FARGO, N.D. (AP) – Four American missionaries who were released after several days of detention and questioning by Venezuelan authorities arrived home in North Dakota on Tuesday, saying they were glad to be back but hoped to return to the South American country someday.
The group from the Bethel Evangelical Free Church in Devils Lake, which has been sending missionaries to Venezuela for years to help needy, was handing out medicine and hearing aids in the town of Ocumare de la Costa last Wednesday when they were detained. The group, who was caught up in the escalating political tension between the U.S. and Venezuela, said they were told they didn't have the necessary work visas, which they had never before been required to have.
"There was so much hyperbole, but I don't want to speculate," group leader Arlynn Hefta said when asked why they were detained.
Hefta, 62, who works as a hearing aid dispenser in North Dakota, broke down when talking about the afternoon Venezuelan soldiers armed with rifles came into the church where the Americans had set up a clinic. It was shortly thereafter that up to 300 villagers surrounded the clinic and the soldiers.
"They challenged the military. They said, we're protecting you, and we're not going to let these soldiers take you," Hefta said. "Imagine the courage."
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Hefta said the Americans decided to comply with the soldiers so "nobody would get hurt" and were taken to a military outpost in the city of Maracay. In addition to questioning Hefta described as "mind games," they were fingerprinted and photographed on several occasions and went about 30 hours without sleep.
Other group members were Desiree Bouvette, 51, a professional hair stylist; Kermit Paulson, 58, a retired 30-year military veteran; and Dr. Russ Petty, 66, a family physician. It was the 12th trip for Petty, eighth for Hefta, seventh for Paulson, and third for Bouvette.
Hefta said the group felt better when a Venezuelan general visited them on the third day and said they would be released. They were taken to an immigration office in Caracas and deported, which means they can't return for two years.
All of them said that helping their "Venezuelan family" was worth it and they would return.
"It was a little scary but I guess we just felt that God's hand was leading us all," Bouvette said. "You didn't know what was going to happen from one minute to the next, but there was a peace about it."