radio."

Missionary Potter began preaching. At the end, he raised his hands in an evangelistic plea. Over a dozen came forward. All dark-eyed young men.

I rode back with the missionaries to the Potters' residence to spend the night. Above the front door and on the windows of the Potter residence, I saw emblazoned, "VIVA, FIDEL"! "DEATH TO THE YANKEES!" I had seen similar scrawls on other churches and pastors' homes in the D.R.

"Why don't you wash that stuff off?" I asked.

Paul shrugged "They'd just paint it back on the next night." Shoemake nodded.

After an hour of convivial talk and tangy Dominican coffee, Paul and Nancy prayed with their two children, then Nancy scooted them off to bed.

I rode back to Santo Domingo with Shoemake. The drive took us across the campus of the venerable University of Santo Domingo, which proclaimed itself to be the oldest European university in the southern hemisphere.

On impulse, I asked Shoemake to drop me on the campus. "Come back and pick me up in an hour. I'll stay busy talking to students."

Everywhere I saw pictures and propaganda slogans, all condemning the U.S. and praising Communist revolutionaries.

Strolling along a sidewalk, I began picking up students wanting to ask questions. A tall, dark-skinned man, about twenty-five, stepped forward and pointed to my camera and tape recorder. "We have been watching you. You are a CIA agent!"

Tremors of fear rose within me. All around students began parroting, "CIA agent. CIA agent."

"No," I protested. "I'm here to write about Christian missionaries who are here to work with local doctors in saving children from a deadly epidemic. These missionaries all share their faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus is a far greater revolutionary than Communist Karl Marx."

For the next hour, I debated the young Marxist leader over who was the greatest revolutionary, Marx or Jesus. I cited Paul and Nancy Potter as among the followers of Jesus. Some students said they had heard of the Potters and the good work they were doing for needy people in the D.R. After an hour or so, Shoemake arrived back to pick me up. "All these students can do is argue and pontificate," he said. "They have no answers to the ministry of the Potters and other missionaries."

I returned home with a bundle of tapes and notes to write my book. (James C. Hefley, Intrigue in Santo Domingo, Word Books, Waco, TX, 1968.) Word came that the Potters had organized a church in Santiago. Four hundred Dominicans came to the dedication of a new building.

By 1970, they had two flourishing churches and three mission chapels. When the end of their first furlough year came, Nancy was asked why they wanted to return with their children to such a troubled, impoverished country. "We have seen God's power at work," she said, "Nothing can be more thrilling."

They returned to Santiago in June of 1971 and found the work had continued to expand under the leadership and commitment of fellow missionaries. The clinic in Santiago was now providing 200 patients with life-saving medicines coupled with a Christian witness. Paul and Nancy began to think of the possibility of having five strong churches by the end of their next term.

They never reached that goal. Early on the morning of July 7, ten-year-old David discovered his parents' bodies drenched in blood. While the children had peacefully slept in their separate rooms, intruders had beaten and stabbed their parents to death.

The first martyrdom of missionaries in the D.R. received front-page coverage in hundreds of newspapers. I remember well the afternoon dispatch in the Chicago Daily News. Holding the paper out to catch the headlines, I caught the biggest story of the day. Tears trickled downward into the water as I called to my wife, Marti, "Paul and Nancy Potter have been murdered! Lord, help us."

Investigators began their work. Robbery was initially considered as a motive, then dismissed because the Potters were known to live modestly in a small house. The possibility that Paul and Nancy had been killed by anti-American terrorists was considered by many. A Dominican reporter noted that "Death to the Yankees!" had been scrawled onto the back of the missionaries' car.

Six years passed. In 1977, I was assigned by Christianity Today to cover a prayer breakfast in Bogota. At the meeting I met up with Luis Palau, billed by many as the "Latin American Billy Graham."

Palau was going to hold an evangelistic crusade in Santo Domingo. "Come along with me in my private jet," he invited.

A Mennonite missionary from the D.R. also climbed aboard. Swooping high over the Andes Mountains, we talked about people we knew in the little country that Columbus "loved most."

"Had he known Paul and Nancy Potter?" I inquired.

"Yes," he said. "I spent time in their home. They were wonderful servants of our Lord."

I asked if their killers had ever been identified.

"Not officially," he said. "But some of our missionaries have good conjectures."

"Communist terrorists?" I ventured.

"No."

"Then who?"

My Mennonite friend tapped me on the shoulder. "I'll tell you if you promise not to publish any names. And if you'll turn off your tape recorder."

I agreed on both counts.

"We think a small cartel of Dominican doctors paid some thugs to kill Paul and Nancy. Just a few doctors were in on it. And maybe one or two pharmaceutical bigwigs were involved in the conspiracy."

"Because of the success of the church-sponsored clinics?"

"Yes. These people saw the clinics as costing them big money. They may have plotted to have the Potters killed as a warning to Baptists and other evangelicals in the D.R. If so, they didn't stop the clinic ministries." The Mennonite pursed his lips. "None of us dare use names or make accusations. I hope you understand." I assured him that I did.

The private jet landed. Over 75,000 Dominicans jammed into the D.R's national stadium to hear Palau proclaim the gospel. When Palau gave the invitation, hundreds streamed down the aisles to declare their faith in Christ.

I flew home the next day on a commercial jet and turned in my copy to my Christianity Today editor.

More time passed. As an ordained Southern Baptist minister, I was frequently invited to supply the pulpit of a church without a pastor. On one such occasion I preached for the First Baptist Church of Paris, Missouri.

That morning I highlighted my missions message with the story of the martyrdom of Paul and Nancy Potter. As I spoke, people cried.

When I delivered my final amen, members began surging around me. "Why are so many of you crying?" I asked.

"Don't you know," a motherly voice said. "Paul Potter was our pastor before he went to the foreign mission field. Oh, how we loved him and Nancy and their two little kids."


James C. Hefley is an accomplished author and Southern Baptist historian.

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January 2002 Edition
Volume 10, Issue 4
January 2002