A guy in college told me that if I wanted to be a missionary in Africa, no one would date me. I didn’t care. And he was wrong.
In fact, it was during college that Gil Medina came into my life, and we got to know each other while co-leading a ministry in a cross-cultural, low-income neighborhood near our church. The two of us became a team before we were even friends. We hit it off and worked well together: he was the visionary, relational guy, and I was the administrative and logistics gal.
I wanted to be more than friends but didn’t think he did, so I barreled along with my plans to move overseas. I was accepted with ReachGlobal, agreed to teach in Tanzania, raised all my support and got a visa.
Meanwhile, Gil wanted to be more than friends too, but kept his mouth shut so as not to get in the way of God’s plan for my life. Finally, some mutual friends helped us break through our self-sacrificing martyrdom and pointed us in the other’s direction. It didn’t take long for us to figure out that, really, we wanted to do this missionary life together.
Road to the mission field
When we got engaged, we weren’t sure if Tanzania would be as good of a ministry fit for Gil as it was for me and considered serving in a different country. But then a youth sports outreach position opened up in Tanzania, which felt like Gil’s dream job. We got married on October 7, 2000, and nine months later, we were on a plane out of California. We arrived in Tanzania just a year after my original plan to leave. ReachGlobal got two for the price of one and I felt like I had everything I could ever want: I got to serve in Africa, and with my best friend and ministry partner. The Gil and Amy Medina Team couldn’t have been more perfect.
Turns out, it wasn’t so perfect. My malaria medication triggered something like a nervous breakdown ten days after we arrived, causing lingering mental turmoil for months afterward. Furthermore, my long commute to the school meant I left the house at 6 a.m. and often didn’t get home until 5 p.m.
But we wanted to function as a team; that’s what defined our relationship. Gil’s sports ministry took place in the afternoons and evenings, so I joined him after teaching at school. We reserved Friday nights for each other, picking out DVDs from the antiquated, odd collection at the one video store in the city, but Gil watched scores of movies with me sleeping on the bed next to him. I usually dozed off within the first 15 minutes.
Though we loved it, the church plant we joined wasn’t healthy and was on the verge of implosion. We invested deeply in a young, new Christian, and then 18 months later, discovered he had been stealing from us. After two years, we left Tanzania with our idealism smashed to shards.
Crawling toward the light
Returning to the States in a deep depression, we felt like failures and failed by God. We hobbled forward with our plan for Gil to enter seminary, and our church asked us to take over the college ministry leadership. That meant that once again, we got to serve as a team. For two years, we haltingly crawled toward the light, and our battered faith emerged scarred over but stronger.
And we decided that despite it all, we wanted to go back to Tanzania. Though it had been harrowing, God had given us glimpses of how we were His workmanship, uniquely created for His good purposes there. We signed up to go back with no hesitation.
After two years, we left Tanzania with our idealism smashed to shards.
But this time, a bunch of things needed to change. If we wanted to function as a team, we realized we needed to be intentional.
So we did: We dedicated ourselves to one ministry that we both felt called to – Gil became the chaplain at the school where I had been teaching. We moved to a home close by. Gil and I strategized ministry together, ran youth group, put on camps and retreats and hosted short-term teams. Our kids’ early years were spent on the school campus, and they learned to fall asleep to the cacophony of teenagers in our living room. They got to be a part of Team Medina too.
Gil and I spent a total of 16 years in Tanzania. Together, we walked through big things like infertility, four adoptions, denied visas, tragedy in ministry and little things like sleepless humid nights with no electricity, chronic flat tires and insect invasions. But I believe we lasted as long as we did because we were determined to work together.
The lessons we learned
When done well, living on the mission field provides a unique opportunity to function as a team in marriage. As long as we treasured the values of ReachGlobal, Gil and I could choose how and where we served. Living on financial support meant our needs were met, but money couldn’t influence our decisions because our salary wasn’t tied to our work. We were free to make choices based on God’s calling, not moving up the salary scale. As a wife to a man in ministry, I wasn’t expected to find a side hustle to make ends meet. These were some of ReachGlobal’s wonderful gifts to our marriage.
When done well, living on the mission field provides a unique opportunity to function as a team in marriage.
We also recognized the importance of broadening our team to include a community we could depend on. Though our marriage was solid, it alone couldn’t hold the weight of the burdens we faced in ministry. Our ReachGlobal Tanzania City Team became an extended family – we met together weekly for prayer and spent holidays and vacations together. Our Pastors to Missionaries visited Tanzania regularly, asked us hard questions and carried our burdens. A blessing of missionary life was the interdependence it fostered among those who needed each other to survive spiritually and emotionally in a foreign land.
We moved back to the States three years ago, and Gil and I have felt a shift in difficulty as a ministry team and in dependence on others. America’s hyper-individualistic and compartmentalized society doesn’t encourage marriage partnerships or vulnerability in community. But since missionary life had already helped us establish a team approach to marriage, we’ve been able to continue it in many ways – finances, church commitment and raising teenagers.
In October, Gil and I celebrated 23 years of marriage. Since we married at 23, that means we’ve spent half our lives together. By now, we know instinctively how to elevate each other’s strengths and compensate for weaknesses. We bring out the best in each other. Like any good team, we are better together. Life on the mission field helped to forge that in us.
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