COSMOPOLIS, Wash. (AP) — The Muslim 11th-grader in northern Iraq approached her Christian teacher one day last fall and declared quietly, “I don’t know what to do.” She’d been reading about Jesus and believed what she read, she explained, but her parents would never let her become a Christian.
The teacher, Jeremiah Small, responded in what those who knew him described as a characteristically thoughtful manner.
“I encouraged her to consider what she had read and explained that it wasn’t my place to tell her to be a Christian,” he wrote in an email to friends that day, asking them to pray for her conversion. “Keep reading and let the object of your faith take shape and its character be proven.”
Small, of Cosmopolis in southwestern Washington, was shot to death Thursday at the Classical School of the Medes, a private Christian academy in the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah, in Iraq’s most peaceful region. The gunman, an 18-year-old, then shot himself in the head as other students scattered from the room.
No motive was evident; students reported that a brief quarrel preceded the shooting, but no one seemed to know what it was about.
Nashville, Tenn.-based Servant Group International, which employed him, said it was stunned. Small had taught history and literature at the school since 2005, returning year after year because of the changes and hope he saw in the lives of his students, the organization said in a news release.
“He was a beloved teacher and friend,” the statement said. “His love for his students extended beyond the classroom, and he regularly led hiking trips, camping trips and other outdoor activities with the students.”
Small’s parents, Dan and Rebecca, ran the Shiloh Bible Camp in Cosmopolis for about a decade. Dan Small confirmed his son’s death on his Facebook page, writing, “Our oldest, Jeremiah was martyred in Kurdistan this a.m.,” though it wasn’t clear if there was a religious motive for the killing.
Jeff Dokkestul, a board member at Servant Group International, insisted that the purpose of the three Medes schools in the region is to provide a classical education — not to proselytize to the students, who are overwhelmingly Muslim. His organization provides some of the curriculum and teachers, he said.
Servant Group’s website listed its mission as “through outreach, education, and discipleship, SGI teams work to share the truth and beauty of Jesus with our Muslim friends. Our hope is to see the gospel bless and transform Muslim families and communities for generations to come.”
Students noted that Small was a devout Christian who frequently praised Christianity and prayed in the classroom, and his friends in Washington said his evangelism is what motivated him to teach in Iraq.
Small’s father told The Daily World of Aberdeen, Wash., that the family was deeply saddened and gathering to comfort each other. Small had six siblings.
“Every time he went through the airport scanner, we knew we were having to let go, not knowing if we would ever see him again,” Dan Small said. “He was doing what he loved doing and his students are testifying to that.”
Heather Johnson, a teacher at the North River School in Cosmopolis, where Small taught as a substitute before going to Iraq, said his faith motivated him to teach overseas. Johnson said she lived with the Small family when she first moved from Michigan because she had nowhere else to live, and she got to know Small when he would return home for holidays and breaks — as well as through the newsletters he would email to friends and relatives.
“He was so interested in each individual student and making sure they felt the love of God in their lives,” Johnson said. “Anyone would have a maximum amount of good things to say about him.”
Brad Gill, pastor of Light and Life Community Church in Hoquiam, said he had known Small’s family since 2000 but didn’t meet Small until one of his trips home. Gill interviewed him about his work for a local cable television program, then kept in touch by email after he returned to Iraq.
“He knew he was putting his life on the line,” Gill said. “I don’t know all the reasons that he went, but he wanted to make a difference in the world. He felt this was a way to serve and touch some lives for God.”
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