As Don and Gina Villnow set off on a luxury Caribbean cruise in January 2011, Gina made one trip-ruining mistake. A friend had recently given Don a copy of World Vision U.S. President Rich Stearns’ book The Hole in Our Gospel, and Gina thought it might be fun to read together on their voyage.
“It wasn’t fun at all because reading it, I just got so convicted of the physical and spiritual needs around the world,” she says. “I said, ‘I want to get off this ship — I wish I could jump overboard and get off.’”
In February of that year, the couple’s Marietta, Georgia, church held its annual missions conference. When the commitment cards were passed out, one of the ministry options was “available for a time of service.”
Gina wanted to check the box, but Don initially resisted. After all, they already financially supported their church and World Vision. Yet they checked the box, sensing that perhaps God was calling them to a new opportunity to serve when they retired in a few years.
When we said, ‘Lord, we’re available,’ the Lord opened doors for us.—Don Villnow
Soon, however, a pastor challenged them to participate in a short-term trip to Iraq. “We should have never read that book,” Gina recalls saying at the time. But they went and, as they served, they clearly heard God call them to full-time missions in their retirement.
Just months later, Don opted for early retirement. The couple received missions training, put their house on the market, and were out of their home within 30 days — on their way to serve the Muslim community in Italy.
“When we said, ‘Lord, we’re available,’ the Lord opened doors for us,” Don says. “We didn’t push any doors open — we were very careful not to push doors.”
For two-and-a-half years, they showed God’s love to Muslims, some of whom were Syrian refugees. They taught English and crafts, opened their home in hospitality to others, and distributed Bibles. “We try to make sure each encounter we have is a positive reflection on who we are as children of God,” Don says.
God called Don and Gina back to the U.S. last fall, at least for a season. They remain active in other mission work and encourage others to consider overseas missions as well. Gina says, “I love to challenge other couples that are in their retiring years to stay open to God and be able to go and work and serve in the name of Jesus.”