Keeping company with governments can be a liability in these times of political instability.

Chester Bitterman’s body was found, blindfolded, propped up on the front seat of a bus, with a single bullet wound through the heart. The revolutionary M-19 movement that had kidnapped him left one last vestige of their presence: a red-and-black guerrilla army flag enshrouding his body.

It was a rainy, oppressive day: March 7, 1981. Word spread quickly through the streets of Bogotá, and finally a shopkeeper banged on the gate of Brenda Bitterman’s residence and informed her with a shout, “They’ve found Chet’s body in a bus!”

The Christian world, anxious and prayerful during the 48 suspenseful days of captivity, experienced a numbing sense of déjà vu. It had happened before, this paroxysm of sadness and shock, the massive world attention focused on missionaries in South America, the word “martyr” slipping into press accounts, the dedicated servant taken. Minds went back 25 years to that haunting day in 1956 when a plane, stripped of its skin, was found on Ecuador’s Curaray River, and sprawled beside it the murdered bodies of five young missionaries.

The Auca slaughter ultimately proved to be a watershed of modern missions. The missionaries’ sacrifice galvanized the Christian community. Hundreds of young people volunteered to replace the missionaries who had fallen. Cornell Capa’s remarkable sequence of photographs in Life elicited more response from readers than had any other story in the magazine’s history. Eventually, Elisabeth Elliot, wife of one of the martyrs, would emerge as an author to tell the complete story.

Chet Bitterman’s death in Colombia evoked a similar response. Newspapers filled their front pages with accounts of his ...

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