'When the Lord Restored Our Fortunes'

The mission, capture and liberation of Jeffery Woodke



It was toward the end of a small press conference in the Fireplace Room of Arcata First Baptist Church, where McKinleyville's Jeffery Woodke was offering his first public remarks since being freed March 20 after being held hostage by kidnappers in Western Africa, when a local reporter rose to ask about the process of reconnecting with his children after years away.

"Six years is a long time," she prefaced.

"Five months, five days and six years," Woodke interjected.

The remark drew a nervous laugh from the reporter and Woodke smiled, though it was clear there was no joke. The brief exchange seemed to underscore two things.

First, it was a sign Woodke, while undoubtedly scarred and changed, seems to have emerged from nearly six-and-a-half years in captivity being treated, in his words, "brutally and without humanity," with the same sharp mind and wit that had propelled decades of missionary work in Niger. Second, it was a subtle reminder that each of those days, each of those hours, tested Woodke's will and faith. And eventually, he would tell the congregation at Arcata First Baptist Church, they broke him.

In the weeks and months after he was taken by armed kidnappers Oct. 14, 2016, Woodke said he would spend eight hours a day walking in circles in the small "area" he was kept in, praying and singing a song, its words loosely taken from Psalm 126: "When the Lord restored our fortunes, we were like those who dreamed." But as the months turned to years, he said, he "lost the heart to sing," saying the words felt like false hope.

"I thought my life to be over and I figured I was a goner," Woodke told the congregation.

Woodke said he was in chains 16 hours a day and treated with "hatred ... and contempt by monsters," kept alive on two meals of boiled rice and simple bread "most days." Over the months and years, Woodke said his captors — who he identified as Jama'at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), the official branch of Al-Qaeda in Mali — would tell him they were negotiating his release and he would be heading home soon, only to blame some other party when his release didn't come.

"I was told I was close to going home — another week, another two weeks, one more month — year after year, after year, after year, after year," Woodke said, adding that he eventually began praying for death. "I prayed daily, two or three times a day, 'God, just let it be done. I'm sick and tired of being a hostage. I'm sick and tired of hurting my family. I want to be dead. Kill me. Kill me.'"

A few days ago, he told reporters he had commenced a hunger strike with the demand that he be allowed some communication with his family and country — demands that were ultimately met and offered the salve, at least, that his wife and sons were still alive after years without contact. But, he told the congregation, he also figured, "If God won't kill me, I'll get rid of myself, I don't mind," at times questioning whether God was real.

Even on the day of his release, when told he would be let go along with another hostage — French journalist Olivier Dubois — Woodke said he was without hope.

It wasn't until the truck carrying him and Dubois stopped, and the pair were dropped off at a pre-arranged meeting point "in the middle of the desert" and he saw the terrorist truck speed off and armed special forces from a "third-party nation" coming, that hope and faith returned.

"Then, my mouth was filled with laughter, then my tongue with songs of joy," he said. "And that day, I danced in the desert."


Thomas Rickstrew first met Woodke in the late 1990s, when he was a student at Humboldt State University and attending Arcata First Baptist Church. Woodke had already been doing missionary work in Niger for a decade or so at that point, Rickstrew says, but was home on furlough, as most missionaries work on a rotation that sees them spend three years in-country and then a year at home.

"He would meet with college students and tell stories," Rickstrew says, adding he was immediately taken by Woodke, who'd graduated from HSU in 1984 with a wildlife degree, trained as a biologist and obviously took his faith very seriously, immersing himself in the work of helping some of the poorest people in one of the world's poorest nations. "I was like, 'Wow, this is it in living flesh. I'd heard of missionary people but Jeff is real. He's a wild man.'"

While many reports of Woodke's capture and subsequent release note that he'd dedicated decades of his life to doing missionary work in the Sahel region of Niger, they fail to capture the scope of that work, or Woodke's role as the linchpin in a decades-long effort to bring in aid workers through his Arcata congregation and leverage global resources.

"I'm certain thousands of thousands of people are alive today who would not have been alive had Jeff not been in Niger," Rickstrew says. "His work really, really saved lives."

Woodke's missionary work started in Morocco, though he was forced out of the country for proselytizing, according to Stephen Patterson, who's known him for more than 20 years. A road trip then took Woodke through Mali and into Niger, where he became fascinated with the Tuareg, historically nomadic people in the Sahel region. Woodke soon focused his work there with a relentless intensity, and it would grow to serve the Wodaabe and Fulani people, as well.

The traditionally nomadic groups in the Sahel were facing increasingly dire conditions, squeezed and displaced by the population growth in nearby towns and cities that saw more and more land being converted to agricultural uses, as well as the desertification of their traditional lands. Droughts were also becoming more common and more severe.

Rickstrew said Woodke's work focused on immediate needs first.

"Water is obviously essential if you're going to survive in the desert," he said, explaining that Woodke set about helping the nomadic groups build wells they could return to. And unlike other efforts that saw aid organizations build wells with specialized pumps and technology that would inevitably break with no hope of repair in a region where tools were hard to come by, let alone specialized parts, Woodke leaned on the ancestral knowledge of the people he was helping, using a traditional style of hand digging wells 3 meters wide and 300 feet deep.

But the work quickly expanded and, before long, Woodke was helping the herding people of the Sahel start animal husbandry programs after drought and famine led to cattle die-offs. He would raise funds to purchase cows, goats or sheep and then "loan" them to families, Rickstrew said, with the promise that they would then "loan" the animals' offspring to another family under the same deal, allowing the initial investment to grow throughout the region.

Then there were the grain banks. Having noticed that the nomadic groups had not fully adjusted to the realities of a changing world and were often left facing exorbitant grain prices in the dry seasons, Woodke helped them pool resources to buy in bulk at rock-bottom prices during the millet harvest season and store the grain, distributing it throughout the year.

Noting the region's flash flood events would wash out topsoil, causing significant erosion with no water retention, Woodke helped install a series of loose rock dikes in the grasslands, which would pool water for periods after the rains and saturate the soil. This would allow native grasses to flourish in some areas, giving herds much needed grazing land. In other areas, Woodke helped people plant wild wheat, which could be harvested and stored.

Those who worked with Woodke say he was also instrumental in starting makeshift medical and veterinary clinics, teaching several people in a group how to recognize and treat basic illnesses and infection. The government of Niger also had a program under which it would send a teacher to any population area that met certain criteria, including having a working well and a schoolhouse, so Woodke focused efforts on helping groups meet those requirements. Then, when the teacher arrived, Woodke and his groups would help provide a support system, Rickstrew says, as most of the teachers were from the city and ill-prepared to "go out to this nomadic camp in the middle of nowhere."

Woodke was, of course, not alone in this work, but those who saw it up close say he was the tip of the spear, the one recognizing needs, coordinating resources through international granting organizations and recruiting missionary labor. And they say he was always focused on making it sustainable, making sure locals were in charge of overseeing projects with the foreigners acting in support.

While benevolent and deferential in ways, Woodke also had an uncompromising quality — Rickstrew describes it as a "high level of disagreeableness" — that shaped his work and allowed him to get things done in a region rife with obstacles. Michael Childress, now senior pastor at Trinity Baptist Church in Arcata, recalls a meeting that took place during a visit to Niger he took with his wife 20 or so years ago to see Woodke's work. Woodke, he says, got pulled into a talk with tribal elders.

"Jeff wanted both boys and girls to go to the school, but the elders couldn't figure out why the girls needed to go to school," Childress says. "It was a long, drawn out meeting but, finally, they agreed and the girls went to school."

And Woodke's efforts to bring education to the nomadic people of the Sahel — who had literacy rates far below 10 percent — was fueled by a recognition that it was the path to giving them a political voice.

"When you're trying to do anything with the government, you're going to need people who can read and write," Rickstrew says.

Patterson says that's true, but notes the challenges run deeper than simple literacy.

"In general, nomads don't have a lot of voice in the world," he says, having lived with a band of the Wodaabe people for years after traveling to Niger through the Arcata First Baptist Church ministry. "They're just happy to drink milk and dance and sing. They're definitely a joy to live with, but people will take advantage of them. I'll just put it that way."

So, they say, Woodke developed relationships with regional governmental representatives to advocate for pastoral pass-throughs in agricultural land that would allow nomadic herding groups to travel in and out of town, as well as anti-desertification campaigns that would promote education to preserve the area's grasslands. Lindsey Thomas, who traveled to Niger for the first time in 2001 to join Woodke's work in Niger, said it came to seem the man was involved in everything at every level.

"He had time for everybody," Thomas says. "He was in meetings from before dawn until after dark. He worked really hard."

Rickstrew says that while Woodke's Christianity was central to all his efforts and his mission, it was rarely, if ever, the first foot he put forward.

"He built relationships from serving the people and then the people he was serving would ask him about his faith, then he'd share it," Rickstrew says. "A lot of missionaries go with the idea, 'I'm going to plant a church and be a preacher and teach the gospel with my words in a church.' That wasn't Jeff at all. It was, 'I'm going to live out Christian service to help the helpless, to feed the starving, and minister with my hands and my feet, and that's how I'm going to demonstrate the gospel."


In the years that Rickstrew was in Niger with Woodke in the early 2000s, he says it never felt unsafe.

The region was rife with tensions, he says, but not the way most would think. The nomadic tribes didn't necessarily get along, Rickstrew says, a dynamic that was exacerbated in the aftermath of a separatist uprising that saw the Nigerien government bring in Arab mercenaries to squash, who the government then rewarded with parcels of land to farm in the region. "Let's just say the racial tension was very high," Rickstrew says.

But as far as anti-Christian sentiment, those interviewed for this story say there was virtually none in those early years. While predominantly Muslim — 98 percent, according to the U.S. State Department — Niger is a secular country, allowing people to worship as they please. Patterson and others say locals at times seemed uninterested in Christianity but were almost always universally respectful.

And Woodke carried an almost exalted status, they say, having worked with so many for so long for the good of the people in an area where indifference and corruption were both widespread.

Rickstrew says when he'd attend large festivals with Woodke a "seat of honor" would often be set for him, while Thomas says people had reverent nicknames for Woodke like "big fish," "chief" or "royalty." Patterson says simply: "Jeff was a king there. Everyone knew him, everyone loved him." Rickstraw adds, "There's a lot of babies named Jeff in Niger."

Nonetheless, it was and is a hard place and multiple people interviewed for this story say Woodke shared stories of being held at gunpoint various times. Childress, who says he never felt unsafe there, tells how on road trips they'd often come to a string stretched across the roadway when passing through a village and have to stop. Then, he says, a man with a machine gun would come to "check what you were doing" and you'd have to pay a bribe to continue on your way. Woodke, Childress recalls, would make him and his wife dress in traditional dress, sit in the backseat and cover their faces when the armed man approached, warning that, "If he looks back and sees white people, the cost will go up." Childress recalls another road trip to visit a school in which Woodke kept stopping to pick up Wodaabe travelers in need of a ride, inviting them into the back of his pickup truck. By custom, Woodabe men are gifted a sword when they reach maturity and Childress recalls that by the end of the trip, they had about a dozen passengers and maybe six or seven swords splayed across the truck's dashboard.

Dynamics in Niger have been changing, however, and subject to geopolitical forces. Rickstrew says the country's rich oil and uranium reserves have drawn the interest of the Chinese government and others, and a highway from North Africa to the west that runs through Niger has become a thoroughfare for gun and drug smuggling. Terrorist groups, including Al-Qaeda, have also increased their presence in the region and kidnappings have become more commonplace.

Patterson says security concerns eventually caused officials to pull him out of the Wodaabe's nomadic camps and into the city, though he never worried much.

It's unclear if it was due to safety concerns or other life forces, but Woodke started to pull back in the 2010s. While previously he'd kept a home in Niger's capital city where he and his wife Els raised their two sons, the family moved back to McKinleyville so his sons could attend high school there. Patterson says he and Woodke started being more vigilant in the town of Abalak, where they kept their homes in 2010, 2011 and 2012. Once, he says, Woodke told him he intended to start carrying a gun for protection because he knew kidnapping "was a serious threat," but later said it didn't align with his beliefs and he didn't want to let "fear overcome him."

In 2014, Thomas traveled with her husband and their three children back to Abalak, where she'd missioned more than a decade earlier. She says she noticed the difference, noting that while even in 2001 Woodke's home had armed guards, back then they were "like old men with swords," whereas this time they were armed soldiers. About a week before the family planned to head back stateside, Thomas says Woodke came over at about 9 p.m. and said he'd gotten word from people in town that terrorists had arrived. They needed to fly home the following morning.

"He came with us," she says. "The next morning, we all left."

Even after that trip, Thomas says her husband, Sean, was intent on returning the family to Abalak for another years-long missionary stay. Then they ran into Jeff and Els Woodke at a wedding. "They just said, 'I don't think this is for you guys. Not Niger, not West Africa.'"

In time, the various missionary groups that placed aid workers in the region pulled them out, and various governments would advise all foreign workers to leave. Woodke, however, kept going back, reportedly unable to find someone to take over his work and unwilling to leave it unfinished.

After Woodke was taken by armed gunmen Oct. 14, 2016, a Nigerien official told The Straight Times he had pleaded with Woodke to leave but he'd refused, "Insisting that he was not afraid." Noting Woodke had been with the people of the Sahel through famine, drought and flood, Abalak Mayor Ahmed Dilou told the paper his abduction was "such a devastating shock that the whole city cried."


Patterson says he never put too much stock in the whole kidnapping thing, even in the immediate aftermath of Woodke's capture. He says the people he met in the Sahel were almost universally kind and he just has a hard time imagining them harming anyone. As such, he held out hope that even after Woodke was taken that it wasn't a brutal kind of thing and he would be held and treated humanely until demands were met, then safely released.

But Patterson says that changed some months after Woodke was taken, when he returned to Abalak and heard an eye-witness account of what happened: An armed man on a motorcycle pulled up to Woodke's home after sundown and shot the soldier guarding his home, then Woodke's caretaker. Then a pickup truck pulled up with more armed men. Woodke ran.

"From the eye-witness accounts I got, they chased him, hit him on the back of the head with a rifle and dragged him back to the car," Patterson says, his voice straining over the phone while recounting the image.

Those interviewed for this story say they grew increasingly concerned in the months and then years that followed when no ransom demand seemed to materialize. It was as though Woodke had just vanished.

Els Woodke, for her part, maintains that her faith that she would see and hold her husband again never wavered.

"I remember when it first happened, I cried out to God, 'I want my husband home,' and he did not say, 'No,'" she recalled during the press conference. "And I believed that God has never changed his mind when he did not say no six and a half years ago, he did not say no every day. So, I kept my faith that Jeff would be home and lived every day in faith he would come home."

Those interviewed for this story say it's true Els Woodke seemed to hold an unflinching belief Jeff would be not just released, but released healthy and whole. Her faith, they say, allowed them to keep faith.

And she didn't just sit idly by, either. In 2021, she made a couple video appeals to the head of JNIM pleading for her husband's release, and that November held a press conference in Washington, D.C., urging Secretary of State Antony Blinken to "honor the promise" he'd made her to do all he could to secure Woodke's release, and lamenting the federal government's admonishments that she not share information given to her about her husband's situation with others, including the hostage negotiation organization she was working with.

"She stood for Jeff, she fought for Jeff," Rickstrew says.

"She just knew he was alive," says Thomas. "So we thought, 'If anyone knows, Els knows. If she thinks he's alive, he's alive.'"

In the summer of 2021, Patterson says Els Woodke was notified of a ransom demand of 3 million Euros and started trying to raise the money. Thomas says her family donated but Els later gave the money back. Patterson says he asked her why.

"She said she wasn't seeking God's kingdom, she was just seeking Jeff's release at first," Patterson recalls. "She said, 'If I give them money, I'm not really seeking God's kingdom because they're trying to tear that kingdom down.'"

It's unclear exactly what led the group holding Woodke to release him. U.S. officials insist no ransom was paid or concessions made. Woodke, for his part, said at the press conference that he knows what motivated his release but could not say for fear of jeopardizing an investigation into his captors and seven other foreign nationals being held hostage in Mali.

"I'm looking forward to telling my whole story at the right time and in the right way," Jeff Woodke told reporters. "For now, I will limit the information I share and continue to cooperate with authorities to bring these monsters to justice and help get the other people out because they are living in hell."

Rickstrew and others say they watched the video from Woodke's press conference, or read stories about it, and felt the weight of his experience wash over them, knowing he'd endured just what they'd prayed for years he wasn't.

"The reality of what he endured is just so heavy," Rickstrew says. "If you could give me one person in life that I know who could be captured and held in captivity by Al-Qaeda and be strong in his faith and would stand for Christ? Jeff Woodke. He's the one."

Back in the hall of the Arcata First Baptist Church on April 2, Woodke tells the congregation that it is only in retrospect that he sees what God was doing when he had given up hope, lost faith and prayed for death. God, it turns out, was busy answering Els Woodke's unwavering prayer.

"God bent the will of nations and the powerful to bring me, a lowly sinner, from a living hell," he says.

Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at (707) 442-1400, extension 321, or

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