Costa Rica, September 13, 1978.
The situation in Nicaragua is getting worse. If Nicaragua falls, I guess the rest of Central America will, too. Maybe this is just some kind of self-inflicted martyr complex, but I find this recurring thought that perhaps God will call me to be martyred for him in his service in Colombia. I am willing.
— From the diary of Chet Bitterman, eight months before he entered Colombia
Jesus once told his disciples, “If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it” (Matt. 10:39, NLT). And that’s just what Chet Bitterman did.
The Younger Years
Chester “Chet” Bitterman III was one of eight kids. Raised in a Christian family, Chet’s faith became increasingly personal during his years at Columbia Bible College. Tim Thompson, a friend and classmate of Chet’s, recalls, “We never talked theology or anything. But it was obvious from the things Chet said, and just from the way he was, that he loved God. Even at age 17, I think Chet was the most God-minded man I ever met.”
During one summer vacation, Chet shared with a friend, “When I get to the end of my life, I want to point to something I did that really counted.” It was in 1974 that Chet first heard about Wycliffe Bible Translators. A linguist came to Columbia’s chapel and demonstrated what a linguist-translator does to learn a new language and translate the Bible.
Chet walked away from the experience changed. And now he was fairly certain he knew what he wanted to do with his life. “I cannot see any more direct or essential ministry toward fulfilling the Great Commission than Bible translation,” Chet shared in a letter talking about his interest in Wycliffe. But first, he wanted to learn more about Wycliffe and whether this was the specific direction God was calling him.
Called to be a Translator
During the first year after graduation, Chet began thinking about his future. It was during a conversation with Brenda Gardner — a young, attractive woman from his church — that he shared the idea of taking a course at the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL)* in North Dakota. To his delight, Chet discovered that Brenda had taken a similar SIL course the previous summer in Oklahoma!
Chet bared his heart: “I’ve only got 75 years on this earth at best,” he told Brenda. “I want to use them to give someone the Bible.”
Over the following weeks, Chet and Brenda saw each other frequently. Brenda already knew she was committed to linguistics; Chet still wasn’t certain linguistics was for him. While talking with Brenda’s father, George — who served in the mission field as an accountant — Chet realized missions took more than just translators and linguists. It required people working in support roles, too, who dedicated their lives to helping people get the Bible.
Chet questioned George on how he and his wife knew they were supposed to go into missions, to which George replied, “Chet, I suppose we just stopped asking ourselves ‘Why go?’ and started asking ourselves, ‘Why not?’ There was a need, we had the skills to match, and God had made us willing.”
That summer, Chet attended the Summer Institute of Linguistics in North Dakota.
The Road to Colombia
Chet and Brenda married and joined Wycliffe Bible Translators, intending to move to the Carabayo village in Colombia and begin learning their language. But God had other plans, and the door to working with the Carabayos was shut.
Chet and Brenda soon decided on the Carijona Indians instead. After weeks of preparation, Chet and Brenda were on the verge of moving their young family to the village when life changed forever.
Taken Hostage by Terrorists
“The movement of April 19th” — or M-19 for short — was a group of social activists that wanted democracy and justice in Colombia, and would do whatever was necessary to make that happen. It was this group of social activists that turned Chet and Brenda’s lives upside down on January 19, 1981.
Seven armed gunman appeared early that morning. They were looking for the director of SIL in Colombia. When everyone denied that they knew where to find him, they took Chet instead.
Freedom or Death?
Two days later, the terrorists gave demands: they wanted Wycliffe out of Colombia by February 19. If they left, Chet’s life would be spared.
People from all around the world heard of Chet’s situation and joined in around-the-clock prayer for his release. Then, on January 24, Brenda received a letter from Chet, assuring her that he was alive and well. In regards to his captors, Chet shared, “We’ve talked. We’ve argued. We’ve even become friends. We respect each other though we view the world from opposite poles.” His letter also quoted Scriptures, especially from the Psalms. It appeared as if Chet’s request for a Spanish Bible had been granted, and with the Scriptures in hand, Chet’s spirits seemed high. He was even pictured in the newspaper playing chess with his captors!
The next few weeks were filled with rumors of Chet’s death, bombings and uncertainty. Finally, seven weeks after Chet was taken hostage, his body was found in a bus with a single bullet to the chest. He was only 28 years old.
Just two days before he was taken captive, Chet said to Brenda, “It’s okay for someone to die for the sake of getting the Word of God to the minority people of Colombia.” Chet died at the hands of his captors, but through his captivity and death, Christ’s love was proclaimed and lived out before millions of Colombians and people around the world — just as he would have wanted. And rather than ridding the country of the foreigner’s presence, the translators were embraced by the people in a way that had never happened before. They were there to stay.
A Cause Worth Living For
In the days and weeks following Chet’s death, the gospel was declared through testimonies of love and forgiveness from his parents and colleagues that were broadcast on Colombian radio nationwide. Mary Bitterman, Chet’s mother, shared, “Lives have already been changed through the kidnapping, so who knows what might happen now because of Chet’s death.”
Applications to serve with Wycliffe doubled in the year following his death as people stepped up to answer the calling that Chet had lived for. And although Chet wouldn’t be able to reach the Carijona Indians himself, God was raising up others to spread the Good News to people groups like them, all around the world.
Columbia Bible College’s school motto was “to know him and to make him known.” As a result of his captivity, Chet’s faith was lived out before the world. Bernie May, Wycliffe USA’s director, summed up Chet’s commitment to Christ perfectly: “If something is worth living for, isn’t it worth dying for too?”
And that’s just what Chet did.
*One of Wycliffe’s primary partners.