Remembering Karen Denise Watson

Written By Phil Kell

Remembering Karen Denise Watson

This month California Southern Baptists remember and honor the 20th anniversary of the day one of our own gave her life serving as an international missionary.

Karen Denise Watson had no intention of becoming a martyr for the cause of Christ. She had a good job with the Kern County Sheriff’s Department. She was part of a great church in Bakersfield, Valley Baptist. She had friends and family that loved her. Life was good, but God had other plans.

Karen became a Christian in the late 1990s after experiencing the loss of several close family members, including her father, her grandmother, and the boyfriend she planned to marry. Phil Neighbors, one of her pastors, said, “Those crises led her to turn to the Lord. She came to know Christ and was one of the very special people that just loved the Word of God and the work of God. She was passionate about it.”

It was during these early years of her faith that Karen decided to go on several mission trips with other members of her church. Those trips changed her life. She sensed a calling to full-time mission work. Her pastors referred her to the International Mission Board (IMB). After conferring with the IMB, she decided to leave everything to follow Christ’s call.

She resigned from her well-paying administrative position with the sheriff’s department, asked the staff at the Baptist Foundation of California for help with an estate plan, and sold most of her worldly possessions. She stuffed the rest of what she owned into a duffle bag and headed for the Middle East. Karen confided to friends that she was scared, but she knew she was doing what God called her to do.

With her leadership and administrative skills, Karen was given the assignment of coordinating refugee relief in conjunction with Operation Iraqi Freedom. She set up a base of operations in Jordan beginning in March 2003, but when the war ended quickly, her assignment changed, and she was redirected to Iraq.

Pastor Neighbors said that he spoke with Karen numerous times about the dangers. “She would always call me whenever anything would happen in country. For instance, when the [United Nations] building was bombed and numerous people killed, she called to tell me she was alright. She had been working with the UN in that very building coordinating relief efforts. She was in and out of that building daily, and just by the providence of God she was not there the day of the bombing.”

Fast forward to March 15, 2004. Neighbors heard the news that five IMB workers had been shot in Iraq. He was thinking, “Well, maybe Karen will call in a minute to say she’s alright.” Instead, he heard that she was one of the victims of that attack.

She was there to help the Iraqi people in the name of Jesus. She died doing just that along with three of her colleagues: Larry and Jean Elliott of Cary, North Carolina, and David McDonnall of Rowlett, Texas. McDonnel’s wife, Carrie, was also shot but survived.

Later that night, Neighbors remembered that, before she left, Karen had written a letter to him and his co-pastor, Roger Spradlin, with instructions that the letter was only to be opened upon her death. Neighbors called that letter a powerful testimony and evidence that if anything happened to her, she wanted him and the church family to know she had no regrets and died serving the Lord.

One paragraph of the letter included these words: “To obey was my objective, to suffer was expected, His glory my reward, His glory my reward.”

A little more than a week later, Pastor Roger Spradlin led the memorial service for Karen. The church’s large auditorium was full that day, with church members, family, friends, dignitaries, and dozens of officers and staff members from the Kern County Sheriff’s office.

Spradlin read portions of Karen’s letter that day. The letter and a picture of Karen were framed and placed on the wall of the offices of the Baptist Foundation of California, where they still hang to this day.

The Bible tells us to remember and honor those who serve faithfully. Karen deserves to be remembered and honored.

A scholarship fund has been set up in her name at the Baptist Foundation of California. That fund provides scholarships for students pursuing a career in international missions. Tell Karen’s story and give to the Karen Denise Watson Endowment Fund.

Neighbors summarized her life well when he said, “Karen was the most sincere person I’ve ever met. She loved Jesus with all her heart. She was the type who would stand up for the Lord anywhere in the world. She felt the Lord Jesus was worth it.”

We need more like her.

Printed with excerpts from an article published in 2024 by the Florida Baptist Witness.

Click here to read Baptist Press’ article on Karen Denise Watson from March 26, 2024

About the Author

Phil Kell
Planned Giving and Legal Consultant, CSBC

Phil Kell serves as the Planned Giving and Legal Consultant for the California Southern Baptist Convention. He holds a Bachelor of Science from California State University Sacramento, a Juris Doctorate from the University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law, as well as a Doctor of Laws (Honoris Causa) from California Baptist University. He and his wife, Debbie, have been married for almost 50 years, and together they have 4 daughters and 7 grandchildren. Phil and Debbie are members of Woodward Park Baptist Church in Fresno, California

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