A small Seventh-day Adventist delegation led by church president Ted N.C. Wilson made a rare trip to the former campus of the Adventist University of Central Africa in Rwanda with a single goal: to visit the grave of the first and only missionary buried there.
Uncertainty hung over the proposed visit to the old Mudende campus, now a military base, until the last minute. The gravesite itself was only pinpointed through the assistance of a former student.
But a trek through dirt and high grass, always under the watch of armed soldiers, brought the visitors to the grave of missionary Adrian Cooper, 35, the first dean of business at the university.
“It was a very meaningful experience to visit Adrian’s grave,” Wilson said afterward. “He was a very dedicated and committed missionary who wished to provide the best business and leadership services to the fledgling Adventist University of Central Africa.”
A simple gray headstone marks the abandoned grave, overlaid with concrete. A tangle of brush covers part of the grave. Long gone is the brass plaque once affixed to the headstone.
Wilson bowed his head as he led the small group, including his wife, Nancy; former missionaries Wally and Christine Amundson, who knew the Coopers; and several local church leaders, in prayer. He thanked God for Cooper’s faithful service and asked for blessings on his family and the soldiers on the base.
Cooper, a British national, died on July 27, 1990, as he drove his U.S. wife, Ann, and three sons, ages 8, 6, and 3, back to the campus following a trip to Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Tanzania. A truck struck his car head-on shortly after he crossed the Rwanda-Tanzania border, killing him instantly. Ann and the 3-year-old boy were airlifted to Belgium with broken bones and other injuries. The 6- and 8-year-old sons were the only family members present at the campus funeral.
“My husband, Adrian, is the only missionary buried there,” said Ann Hamel, who now assists other missionary families dealing with trauma. “In fact, he is the only Adventist missionary buried in Rwanda. That campus will always hold a very special place in our hearts.”
Permission to visit Adrian Cooper’s grave seemed unlikely when Wilson first raised the idea while conducting evangelistic meetings in Rwanda last month. But the military base’s commanding officer unexpectedly extended an invitation to Wilson during a phone conversation with a local church leader. The Adventist delegation found itself trekking across the campus in search of the grave on a Thursday afternoon in late May.
Setako Sophonie, president of the church’s North-West Rwanda Field, guided the visitors to the site, which he remembered from his days as a student on the campus.
After the solemn visit to the grave, the commanding officer allowed the visitors to tour the old campus.
“To have the commanding officer of the military base accompany us on our entire visit to the former AUCA campus was a blessing,” Wilson said. “The Lord led in our visit, and we were able to recall various memories of God’s work on that campus.”
The military seized the scenic campus overlooking the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo after Rwanda’s 1994 genocide. The government later gave property to the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the capital, Kigali, to build the current campus of the Adventist University of Central Africa.
No one keeps comprehensive data on the number of Seventh-day Adventist missionaries who have died in service, said David Trim, director of the world church’s Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research.
But dozens of missionaries have made the ultimate sacrifice, starting with the church’s first official missionary, John Nevins Andrews, who left the United States for Europe in 1874. Andrews, 54, died of tuberculosis in 1883 and was buried in Basel, Switzerland.
The most definitive list of late missionaries was compiled by the South Pacific Division: an online honor roll of about 130 names. The deaths are from malaria, pneumonia, snakebites, and shipping accidents. A number of infants and children are on the list.
Among the more recent names on the list is that of John Lello, a 46-year-old U.S. missionary who died in a tree-felling accident in Papua New Guinea on Nov. 11, 2012. Lello had arrived in Papua New Guinea only eight months earlier with his wife and two young daughters. Writing in Adventist Frontiers, the magazine of Adventist Frontier Missions, shortly before his death, he might have summed up the attitude of many missionaries by expressing confidence that God had led his family to the mission field and saying, “One thing is certain — He is calling you to give your all.”
Wilson said his heart went out to the families who have lost loved ones in mission service.
“To families who have lost loved ones in mission service, let me assure them of God’s great desire to make sure that the cause for which they died will live on and be successful in its final proclamation to the world of Christ’s soon return,” Wilson said. “At that time, those who have died in Christ will rise first, and we who remain will be caught up with them into the clouds to be with the Lord forever. That will be the great reward of those who have died in active mission service for Jesus.”
Another missionary family that made the ultimate sacrifice was that of Brazilian pastor Ruimar DePaiva, 42; his wife, Margareth DePaiva, 37; and their 11-year-old son, Larrison, who were killed in a home robbery in the Pacific nation of Palau in 2003. The sole survivor of the attack was the 10-year-old daughter, Melissa.
On hand to provide emotional support to Melissa and her extended family was Ann Hamel, who married Loren Hamel, a physician, five years after the 1990 death of her husband in Rwanda and was working on a second doctorate in counseling at the time.
“The General Conference asked me to go to help provide emotional care for Melissa and the family that would be arriving,” Hamel said. “Her grandparents were serving as missionaries in Sudan at the time and her grandmother, Ruth, came to Palau to care for Melissa. … I also represented the General Conference at the very public funeral that they had in the stadium there in Palau.”
Hamel, who has remained close to the DePaiva family and will attend Melissa’s wedding to an Andrews University seminary student on July 3, continues to work for the General Conference, providing mental health care and crisis intervention for missionaries. She supported the Lello family after their loss, as well as the family of Bob Roberts, the longest serving Adventist mission pilot, who died in a plane crash in Papua on April 9, 2014. The seminary recently asked Hamel to design and direct a doctor of ministry program in pastoral counseling.
Hamel said she has used her education to try to fill a gap in the Adventist Church.
“There was very little support available for my three sons, who were 3, 6, and 8 at the time of our accident,” she said. “Their father’s death and all the change that entailed in their lives was extremely difficult for them to cope with.”
She noted that Wilson was the General Conference associate secretary responsible for her region in Africa at the time that her husband was killed.
“God used him in a number of ways, and his support was very valuable during that time,” she said.
Hamel, meanwhile, only managed to visit her husband’s grave for the first time a year after the accident, in 1991. She and Adrian had lived in Rwanda since 1982 and were the first missionaries to move onto the Mudende campus. Their youngest son was the first and only missionary child born on the campus.
Hamel visited the grave one more time, in 2008, with her husband, Loren Hamel, as well as her three sons and their wives.
“It was a very moving and healing experience,” she said. “Church leaders in Rwanda knew we were coming and had made arrangements for us to visit the campus at Mudende and to see Adrian’s grave. They had cleaned up all around the grave, and we were able to spend as much time as we wanted there. We were able to go into our home and other buildings on the campus.”
People told Hamel that they knew that she understood their suffering. They wept with her at Cooper’s grave, and she wept with them at memorials of their loved ones who had been killed during the genocide.
Hamel said she had no regrets about her and Adrian’s decision to serve as missionaries in Africa.
“Knowing the end from the beginning, I would not choose to be led any other way,” she said. “The pain and suffering of those months and years after Adrian’s death was incredibly difficult, but God sustained us through it and … used it to prepare me for what I am doing today.”
She pointed out that three of the four New Testament gospels cite Jesus as saying, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me.”
“The life of a missionary is by definition a life of sacrifice,” she said. “It begins with the sacrifice of leaving family, friends, and homeland behind. Yet none of us know what the cross that we are asked to carry might entail. Life has many challenges, but we are invited to embrace those challenges in the name of Jesus and to carry them for Him.”