Imagine flying into the southernmost tip of Colombia. Remote villages sit along the east bank of the Amazon River. It rains two-thirds of the year and temperatures rarely drop below the 80s. The region’s indigenous people live in huts along the riverbank and speak an isolate language – one that is extremely difficult to understand. Less than 2 percent of the people are evangelical Christians. Sound appealing?
Some Christians might consider this the quintessential missionary experience. Others would not forsake their comfort for the hardships of life in Columbia. But Jeff ’01 and Erin ’03 Gautney are following God’s call “to the ends of the earth” as missionaries through the International Mission Board.
A Not So Glamorous Life
The Gautneys arrived in Colombia in 2011 with their two young boys, Jace and Titus, and a daughter on the way. There was no orientation or lavish greeting awaiting them – just an unsettling pressure to find a home. With minimal housing options available, they settled into one of the first apartments they could find.
“When you first get there, you’re just trying to survive,” Erin said. “You don’t know where you’re going to minister or where you’re going to live.”
The apartment had no air-conditioning. Bats lived in the roof. Their kids were getting sick from drinking untreated water. Electricity was intermittent. One night, an intruder tried breaking in through the bathroom window – all in the first few weeks.
It wasn’t panning out to be the missionary experience the Gautneys had envisioned since childhood.
A few months later they found a safer home outside of town. When their daughter, Micaiah, was born, Erin stayed home with the children while Jeff traveled into the community and surrounding villages. Between homeschooling and lack of ministry opportunity, Erin struggled for peace. She wondered if life in the Amazon was God’s calling for her.
“I was counting down the days until we would go home,” she said. “I told God, ‘I could really do a lot for you in the United States.’”
But going “home” was not an option. God had placed them in Colombia to make disciples – no matter the struggle.
“It really did teach us to trust in the Lord,” Erin said. “It was the first time in my life where I truly had to depend on the Lord to feel that peace.”
Worth the Struggle
Through God’s provision, Erin met a local woman that would become one of her best friends. “Leady” showed Erin around the market, introduced her to new friends in the village, and even asked her to teach an English class. Now, Erin performs chronological Bible storytelling while teaching English skills to children.
Last April, Erin traveled into the village for the first time to disciple local women. Over 40 women traveled by canoe, in the rain, to hear her teach the Gospel. As she told the story of Mary and Martha, a lady in the crowd said to her, “Because you have come, you are Jesus, and we have come to sit at your feet.” Erin was floored and immediately began weeping.
“It made all of the struggle worth it to have something like that I could hold on to,” she said. “My goal is to now go out and disciple the women of that village.”
The Fruit of Labor
Erin will continue to homeschool their children while teaching English and developing her friendships with local women and children. Jeff has established relationships with locals in different villages and developed a small, but growing discipleship group. His new friends provide access to communities of people that will hear the Gospel for the first time. Through the rest of their term, Jeff will travel to new villages, teaching the Bible and training new Believers.
For both Erin and Jeff, each of these relationships multiplies the influence of Christ in Colombia – including the most remote villages.
“Our prayer and hope is to see indigenous people reaching indigenous people,” Erin said.
“We’re super excited about it – the stuff that only God can do,” Jeff said. “It’s so rewarding to be a part of it.”
A Calling Confirmed
From their time as students at the University of Mobile, the Gautneys remember the role that fellow students, professors, and staff played in confirming their calling.
“I would not be the person that I am today without the experience that I had here (UMobile),” Erin said. “I feel that I received a great education and it prepared me for what I was going to do. I grew in the Lord here, and the Lord was able to change my heart and make it more aligned with what He called me to do at 16.”