Barb Gish stood in a Japanese supermarket during the Christmas holiday, watching couple after couple walk by, hand in hand. At the age of 44, never had her loneliness felt so acute. Her contentment with being single had come and gone throughout her years of music ministry in East Asia, but this time her anger flared at the apparent unfairness of it all.
“I remember being so alone, and so frustrated with God,” she said. She had obeyed God’s calling on her life to improve the quality of worship music and teach it, and yet she still wanted to marry and raise children. Did God love her less than all her friends with wonderful husbands?
Just then, a Christian song came on in the store, and Barb burst into tears. It is no secret what God can do, what He’s done for others He’ll do for you. Barb felt immediately comforted.
The following June, a friend came to visit Barb in Japan and mentioned a dating website called eHarmony. I’m not that desperate, thought Barb. However, she decided that since she spent the same amount of money on her cell phone, she could pay to find a husband as well. She signed up for three months, and on June 18, 2005, she made her second match with a blue-eyed missionary in Africa.
She happened to be his 1,968th match.
Online Dating and the Missionary
Christians often face challenges of finding love online, as many of the people they meet on websites may not share their same commitment to Jesus. But for missionaries, the odds of finding a spouse fall even lower. Not only does one have to find a compatible personality and faith, but also someone who shares the same calling to move overseas.
And yet, singleness has become an increased obstacle for missionaries reaching the field. The number of single missionaries has doubled during the 21st century, 85 percent of those being female. Singleness is the fourth reason why appointees never make it to the field, or take a long time in doing so, according to Christianity Today.
Some websites, like CalledTogether.us, seek to pair not only like-minded Christians (as many other sites like ChristianMingle already do), but also missionaries with similar callings. “We want to give you opportunity to encourage one another, persevere together, partner with each other, and possibly find spouses among one another,” says the website.
Unfortunately for Gary Bennett, this website specifically tailored for missionaries did not exist when he was looking for a spouse. For 17 years, he had been going to Rwanda completely single—first as a short-term missionary, then as full-time.
“It is hard, but developing a network of other single missionary friends is really helpful, as well as developing a few close relationships with nationals,” he said.
Losing a First Love
In 1990, Gary met his first wife, a young woman named Melanie who’d come overseas to teach missionary children. They married in 1991 and by the time they came back on the field and found a house in 1993, the political situation in Rwanda was becoming catastrophic. The Bennetts endured intense fighting all around them during the genocide before getting evacuated, along with the rest of their colleagues, but the tragedy from the genocide stayed with them.
However, since they didn’t have any children yet and the rest of their colleagues did, they decided to go back to Rwanda. Amid picking up the pieces of a country torn apart, the Bennetts had two children, Melissa and Megan.
But all was not well. After the birth of Megan, Melanie felt a lump in her breast, and so the family moved back to the United States. She was diagnosed with breast cancer, and after 18 months of fighting it, she passed away. Her entire family was entirely devastated, but one of the things she told Gary before she died: “I don’t want my girls to grow up without a mom.”
At first, Gary’s daughters hated the idea of a stepmother. But after a few months, they began to faithfully pray for a new mom. The family went back to Rwanda a year after Melanie’s death, but not before Gary signed up on eHarmony. It would be nearly five years and nearly 2,000 matches before he found Barb.
“There are just a lot more women than men on the site,” he said. “I didn’t place any geographical limitations on my profile.”
Once they matched, Barb and Gary immediately started corresponding on eHarmony, which quickly progressed to MSN messenger and video chats. Both Barb and Gary were excited about these daily conversations that lasted for hours, but there were many obstacles still in their way.
“By the way,” Gary had told her, “I’m still pursing three other matches.”
The Unlikeliest Couple
Almost immediately, Barb appreciated the honesty and spiritual depth she witnessed in Gary, from offering to pray with her to witnessing the devotions with his girls via her computer screen. The girls already had asked her, “Can I call you mom?” almost a month into their video chat sessions. Gary later explained how they had been praying for a mom for five years.
Gary sent Barb a list of eight questions (mostly theological, except for the tattoo question) in the mail, which they’d both answer separately. If their answers conflicted, they both would know the relationship would not be worth continuing anymore. Their answers were nearly word-for-word the same.
Gary then traveled to Japan to meet Barb in person for the first time. “I thought, I should be nervous, I should be anxious, but I felt like was just going to meet my brother,” she said.
After meeting Barb’s ministry partners and getting counsel from many different people in their lives, both felt God’s peace to keep moving forward with their relationship.
April 29 is Japan’s Covenant Day, a commemorative holiday in honor of the emperor. Weddings in Japan are always booked years in advance on this day, as the Japanese people believe the marriage will be blessed. Gary and Barb married on this day in 2006 in Minnesota, at the ages of 49 and 45 respectively. For a farmer from Minnesota and an opera singer from Washington, the unlikelihood of the match constantly amazes them. They moved to Rwanda the following December.
“I’d like to say it was happily ever after,” said Barb, laughing. “It is happy.”
The challenge of learning a new language, moving to a new country, helping raise two girls, and getting to know a person proved nearly overwhelming.
“I thought since I had been married before I knew what I was getting into,” said Gary. “Not true. Getting married at age 50 is way different then getting married when I was young.”
Barb and Gary continually feel called to serve together in Rwanda, Barb teaching music in Rwandan schools, and Gary serving as a church leader.
“God made it very clear that this is where we need to be.”