By Wendie Gabbard
“The blessing God gave to both of us was that we grew up country kids.”
Those country kids, Greta from Pennsylvania and Wayne from Kentucky, met as sophomores in college. Rules prohibited them from dating without another couple or chaperone present and the understood boundary was “six inches apart.” Even so, they quickly fell in love and married in Greta’s hometown the summer before their junior year. Pennsylvania law allowed marriage at age 21. As both were 20, their parents had to sign for them. Wayne and Greta Meece then returned to Kentucky Christian College, where she could attend as a spouse without paying tuition. The year was 1958.
During those early years, the couple shared a dream of someday serving as missionaries.
“God placed it in our hearts early on,” Greta said.
Wayne considered becoming a doctor, but as he put it, “Those doors didn’t open.” Instead, they traveled to Illinois to attend seminary while he served as pastor for a small church. Eventually they settled in Missouri with their three children. Life was flourishing for Wayne and Greta in 1970. The church was growing, their children were happy, and the path seemed secure. Then the invitation came.
A church member approached Wayne and invited him to help start a Christian college in Liberia, West Africa. The spark was kindled, and he took the proposition to Greta. Surprisingly, she answered, “I don’t want to talk about it.” She had just received word of her brother’s death in Vietnam and was preparing to fly home for his funeral. The timing just wasn’t right to deal with such a huge decision.
“I was that person who said they’d never take their feet off the ground; I’d never get in an airplane,” she recalls. “But when this happened, Wayne put me on a plane alone to go to my family.” She realized flying alone was a step God used to prepare her for the many trips to come. When she returned home from the funeral, together the couple honestly faced the decision about going to Liberia.
“Satan really tempted me,” Greta said. “We were in a good place in life where, to be honest, we could afford the groceries every week and had health insurance and things we’d never had before. Satan puts the things of this world in front of us. I struggled a little bit at the time. I was ready to go and yet, I wasn’t. But before long we were totally committed. And I was. God did that.”
Ministering in Liberia
Their first tour in Liberia lasted three years. Their children, Tim, 9, Beverly, 7, and James, 6, were excited by the adventure. Greta and Wayne adapted to life there without difficulty because of their upbringing as country kids.
“Years later, I remember another young missionary was going with us,” Wayne explained. “He talked about Jungle Camp [that] his organization sent them to. They learned to use an outdoor toilet, clean a chicken, and cook food over a fire. Someone turned to me and said, ‘Wayne, when did you go to Jungle Camp?’ I said, ‘I grew up there.’
“Both of us grew up in homes without running water, indoor toilets, central heat, or air-conditioning. We had a wood or coal-burning stove. Heat wasn’t a problem in Liberia,” he chuckled. “We learned pretty much how to live like the Africans do. It wasn’t a shock to us to pull water from a well. I don’t think we ever lived in a house of our own that had an outdoor toilet. But when we went into the village, it was a squatty potty.”
“We grew up doing things from scratch,” Greta added. “For me as a mother and a wife, that wasn’t so difficult. There weren’t the conveniences there are today, so we made do with what was there and adapted to the food.”
Shipments from the United States took six months to arrive. By the time it arrived, the kids had outgrown their clothes that were enclosed. Greta especially enjoyed receiving a magazine with housekeeping tips and recipes. Letters from home took two to three weeks and ham radio was the only communication in those days. Even though they seemed isolated, they rarely were discouraged. However, Wayne struggled seeing his family suffer through illnesses: Greta came down with malaria and one of their sons experienced dysentery.
Years later, the family faced desperate circimstances when the First Liberian Civil War broke out on Christmas Eve 1989. Forced to evacuate quickly, they left most of their possessions behind and fled the country and people they served. Rebel armies forced Liberians across the border into the Ivory Coast, and soon the Meeces traveled there to serve. The attitudes of the refugees had changed. The innocent Liberian people they had once served were now in an overpopulated and rustic Muslim town. Wayne greeted many a scammer at his door trying to deceive.
“It was the hardest time in all my years in ministry,” he said. When their furlough came, it was well-needed.
Advising Young Couples in Ministry
After 23 years of overseas mission work, Greta and Wayne now offer advice for young couples entering the mission field. Be ready for change, the veteran missionaries tell them. In their experience, carefully made plans invariably require changing as the missionaries settle in. Adaptability is vital for them.
“Be ready to give up your identity,” Greta quickly added. “The career you have now in the United States may have to be abandoned for a different role that God will show you.”
They advise young couples to reserve time for themselves, apart from ministry. Wayne and Greta were accustomed to doing everything together, but they realize that isn’t always the case in today’s society. It often is difficult to orchestrate a date night. Sometimes something as simple as a walk together is all you can manage. The couple took wise advice from their African Christian friends when it seemed there was always someone at their door needing them. Every day after lunch, they hung a sign on their door that announced, “This is our resting time. Please come back after 2 p.m.”
The Meeces now work with Team Expansion in Louisville, Kentucky, as they continue to help train young couples in the field. After nearly 60 years of marriage, they still spend most of their time together. “She had to learn to tag along and put up with whatever I got into. And she was willing to do it,” Wayne said as he looked at Greta. “That’s what I’ve always appreciated about her.”
Wendie Gabbard is is a writer and Bible teacher living in Louisville, Kentucky.