By Constance B. Fink
Kellie Knapp’s perseverance has been tested inside and out as a lifelong missionary. She clings to the hope that God wants the best for her even if she cannot see it. She sees both good and bad times as opportunities to speak of God’s goodness and mercy even if she’s not feeling it at the time. Her secret: “The grass is greener where you water it.” Even when her family was the victim of a terrorist attack by Muslim extremists, she felt compassion for the enemy’s spiritual condition and desired to “water” lost souls for Christ.
Kellie’s parents were medical missionaries running a teaching hospital in a small town in the country of Somalia, Africa. Her family lived there through her pre-teen years. Though raised as a “missionary kid,” Kellie realized her need for Christ apart from her parents’ faith. When she was six years old, she thought her Sunday school teacher’s mission was to scare the children out of hell so they would believe in Jesus. She wasn’t sure if her problem was stubbornness or suppressed pyromaniac tendencies, but she was not going to make a decision out of fear. “I am a redhead and nobody tells me what to be scared of.” More than anything, she wanted Him to be happy with her and love and accept her. “So I prayed the sinner’s prayer. We redheads pretty much know we are sinners from the moment we are born.” She was pretty sure she said the prayer wrong the first 350 times so she said it another 275 times just to be sure. Later she realized no words could ever be wrong when asking Jesus to be her Savior.
Looking back at her Christian journey, she admits she still questions Christ’s love for her. She doesn’t want to be told that God loves everyone just the same, because that doesn’t make her feel special. She wants Him to hold her—just her—His little lamb. This simple truth is the foundation for her life of ministry: Christ has told her to go tell others about His special love for them—just them.
Somalia was not on Kellie’s top ten places to live as a pre-teen. She lived in a cement house with her parents and two siblings. They used a dug-out hole for a toilet, cooked over an open fire, and took cold bucket showers. Add to that, she is a “pale, left-handed redhead”—three things, she says, you do not want to be in a Muslim country. Your left hand is only used to wipe yourself after going to the bathroom or to shake the hand of an enemy. You must use your right hand for everything else including eating and writing. Only the older, wiser men of the Muslim faith could dye their hair red. So she had to wear a head covering when she went outside. Needless to say books and their ten-foot tall cement wall around their home became her best friends.
Kellie and her husband Jason met in high school, and were married when she was 19 years old. They have two sons ages 15 and 9, and a daughter age 12, and they recently have received their foster care license, taking in a medically-challenged newborn.
From Somalia to Papua New Guinea to Wisconsin, Kellie has adapted to each location and culture. She is realistic about the challenges, honest about her struggles, and passionate about encouraging others with God’s faithfulness. After nine years in Papua New Guinea, Kellie and her husband have transitioned into a pastoral role in a large church in the Milwaukee area.
JBU is thrilled to share a glimpse into Kellie’s heart—her openness, genuineness, and faithfulness are inspiring.
JBU: Tell us about the terrorist attack when you were eleven years old.
Kellie: Three years in Somalia came to an abrupt end on July 14th, 1989. Civil war, the inter-clan conflicts, and the forces opposing the government could no longer be abated. We were in the main capital of Mogadishu where the attack on us had been planned for months. Groups were sent to ransack our mission’s compound and execute everyone present. They marked the compounds that were to be attacked with red paint over each gate post. We were aware of the red paint on our gate post, but did not know its significance.
We had just finished lunch when we heard fireworks getting closer and louder. Our Somali maid ran inside where she had been hanging out laundry and starting screaming at us, “It’s not fireworks it’s gunfire! Hide!” In seconds, the gunfight was on our street. Our Somalian maid, my younger brother and I, and my mother carrying my baby sister ran to the back bedroom with my dad following us. I hid under the dresser. The others took cover under the bed. My dad stood by the closed door. We laid still and waited. We waited for the men and the gunfire to pass on by. But they didn’t.
The enemy started pounding on our gate trying to take it down. “So this must be what it feels like to know you are going to die.” I prayed it would be a fast death and I wouldn’t feel anything. I prayed they would just kill us, not torture or rape us. These men were known for their torture and enjoyed making examples of bodies on the streets for all to see. I selfishly prayed they would kill me first so I didn’t have to watch my family die. I was eleven years old.
They had broken the gate open and I could hear it slam on the ground. Now they were at our front door. I heard running feet, yelling, and gunfire. Why is it taking so long? I slowly opened one eye. I could see them through the screen window with their machine guns raised in the air. I heard, “Allah. All glory to Allah.” But they still weren't in our room. I knew they weren’t just trying to scare us; they were searching every room with intent to kill.
They left; another group came. Same thing. Looking, searching, running, gunfire, yelling. I could see them and yet they still didn’t come into the room. They couldn’t see us! Their eyes were completely blinded to our room. We literally had angels all around us. No, I did not see the angels; I just knew. My desperate prayers for a quick death turned to tears. God was going to save us. The song “I’ve Got Peace like a River” kept playing in my mind as I was crouched in a fetal position under the dresser and in shock that God might want to save me.
JBU: What happened next?
Kellie: Three different groups of Muslim extremists went through the house looking for us and each time they never saw us, even though we could see them through the windows and glass door. After the first group left, our maid knew she would be safer among her own people than being found with us, so she left the house. When she was asked, “Where are the white people that lived in that house?” Her reply was, “Their God saved them. Their God saved them.”
After the third group of men left the house and we heard the last of the gunfire move down the street, my dad quickly took us through the destroyed compound. We were barefoot, running over broken glass, climbing over twisted metal, and yet we were protected from all harm.
Our only chance of leaving the country was if we had our passports and money. The cabinet that held them was thrown down, but unopened. All passports and money were intact. Dad grabbed them and we followed him outside.
We went across the street to an empty compound that wasn’t a target and hid in the alley. My brother and I crawled into old tar barrels while my mother with my sister in her arms went and hid in an upturned old bathtub. My dad left to see if he could get some help from an embassy. We knew by this time other compounds and embassies had been targeted as well and needed to evacuate as soon as possible. Before my dad left, he handed me the bag with the money and passports. He told me that if he didn’t come back that I should take care of my mom and siblings and get them out of the country.
As I laid there in the fetal position in the old barrel and clung to that bag I fell asleep. I was awakened by the sound of my dad’s voice calling us to run to the vehicle. Despite the fact that all embassies were in total lockdown, my dad found one that was willing to risk everything and sacrifice their lives to bring a vehicle to us and hide us on the floor while we traveled back to the embassy. Within days we were on a plane heading back to the United States with just the clothes on our backs.
JBU: Did you ever find out why your family was specifically attacked?
Kellie: The extremists were planning on making our bodies an example in the streets because they said we were turning the Muslims against each other and, more importantly, against their religion. Even though my parents were there as medical personnel only and had helped to save countless Somali lives, we were targeted as enemies.
JBU: How did God use this traumatic experience in your life?
Kellie: When I was lying in the tar barrel, I told God I was going to be a missionary. If these Muslim extremists had a relationship with Jesus they would not have tried to kill us. I wanted to make a difference for eternity and that day, as an eleven year old, I dedicated my life to do so.
JBU: How did you recover from such a traumatic and terrifying experience?
Kellie: As I child, I felt energized that God chose to save me. I was excited and in awe of it and thankful to be returning to America again, so I was pretty naive to the trauma that had taken place. As I got older, I saw some of that trauma manifest itself in areas of my life as I dealt with violence on the mission field and had extreme sensitivity to security measures or lack thereof. But God tells us that when we are in the business of healing others, our own healing will “spring up speedily.” My back has a tattoo of an outline of Africa and Papua New Guinea. In-between those two countries is God’s name, “Jehovah Rapha,” which means Healer God in Hebrew. What I love about that name of God is that it means complete, total, and full healing. I truly believe that God can heal completely and I believe that one of the ways He does so is described in Isaiah 58:6-8, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily…”
JBU: What have your life lessons in despair, fear, and crisis taught you about how to live well today?
Kellie: I have to cling to the faith and hope that God loves me and wants the very best for me even if I cannot see it or feel it. Our time here on earth is so very short and I don’t ever want to, be out of God’s will for my life. Heaven will be so very worth it.
JBU: How did you overcome living with fear as a result?
Kellie: Scripture says that God has not given us the spirit of fear but of love, power, and a sound mind. If God doesn’t give me the fear then it is Satan or my selfish flesh. When I truly love others I feel the power of Christ and the sound mind that He speaks of. When I am not, I am selfishly looking at myself and the world.
JBU: What field did God take you to after that?
Kellie: After Jason and I attended New Tribes Bible School in Wisconsin, God led us to Papua New Guinea. We learned the trade language, Melanesian Pidgin, in the town of Madang, and began looking for a tribe that did not have the Word of God in their own language or who did not understand the gospel of grace. God clearly directed us and we moved into the Tobo tribe and raised our young children among them.
JBU: Tell us about the Tobo tribe.
Kellie: The Tobo are a group of about 9,000 people who live at 6,000 ft. elevation in the Finisterre mountain range in Morobe Province, PNG. This tribal group is only accessible by a small Cessna plane on a grass airstrip. The Tobo people very quickly became our new family. We took their unwritten language, created an alphabet, taught literacy, translated Bible lessons, taught from creation to Christ, pastored a small church, and made disciples.
JBU: What lessons stand out as you ministered in a foreign country?
Kellie: It was our Christian coworkers that taught me the most as it was easier for me to love the unbelieving, animistic, tribal people than for me than to sometimes love those who I worked with! here were hard lessons of learning to love despite different philosophies of ministry and I am still learning that lesson.
JBU: How can we adjust to the various changes that happen in our lives as women?
Kellie: One thing I’m learning is that our God is so very HUGE and I cannot put Him in a box though it makes me feel safer and in charge. He works in millions of ways and a quiet, gentle, humble heart can see that and allow Him to use people and situations in ways I could never imagine.
JBU: How was the transition from the tribe to the States?
Kellie: It was awful. We came home very unexpectedly due to extremely hard circumstances. We all struggled. It took us lots of time, counseling, and forgiveness until we felt we had truly healed from all that happened. Jason and I felt we were coming “home” but the kids felt they were leaving their home. That’s where they grew up and all that they held to be “normal.”
JBU: How can the church improve on caring for missionaries while they’re on the field and when they return?
Kellie: I think the greatest need for missionaries is not to be put on a pedestal, not more money or meetings, but to be accountable to those in the church. It is easy for us to be our own pastor, teacher, mentor, and shepherd. We need others to be that for us and to point out our sins and faults as we have been called to come alongside others.
JBU: How did God use Just Between Us magazine in your life on the field?
Kellie: I lived in a very isolated tribal group with no one else who spoke my language or culture, JBU was a much needed “girlfriend,” devotional time, and mentor. I needed to read about others who were struggling, striving, and surviving in ministry, and finishing well.
JBU: Did you ever experience any kind of crisis of faith?
Kellie: There was a time when everything was falling apart and I didn’t want to live anymore. We had experienced severe medical problems, surgeries, spiritual warfare, death threats, death, violence, and friends turned against us, in a short amount of time. I couldn’t cope and fell into deep depression. I cannot pinpoint one thing that brought me back to Him other than time and faith that He could heal me.
JBU: How did God lead you into your current ministry?
Kellie: My current ministry is wife, mom, pastor’s wife, volunteer at the immigration center, and foster care. Our family prayed for God to show how “love does” in our community. He pointed us to the immigrants and foster kids of our community. We’re now loving on them! Jason is the Missions Pastor at Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, Wisconsin. He also started the immigration counseling office at James Place in Waukesha, Wis. James Place offers health services, job search support, prayer and spiritual resources, language classes, and immigration counseling. I love displaying the love of Christ to the nations in our own backyard.
JBU: How do your past experiences help when you find yourself in a new difficulty?
Kellie: God has redeemed my past by allowing me to encourage others with His faithfulness. We have a sign in our home that says “We Will Remember His Faithfulness.” Thousands of times in my life God has shown His faithfulness, so why would I ever doubt He would leave me when a new difficulty comes?