How the Somali Pirate Victims Became Martyrs

From Hollywood producer to Christian missionaries, Scott Adam and his wife lived a dynamic life. Eliza Griswold talks to his preaching professor and confidante.

The Del Rey Yacht Club in Marina Del Rey, California was the home port to Scott (L) and Jean Adam (R), who were murdered by Somali pirates in East Africa. (Photo: Reed Saxon / AP Photo; inset: Del Rey Yacht Club / AP Photo)

Scott Adam, 70, the American missionary, who along with his wife, Jean, 66, and two friends, was shot and killed by Somali pirates Tuesday aboard his yacht, Quest, became a pastor relatively late in life. With its marine blue hull decorated with a large loopy cursive Quest, Adam’s 58-foot sailboat and its cargo of bibles was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream that began in Hollywood.

Before Adam, then in his 50s, enrolled in Fuller Theological Seminary in 1996 after a mystical encounter with God, he produced feature films and television shows for 30 years. (Screen credits include the film, Goonies, and television programs such as The Love Boat, and Dukes of Hazzard.)

In Hollywood, Adam, who grew up in Chicago, stood out because he was so unusually kind. “He was a very gentle man,” Philip Kleinbart, a partner at Robert Greenwald Productions who worked with Adam in the late '80s and early '90s, said. “He wasn’t a screamer. He wasn’t a Hollywood type.” Instead, even then, Adam enjoyed spending time on his boat in Marina del Ray harbor.

There is no indication whatsoever that the Adams were put to death because of their faith. Yet faith had everything to do with what drew them into pirate alley.

In nearby Pasadena, California, at Fuller Theological Seminary, the same characteristics forged Adam into a gifted pastor. He had such a knack for delivering sermons that his preaching professor, Dr. Clayton Schmit hired Adam to teach a class in media and ministering. Curious about Adam’s journey from Hollywood to the priesthood, Schmit once asked Adam about his former glamorous film career.

“Why in the world would you quit?” he asked his student. Adam’s response was that everyone he knew in that industry was dying of heart attacks; he wanted to make his life matter. After his graduation, Adam, an Episcopalian, and his wife, Jean, who was Catholic, decided to spend their money on buying different kinds of Bibles in various languages and to distribute scripture in far-flung places around the globe where bibles were hard to get. Their main interest was in reaching the poor.

The pair loved adventure and they loved to sail; they wanted to give something back. To them, that meant distributing Christian bibles in various languages—no matter the risk. From Micronesia to Ivory Coast to Tonga to the Philippines, they traveled to lush vacation spots, and dangerous, difficult to reach places.

Their mission wasn’t about converting those who didn’t want to hear their message. It was simply a matter of offering books to those who did want them. Still they didn’t deny the danger.

“They certainly knew and were well aware that they were in dangerous territory and they would say pray for us in their monthly emails,” Schmit said. Once, Schmit asked Adam if he stowed a gun onboard the Quest.

“Only a flare gun,” Adam told his preaching professor. They took no other precautions in protecting themselves in risky and hostile environments.

Known as “pirate alley,” nowhere on Earth could be riskier than the waters off the coast of Somalia into which the Adams, and their friends, Phyllis Macay, 59, and Bob Riggle, 67, sailed days ago. Deceptively tropical and pristine, these waters between the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden form a lethal gauntlet for all sizes of crafts.

Hijacking and kidnapping are commonplace in the murky waters off Somalia and on land, where the pirates and their ilk go by the far less sexy and romantic names of warlords and militias. Killing hostages, however, is unusual.

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Last Friday, off the coast of Oman, pirates boarded their ship. Tuesday, the pirates launched a rocket-propelled grenade at the American destroyer that was shadowing the distressed Quest. Soon after, in a hail of gunfire, all four friends were killed. The pirates, who are highwaymen with their own spokespeople, claim that the U.S. military fired first, and that they had no intention of killing the hostages.

At first, given the Adams' identity as missionaries, there were questions as to whether or not their religious calling played a role in their death. Although the pirates, like 99.9 percent of Somalis, are Muslims, they are also some of the most irreligious characters in the world; they spend their booty on women, drugs, and the high life in playgrounds like Dubai.

There is no indication whatsoever that the Adams, or their friends, who’d joined them for this leg of their six-year journey, were put to death because of their faith. Yet faith had everything to do with what drew them into pirate alley. Even still, to many fellow Christians, they have become martyrs. They now number among the estimated 70 million people who’ve lost their lives while spreading the Gospel, most during the 20th century, and now the 21st. Jean Adam, a retired dentist and music lover recorded in her Web log, “After spending many night on watch at sea your curiosity starts to get to you and you start to wonder, 'What is that bright light up there?'”

Eliza Griswold, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Tenth Parallel.