Roni Bowers' life looked a lot like something out of The Mosquito Coast: she and her family lived on a 55-ft. houseboat with two bedrooms and a solar-powered refrigerator. They collected rainwater in tanks on the roof, which they filtered for drinking. From their home base in Iquitos, they motored back and forth along a lush 200-mile stretch of the Amazon, making regular stops at some 50 villages to set up volleyball nets, read Bible stories and show religious films off the boat's generator. For Roni, everyday worries included making sure her adopted son, Cory, 7, didn't fall into the sweeping undertow of the brown river and keeping her newly adopted baby, Charity, safe from cholera and malaria.
Ironically, the desperation of the jungle was what made the Bowers so eager to work there. In this "spiritually dark corner of the world," as Jim Bowers described it in a recruitment video, many people have never seen a church. "They go through life with no knowledge of the living God who created them." Asked Roni: "Can you imagine never having the chance to listen to a Bible story as a child?" Says Sherry Boykin, who worked upriver from Roni until last year: "You have no idea what a wonderful thing it is to do. The people, literally, physically tugged at us. Every ear held on every word we said."
It helped, of course, that the missionaries brought more than just Scripture to the villagers. They gave out food and medicine too. "Aspirin was like a gold nugget," Boykin says. As North Americans, they enjoyed celebrity status in rural Peru. They came from a richer, cleaner, shinier planet far, far away. "They would set up a hammock for you in their hut and bring out fish and fruit," says Boykin. "You could be there forever and not find out that every time you finish eating, they're in back eating your leftovers."
In between the humanitarian handouts, the Bowers spent most of their time trying to win converts. Jim, 37, ran Bible schools and played hymns on his guitar. Roni, 35, focused on the women and children. In her first year, she struggled with Spanish. But soon Roni was creating coloring books in the different local dialects and laminating them against the humidity. Warmth radiated from Roni, those who knew her say. She didn't need the spotlight. She preferred to please people with an encouraging word or a home-cooked meal. "She was a very down-to-earth person," says Boykin, "which was a good thing in the Amazon. High-strung people don't do well there."
Roni also had a problem that Peruvian villagers, who often lose children to illness, could relate to. She miscarried 10 weeks into her only pregnancy in 1997. As she later wrote in a candid essay to her church, "I felt like I had fallen from a huge cliff, without a parachute, and hit bottom with an incredible thud." Eventually, with prayer and Prozac, Roni recovered. And she used the experience in her mission work, advising other grieving women to put their relationship with God before their personal desires.
Roni's devotion to her faith dated back to age 12, when she watched her military father get on his knees to invite Jesus Christ into his life. Then he rose and poured out all the alcohol in the house. Her family had never been very religious before. But Roni embraced her dad's conversion as her own. At age 17, she entered the tiny Piedmont Baptist College in Winston-Salem, N.C., where she vowed to date only boys who wanted, like her, to be missionaries. As she wrote in the essay: "Seriously! Whenever I was asked out, even for ice cream, my first question would be, 'What do you want to do when you graduate?'"
Finally, Jim Bowers gave her the right answer, and they went roller skating. In 1985, they were married. Jim had grown up on the Amazon, where his parents were missionaries, and longed to return. They signed up with the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism, a missionary agency based in New Cumberland, Pa., Calvary Church, in Fruitport, Mich., agreed to pay for their mission. Since there are few roads linking rural villages in Peru, planes and boats are essential. Over six months in 1997, church volunteers constructed the Bowers' boat in a barn, then shipped it off in sections to the Amazon.
In Peru, Roni and Jim Bowers were two of about 6,800 Christian missionaries, most of whom were Roman Catholic. They worried about snakebites and thievery but rarely thought about drug smuggling, Boykin says. Peru is not among the A.B.W.E.'s list of most dangerous countries. Sometimes, they would see cigar boats racing down the river or hear stories about military planes buzzing a missionary plane. But the A.B.W.E. says none of its planes had ever been shot at before.