For a child of two working parents living in a rural Southern town, Gary Bethea experienced a childhood that was relatively commonplace prior to his kidnapping at age 16. He was a naturally gifted student who preferred recess, football, and good old-fashioned outdoor fun to spending much time on schoolwork.
Sundays were synonymous with church pews and pulpits. At Shiloh Baptist Church in Bennettsville, he was introduced to the biblical stories of Jonah and the whale, David and Goliath, and Samson and Delilah. And although he was baptized at age 9, it was not until seven years later, stuffed in the trunk of a Honda Accord, that his faith took form. “I didn’t know what all of that meant until this moment. That’s when a still voice came in and said, ‘I still love you; this is not something that’s going to make me not love you.’”
This message of grace provided invaluable peace to Gary in a moment when clarity and comfort seemed impossibly distant. His fears were twofold: first, that he might die, and second, that he might become a symbol of disappointment if he were to live. Gary knew that he had no business being in Laurinburg, North Carolina, the night of his kidnapping — just as his family, friends, and fellow church members would know when word of the incident got out.
As he lay cramped in the back of a trunk, he shuddered in embarrassment at the decisions he had made that contributed to the evening’s calamitous turn of events. First, he and his friends had ventured in the opposite direction of where they had originally set out to go that morning: Hartsville, South Carolina. Then, they took the bait laid by a group of girls who pulled up at the restaurant where the boys had stopped for a bite to eat before leaving town. The girls promised to lead them to a party, but instead led them straight into a trap. The moment that the boys walked into the apartment with the supposed party, they became the victims of a violent kidnapping.
After several hours of psychological and physical abuse, including assault, taunting, and theft of anything of value that the boys had on their person, the kidnappers packed them into cars. Gary recalls feeling certain they were going to be killed, and yet that sudden and overwhelming sense of love, comfort, and peace overwhelmed him to the point that he nearly fell asleep during that ride in the trunk. They dumped the bedraggled boys on a dark road in the middle of the night and instructed them not to tell anyone of the preceding events. After consultations with the police and a visit to the emergency room, the boys returned to Bennettsville, badly beaten but breathing.
For two weeks, Gary stayed cooped up within the four walls of his home and did not return to school for still another week after that. A sunken feeling of embarrassment accompanied the persistent black eye he wore — both lingering reminders of the near-death experience he had survived.
“I was beating myself up about how I let myself get in this situation. My church had just raised $2,000 for me to go to a medical conference that summer, and this happened to me a month later.” In the spirit of perseverance, and out of a desire to show his sincere appreciation to the congregation that had raised money on his behalf, Gary made good on his intentions to attend the National Youth Leadership Forum on Medicine in Chicago, Illinois, that summer. After a series of setbacks in choosing a medical profession, it was when Gary found himself in a dental exam chair back in Bennettsville under the practiced hands of Dr. Philip Benton that he knew he had found his calling.
Gary says that he reflects on the journey of where his life has taken him with “50/20 vision,” inspired by Genesis 50:20: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” Gary explains, “50/20 vision is to be able to see God in the situation, to see what God’s doing. My profession is about more than working on teeth; I do dentistry, but I’ve got a call deeper than dentistry,” he says.
In light of this, Gary and his wife, Shayla, founded the nonprofit Deeper Than Dentistry. Through this organization, they provide mentorships to local youth, host and sponsor community service events, and offer scholarships to both undergraduate and dental students. Twenty years after his kidnapping, he also released a book titled Deeper Than Dentistry, an autobiographical account of his life through the lens of redemption.