In November 2009, Southern Adventist University student Kirsten Wolcott was tragically murdered while serving as a student missionary on the island of Yap. Fellow Southern student Rainey H. Park, together with Andy Nash, published Kirsten's story in the book Love, Kirsten (Pacific Press, 2010). The book, which includes an interview with Kirsten's murderer and an afterward by Kirsten's father, is available for purchase through the Adventist Book Center. There is also a Kindle version available at www.amazon.com.
RD: Reports from news sources, friends and family members, tell us that Kirsten was a very special young lady. What was she like? What was she studying at Southern and what were her dreams for the future?
RP: One of the things that struck me from my interviews was what a cheerful, friendly and helpful young woman Kirsten was. She was always willing to drop what she was doing in order to help someone else. On the island where she taught, she was the go-to girl for advice with classroom management and projects. Her dream was to be teacher and to return to work at the Adventist elementary school in her hometown of Tappahannock, Virginia. She was a junior education major at Southern.
RD: What was Kirsten doing in Yap and what were the circumstances of her death?
RP: Kirsten was volunteering as a missionary teacher at the Adventist elementary school in Yap. She had a routine of waking up early and jogging three mornings a week before class. The day of her murder she was running off campus, where she was attacked and stabbed to death. It's unclear whether or not this was a pre-meditated incident, but it's certainly an unusual crime on the island of Yap.
RD: What inspired you to write a book about Kirsten and how did you carry forth your research?
RP: Shortly after Kirsten's death I was taking a class entitled Literary Journalism from Dr. Andy Nash. Our semester-long assignment was to choose a nonfiction topic and write about it using the techniques of a novelist. As I was trying to think about a topic that was both do-able and relevant, I thought about Kirsten. What would it be like to get into the story of another Adventist young person? Did she keep a journal? What was her relationship with God like? What mattered to her and what were her struggles? In addition to these questions I realized that so much more of her story had yet to be told. What happened since her death? Did they catch the murderer? All of these questions kept popping into my head, and I realized that this could be a great opportunity to tell the story of a contemporary from the inside out. I decided to contact the Wolcott family and see if they would be willing to let me write about their daughter.
After they said yes, I drove to Virginia to spend a weekend with their family. During that visit I learned so much about Kirsten, and it was then that I decided I wanted to write Kirsten's story not just for a class project, but for a book.
At the end of the semester I flew to Yap to meet the other student missionaries who served with Kirsten, visit the island, and interview her murderer. Once I returned I dug back into the writing process and submitted samples of my work to Pacific Press. They accepted my manuscript and I finished it up a few months later.
RD: How did Kirsten’s story affect you during the research and writing process, and how do you expect it to impact others?
RP: Ironically, it taught me to trust in God more. He has our lives in mind from beginning to end, and he won't let anything we do or that happens to us go to waste. Kirsten's death was certainly tragic, but the more time passes the more we are able to catch a glimpse of all the people that have and will be impacted by her faith and her story.
The second thing it taught me was to focus on my relationships with God and other people, rather than accomplishments or accumulation. Kirsten is remembered for the ways she helped others, not her grades in school or the brand of jeans she wore. I really admire how she kept up her walk with God and continued trusting in him even as she struggled with personal issues, such as anorexia. I hope that by reading her story others will also be inspired and realize that our weaknesses don't have to separate us from God. On the contrary, they can draw us closer to Him. He wants to be our source of strength.
RD: What kind of response has the book received from Kirsten’s friends, family, and community?
RP: Kirsten's family has been extremely supportive through the entire writing and publishing process. Many of them have commented to me that reading the book felt like spending time with Kirsten since so many of her journal entries are included in the story. I've just started hearing feedback from her friends and community, and they've said the book has really inspired them to take their relationship with God deeper, to pray more, and to have greater trust in God.
RD: How has Kirsten’s legacy impacted the church’s student missionary program, its student missionaries, and its work on the island of Yap in particular?
RP: I can't speak on behalf of the church, but from what I've witnessed here at Southern, many have been inspired to go as student missionaries because of what happened to Kirsten. In the words of one girl who sent me a message, "I just couldn't let the devil win like that." I think there's a definite sense that the work needs to continue now more than ever. This sentiment is shared not just by students who are going to Yap, but also by students who are going other places.
RD: Can you share your favorite short passage with us to give Spectrum readers a taste of your book?
RP: One of my favorite journal entries Kirsten wrote was close to the end of her life. She had this nagging sense that she wasn't doing enough to get near to God, and so she developed a huge Bible-reading regiment that involved concordances, dictionaries, and other resources. As she was writing out this plan in her journal, she suddenly stopped and addressed God directly.
Am I making this too much like an assignment, God? Are You just shaking Your head and smiling? God, I wish I could see You right now. I just want to sit on Your lap and stare at Your face and ask You myself. I just want to touch Your mighty arms holding me as I listen to Your heart beating and as my breathing slowly matches Yours. I know that I can see You in nature and in my kids, and I do! But I just want to feel Your power and Your tenderness in a different way. I want to be like a little kid in their daddy's arms. God, reach out to me today, please. And if it's Your will, help me to reach out to someone. Use me as Your hands and feet.
I think that's really beautiful and I can definitely relate. In my life there are times when I feel like I need to keep doing something and I just get frustrated by my perceived lack of distance from God's presence. It's at those times that I also need to just stop and remember God's love for me.
Rainey H. Park graduated from Southern Adventist University in December, 2010.