By David H. Kirkwood
For the first few days of their mission to Venezuela everything was going smoothly for Arlynn Hefta, a hearing aid specialist from North Dakota, and the three other volunteers from Bethel Evangelical Free Church in Devils’s Lake, ND.
This was the 62-year-old Hefta’s eighth mission to Venezuela, so when he and his fellow volunteers—Russ Petty, MD, a family physician; Kermit Paulson, a military veteran; and Desiree Bouvette, a professional hair stylist—arrived in the small town of Ocumare de la Costa, it was like a homecoming for him.
Most of the people who came to see Hefta, some from many miles away, were children and adults he had fitted with hearing aids on previous missions and now needed adjustments, repairs, or new instruments. “It’s like visiting old friends,” Hefta told this blog, who also emphasized the support that Starkey Hearing Technologies and its owner, Bill Austin, have always provided to the missions.
AN UNPLEASANT SURPRISE
On February 25, the mission’s third day in town, the mood changed abruptly. Without any warning or explanation, a dozen or so Venezuelan soldiers, armed with rifles, barged into the church where the American missionaries had set up their clinic, and ordered them to get out. Thus began a harrowing few days during which the Americans were held captive and questioned at length before finally being allowed to leave Venezuela and return home safely to North Dakota on March 3
“It was scary when the soldiers came in,” said Hefta, “but we didn’t panic. We kept our cool.”
The church group’s missions are well established in Ocumare de la Costa, and the community is grateful for what they do. So, when word spread about what was happening, the residents rose in support of the Americans. Hundreds of them surrounded the church, calling on the soldiers to let the missionaries stay and continue their good work. “The situation got more and more heated,” said Hefta. “There was a lot of shouting. It was almost like a riot.”
As leader of the mission, Hefta spoke to the pastor of the local church and explained that they wanted to leave peacefully before the situation got out of hand. When the Americans walked away from the church, escorted by the soldiers, townspeople lined both sides of the street for blocks. Hefta said, “People were hugging us and crying, ‘Don’t go!’”
The soldiers took the four North Dakotans to the headquarters of SEBIN, Venezuela’s national intelligence agency, in the city of Maracay. Although Hefta said, “They treated us relatively well,” the SEBIN agents interrogated them aggressively, letting them sleep for only a few hours a night.
It was unclear to the group, whose previous missions had never been challenged, exactly why they were being treated this way. However, it appears that the situation was a result of long-strained relations between the U.S. and Venezuelan governments, which have grown even worse since 2013 when Nicolas Maduro was elected to replace the late Hugo Chavez as president of Venezuela.
The Americans also didn’t know when or even if they would be released. “When people are so volatile, you’re never sure what’s going to happen,” said Hefta.
Their hopes lifted when a Venezuelan general told them that they would be released the next day. But, said Hefta, “We didn’t really feel safe until our plane had taken off for Aruba.”
HOPES TO RETURN
Despite the frightening ordeal, Hefta, who has been dispensing hearing aids since 1986, said, “I want to go back. I didn’t get to say goodbye to our friends.”
Hefta added that he also plans to return because, “Going on missions to help people is what God wants us to do.”