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KINCAID — How do a man from Alabama and a woman from Florida, who’ve spent more than 20 years in countries overseas, end up in Kincaid, Illinois? According to Vance and Kari Massengill, the answer to that question was easy. It was God’s will that brought them here.
“I’m convinced God sent us here. We came from 8,000 miles away, and so quickly,” explains Vance with a chuckle, adding, “As a missionary, I always said I’d go anywhere. I was thinking Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, not America. For about 20 years, I’ve said I would never return to America. God has his ways.”
Vance and Kari have been missionaries overseas for over 20 years. Vance alone has traveled to 62 nations in the world. They’ve lived outside of the country for longer than they have lived in it. For them, being missionaries was more than just an obligation to the church or something nice to do. For the Massengill couple, being missionaries was what God wanted them to do. Vance knew his calling at a rather young age.
“I’m from a place called Arab, Alabama. I was raised in the church and everything, but I got into drugs and alcohol as a teenager,” he began, “After I went into the military, I got saved at 21 years old. I immediately knew that there was a purpose to my life. I heard the call to missionary work when I was reading Isaiah chapter 6, ‘who will go for us and who shall we send’ and I thought that was God’s call in my life. So, I started planning to go Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee. It’s the Church of God’s primary school in America. And that’s where we meet.”
Kari, unlike Vance, did not feel the same call to missionary work as her husband at first. “I’m from Bryceville, Florida, and we meet at Lee. I was at Lee studying psychology. Missions was not on my radar, but when i met him, I knew – I didn’t know much about missions, but I knew he was the one for me. I didn’t feel called to missions; I felt called to him and to support him. But after our trip to the Philippines, I knew I couldn’t do anything else.”
“I constantly reminded her every day that we were dating that if you marry me, you won’t live in America, you won’t have a little white picket fence,” Vance joked, “I was very determined to get to the mission field as soon as possible. I finished a four year degree in two and a half years, taking 26 hours a semester. Part of the Lee program was you had to go overseas for at least three months on a missionary as like an internship. We chose the Philippines. The reason I did that was, my grandfather had fought there in WWII, and he’d always dreamed of going back to the Philippines as a missionary, but God never called him. So it was my way to fulfill that for him.”
The Philippines was the first taste of missionary work the couple got to experience. They loved it. Every minute only proved to Vance and Kari that mission work was what God wanted them to do. While there, they participated in multiple types of missionary work. They did preaching, worked in prison ministry, provided medical care, took part in food programs, and any other type of missionary work they could get into. After their internship in the Philippines ended, they returned to Lee University and finished their degrees. It was then the missionary work in China was offered to them.
“We went there for five years. We went in as English teachers, and it was really a time where we learned a lot about how NOT to do Missions,” Vance admitted with a grin, “You know, in a sense that you can’t work 24/7. But, we taught at an economics university at a province called Shandong. It’s where Confucius is from and kinda the heart of Chinese thought comes out of there. During that time, we got our Masters Degrees.”
Kari got her masters in teaching English to foreign language speakers, and Vance got his in missions from Wheaton College. The masters degree program was his first introduction to the state where he would land years later as a pastor. After they finished their five year stint in China, the couple returned to Alabama for a year. They were, Vance explained, a little burnt out by spreading themselves too thin while in China. For that year, they worked in social services. However, even while in Alabama, they could both still feel that calling to mission work.
Then 9/11 happened.
“Originally, I tried to go back into the military to go to the Middle East for a different purpose,” Vance stated, “but God has a sense of humor, though, and put the heart for me to go to the Middle East as a missionary.”
They could not go to the Middle East right away, though. Visas to that area of the world were extremely difficult to acquire at that time. Instead, Vance and Kari went to do missionary work in Eastern Europe in the winter of 2002.
“We worked a lot in Eastern Europe, in former Yugoslavia, doing reconciliation ministry. In the early 1990s during the Balkan Wars when they were basically just murdering each other, we tried to bring reconciliation there. We worked there for awhile, five years in Greece and five years in Croatia, then went to Germany.”
It was while they were in Croatia that their children, daughters Leandra and Kendra, were born. The girls are 15 and 13, but will soon celebrate their birthdays. The family stayed in Germany for three years, teaching missions work there. Then, finally, after praying for the chance to come for many years, the mission work to the Middle East finally opened up.
They took a mission position in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), known for such extravagant wonders as the Burj Khalifa and the artificially made Palm Island in Dubai.
“We always tell people were are in Dubai, but it was actually Sharjah, which is an Emirate north of Dubai, because everyone always knows Dubai. That was a dream come true. We’d prayed for that for about 10 years. I’d studied Islam for almost 20 years. Our main ministry had been training pastors and missionaries, and then doing Islamic Evangelism. We worked with local churches, I co-pastored a church there, and then everything was going great.” Vance said.
Now that he had finally reached his dream of doing missionary work in the Middle East, Vance was not looking for a new path to open to him. But God had other ideas. Even so, it took Vance and Kari a few years to start listening to what He was telling them.
“We’d come back to American about every three years to raise money. But, every time we’d come back, we saw the church here dying and being in trouble. Especially within the last six years or so,” Vance explained, “It was so significant that we started to feel like we needed to come back. We felt like we can’t be overseas, even though that’s the front line kinda thing, while the church here suffers.”
With the idea of returning to America tickling around in the back of his mind, Vance contacted a dear friend who worked as the sate of Illinois overseer for the Church of God. He asked his friend how he would be able to come back to America to be a pastor. Under his friend’s advice, Vance wrote up a resume and sent them to the various states across America. He also sent one to his friend, even though Vance said he had no interested in working in Illinois.
“Just because of our experience!” He was quick to explain, “we had worked with muslims for 20 years. All my training and everything is to work with cross-cultural groups of different ethnicities.”
About a week after Vance sent out his resume, his friend called him. “He said, ’I have a church in Kincaid, Illinois,’ and I had no idea where Kincaid was. I got online and was like ‘that’s 97% white, what would God want me to do there?’ At first I said, no way.”
Vance and Kari were reluctant to leave their comfortable lives in the UAE. They had longed to worked in the Middle East doing missionary work for over ten years. Their daughters were established there and comfortable. The couple were also worried about making the move back to America. They had lived overseas as missionaries for so long that they did not have any furniture of their own. They also worried how their daughters would do in America: After all, for all their lives, the girls had never had friends who were white.
“So, we made this long list and said, ‘God, if you really want us to do this, you have to fulfill this list or it’s not possible.’”, Vance stated, “There were 26 things on that list. And within, what, six days, everything on that list was fulfilled. Things that just don’t happen happened and we’re like, ‘okay, we can’t argue with this.’ I mean, like, for one thing, what almost never happens, when a church votes on a new pastor, they never get 100% vote. It doesn’t happen. But we got 100% with a church that had never even seen us.”
Kari laughed at that. “When it happened we were like, ‘okay, God.’”
“In four weeks, we went from living in the Middle East, and we are happy, to living in Kincaid, Illinois,” Vance shared, “It’s been a very difficult transition, mostly because of there people we left behind. And the apartment building we lived in in Sharjah had more people than Kincaid. That’s been an adjustment. I think we had 18 malls within six miles of our home in the UAE. The weather has been a challenge; our coldest temperature the last ten years has been 60. I was wearing hoodies in July. Over there, our hottest temperature was 149. And the cultural differences, you know, Americans stick more to themselves, where Asia people spend so much time together. That’s been hard for us, because we are used to spending so much time with people. A lot of people don’t even know where the Parsonage is, whereas over there we had people almost daily visit. But, I feel more like missionaries now than we ever have. We were out of America for 26 years; the America were knew is gone, doesn’t exist anymore. We are trying to learn our own culture. Even foods and stuff is different.”
The couple have been in Kincaid for seven months, and now they would not even think of going back. They feel, quite strongly, that this is where God wants them to be.
“The biggest worry we had in coming back to America was our kids. They had never lived in America. The church has given them so many grandmothers and bigger sisters and really loved on them. When we first came back, every couple of weeks, I’d ask them, ‘If you could go back, would you go back?’ and they’d say yes. But now, they say they want to stay in Kincaid. That’s been one of the greatest joys for us.” Vance shared.
The people of the church have left the biggest impression on the Massengill family. “The church at Kincaid has just loved our family to the point that, if it hadn’t of been for that, we probably would have turned around and went back. They just really wrapped their arms around us. I’ve been to over 300 churches in North America, but I have never met a church that is as loving as they are. It’s not coming from us. It’s really remarkable. At Kincaid Church of God, you can kinda feel the love when you walk in the door. You’ll be greeted by someone and all different kinds of personalities.”
Outside of the church, though, Central Illinois has been its own little surprise for Vance. “I’m really surprise, though, especially coming from the Southeast. The people here are friendlier than Alabama. We treasure that southern hospitality thing in there South, but if I’m at Walmart and we get in each others way, people say excuse me, you know. You don’t hear that a lot in the South anymore. So the friendlessness of Central Illinois has been a shock to me.”
Along with the good surprises come bad ones. The addiction and poverty in Christian County has been eyeopening for Vance and Kari. “When we first were coming here, we are thinking ‘rural America, this is gonna be family oriented.’ But the addiction and poverty that is in this area is really surprising. It’s giving us an idea of maybe why God brought us here.” He shared, “I think this community, because they’re struggling, it is a perfect place to be. In Illinois we have 65 churches; In Alabama, we have 450. It’s a thing of I want to be where the church is struggling and hurting, not where it’s thriving. I don’t want to be in the bible belt. The hardest place, that’s where we want to go. This is a state where every year, the population decreased. This is where we think we need to be. If God send us back to America, why not be in the heart of America?”
Vance also believes that God sent him here because he has the power to reach the people struggling the most in the community.
“I think because I have addiction in my past, I can relate,” Vance stated, “As a pastor, I’m not perfect, so how can I expect anyone else to be? I see it like, a person who is in addictions is searching for something. A lot of time, they’re searching for meaning and purpose, and I think Christ provides all that.”
Alongside his own personal ability to relate to people fighting for forgiveness, Vance sees the church itself as the biggest variable in helping someone change. “The church isn’t a museum for the righteous; it’s a hospital for the hurting. That’s what we want it to be. For them, having a missionary for a pastor, they embrace it. I don’t hear any complaints. We want to keep things light and I want Christianity to be fun. Sometimes you have to deal with difficult issues, though. I’m definitely not a pat you on the back preacher; I want to challenge people that they can become more. We do that through seeking God and seeking Christ; its comes from his strength, not our own. So we encourage them, but challenge them. We have a church that is so loving. We have had a few people come to the church struggling. Even people that have been coming to the church for lots of years have a past. We have so many people who have had addictions that haven’t forgot where they came from. The bible talks about if you are forgiven much you love much. We have a church full of people who were forgiven a lot, who flock to those who are struggling. And that is not common in America anymore. Usually, churches are divided by economics. But we have people who are very wealthy and people who have nothing. That is the beauty of that church, and we didn’t bring it. It was there.”
Though it was a difficult journey at times, and one that he was reluctant to embark upon, Vance and Kari have found their place in Kincaid Church of God. They have found a church where the people love with all their hearts, and are willing to change and embrace everyone. It does not matter to them what kind of past someone has.