Thompsons have a heart for Africa after 36 years as missionaries

Van and Mary Thompson returned from Africa three years ago after spending nearly four decades as Baptist missionaries there.

But they're still adjusting to no longer being part of what the New Testament calls The Great Commission -- a command Jesus gave to "go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you."

The Thompsons, who now live in the Glenville community of McLean County, spent 36 years in Africa -- 26 in Malawi and 10 in Zambia -- performing numerous baptisms and preaching the Gospel to countless men, women and children.

"People will say, 'Do you feel at home here?' No, I don't," Van Thompson said. "It continues to be hard for us to live in the United States. I tell people I know how to live in Africa. I lived more than half of my life in Africa."

Van Thompson grew up in Bath County while Mary Thompson was from McLean County. They met while attending what was then called Campbellsville College -- now a university.

But Van Thompson wasn't initially interested in becoming a missionary.

Mary Thompson was already an experienced missionary, going on her first trip at 12 years old. While in college, she traveled to Malawi as a youth missionary, making her familiar with the southeastern African country of nearly 19 million people.

"We had started dating before I went to Malawi," Mary Thompson said. "He wrote me every day and I wrote him back every

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day about my experiences in Malawi. And I think God used that."

They married in 1975, and in 1979, while Van Thompson was in seminary, the two made a commitment to become missionaries.

And two years later, they were appointed as Malawi missionaries by the International Mission Board -- a Baptist missionary society. Their official missionary journey as church planters began in April 1981.

They immersed themselves into the culture with Van Thompson becoming fluent in Chichewa -- the common language of Malawi.

And what the Thompsons discovered was that the Malawians were accepting of them, especially the longer they stayed.

"They had a difficulty believing that anyone would want to leave the United States to come and live to serve among them," Van Thompson said. "That gave us a bit of an entryway; it also helped our credibility that we were not just coming and then leaving."

According to the International Mission Board, it has 3,671 field personnel serving. And as of 2016 (the latest data), there were 30,815 overseas churches. Of that number of churches, 4,550 were planted that same year.

As the Thompsons planted churches and aided existing ones, they encountered little to no resistance in sharing their Christian faith.

"They have a strong belief in a god that is the creator," Van Thompson said. "In our years in Malawi and Zambia, I never met an African atheist. ... With the Africans, I felt, 'you know of a creator,' let me tell you who that creator is ... because He has made Himself known in Jesus."

While there, the Thompsons would have two sons -- Van Martin and Eric.

Van Thompson became emotional when he recalled a compliment he once received from one of the village leaders.

" 'You know this man's skin is not like ours; his skin is white but his heart is an African heart,' " reminisced Van Thompson with tears in his eyes.

Since the family returned stateside in January 2016, Van has been hired as the pastor of Karns Grove Church in Philpot and Mary took a job as the administrative assistant with Life Community Church in Owensboro.

Now 66, Mary Thompson will be retiring from her position at Life Community on March 15 to spend more time with family and work on quilting and photo projects she's delayed.

She credits Life Community in helping her transition from Africa.

"It was just a God-thing that I found this job," she said. "[...] They were a new church plant (in Owensboro) and there were things that were familiar from our experiences in the mission field that we recognized."

Van Thompson, 65, will be returning to Africa in the spring with his sons.

From May 4 through May 13, they will be there celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Baptist Theological Seminary of Malawi in Lilongwe, which Van Thompson helped start.

"We miss the people of Africa," Van Thompson said. "They were genuine brothers and sisters in the Lord."

Don Wilkins, dwilkins@messenger-inquirer, 270-691-7299

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