Philip and Heidi Litle were home sifting through photos of their children dressed for Purim, the biblical commemoration of the miraculous deliverance of the Jewish people recorded in the book of Esther, when the calls started coming in to their home. The Litles did a mental review of the whereabouts of their five children. They all should have been accounted for, not on the bus in question, according to initial news reports.
“They finally got the first pictures, and then it was real clear,” Philip said. “When it became obvious that Abigail was on her way home and we saw pictures of the bus, we thought it was possible.”
After four of their children arrived home except for 14-year-old Abigail, Heidi started calling hospitals. One advised them to come since several victims, both wounded and dead, were yet unidentified. Another call came on their way to the hospital with the urgent message, “Yes, you need to come,” confirming Abigail’s presence there but not her condition.
That drive to the hospital on March 5, 2003, would end with receiving news that parents never want to hear. Abigail was among the 15 victims, mostly school-aged children, killed on that bus. Two more people died later of their injuries.
The Litles’ pastor, who had arrived at the hospital before them, identified Abigail and told the family. “That was the way we got the news,” Philip Litle said. “We then had to go identify her ourselves.”
Philip and Heidi Litle paid the ultimate price for their decision to uproot their lives in America and move to Israel. Their mission to identify with the Jewish people took on a whole new significance when they lost a child in a terrorist attack.
Now, almost nine years removed from the tragedy that tore one of their children from them, the Litles have further settled in Israel rather than return to the relative safety of America.
“My trust isn’t in his ability or in the sophistication of the IDF (Israel Defense Forces), but it is in the Lord,” Philip says. “He can protect or He can choose, like with Abigail, to let evil strike. But in any case He is good and He is going to take care of them.”
“We came with the purpose of being involved in connecting with the Jewish people and also with a heart for ministry to the Jewish people,” Philip recalls.
Within their first few years in the Holy Land, Philip was offered a position as head of the Baptist convention in Israel. He is currently the national director of Or B’Aretz (Light of the Land) and involved in discipleship and leadership development of the local body of believers. Heidi works with their local Messianic congregation Beit Eliyahu. Philip is originally from Missouri and Heidi from New Jersey.
Yet Philip explains the family’s decision to move to Israel during such a tumultuous season for the country: “It is very difficult to understand danger when you only hear about it. But if you believe in Israel like we do and you believe that God is at work here, then you have to ask yourself the question: ‘Do I believe in it enough that it could cost me personally?’”
The Litles counted the cost before they crossed the Atlantic, yet no one could have imaged that cost would be Abigail, the second child and eldest daughter, who was 7 months old when they arrived in Israel.
“We felt called to come here, called to tie our lives to the people. Abigail’s death is a part of the struggle,” Philip says. “It is something to be expected when you choose to identify with a people and live your life for their benefit.”
When Philip and Heidi returned from the hospital that night in March 2003, they sat down with their other children to share the devastating reality with them.
“I told them we’d been to the hospital and seen Abigail and that she was dead,” Philip recounts. “Then we read together from John chapter 11. It was a long night.”
After Abigail’s death, Heidi put her feelings into words in an article titled, “Where Is God in the Midst of Tragedy?” published on Messianic.co.il. “These events that cause unfathomable destruction, waste and devastation provoke us to turn to God in desperation and ask Him hard questions,” she writes. “Through pain and sorrow, He is there inviting us to know Him.”
After about five years of having residency, the government of Israel granted the Litles citizenship in Israel because of their daughter’s death, a passport bought with blood.
“It has given me a greater appreciation of having my citizenship in heaven bought by blood,” Heidi says.