“In the past, you could become a missionary with just the Gospel,” Jerry muses. He glances across the floral sofa at his wife Cherry, who smiles. To their left, the living room window offers a glimpse of their 171-acre farm in Shedd, Oregon. A peacock shuffles into view, pecking pensively at something in the dirt. Beyond the peacock, a low fence separates the farmyard from an expanse of grass seed rippling in the breeze, and in the distance, a grove of trees marks the meandering Calapooia River.

Jerry and Cherry look so perfectly in place among the grass fields, the floral sofa, and even the peacock that it’s hard to imagine them anywhere else. But they probably looked equally at home thirty-five years earlier when they set foot in Ivory Coast with, as Jerry would put it, “just the Gospel”—the Gospel, a bit of language training, and wide-eyed enthusiasm.

Reckless

Cherry was pregnant with their third child, about to fall asleep, when Jerry strode into their bedroom singing. “To the regions beyond, I must go, I must go, tell the world, the whole world, about Jesus!” He’d been to a Bible study just down the road from their ranch in Eastern Oregon, and Cherry knew the moment she was jarred awake by his singing that they wouldn’t be in Baker City much longer.

When she told her parents she and Jerry would be joining New Tribes Mission, first for boot camp in the States and then as missionaries overseas, her mother said, “That’s a cult. I’m sure it is.”

Although Cherry’s mother eventually concluded that it was not, in fact, a cult, there was a fanaticism, a recklessness, in the young men and women joining New Tribes. “You could understand why people thought it cultish,” Jerry laughs, as he describes the young missionaries selling everything they owned and diving headfirst into a life of dirt roads, mosquito nets, and brightly colored headscarves. There was an “unabandoned recklessness” to their faith, he says, and admits that he and Cherry too had been swept up in the heady rush.

For twenty years, Jerry and Cherry served as conventional missionaries in Ivory Coast. They lived with the Loron and Loma peoples, built friendships, shared the Gospel, raised their four children. Along the way, they collected the kinds of stories that were just shy of unbelievable: the flash floods, the snakes that would drop out of trees, the Kawasaki off-road racing bike Jerry used as an ambulance. But in 2002, civil war broke out in Ivory Coast between rebel-led Muslims in the north and government-led Christians in the south, and Jerry and Cherry were forced to move back to the United States. In many ways, the era of the conventional missionary had ended—but Jerry and Cherry’s story hadn’t.

Planting Milkweed

Upon returning to the United States, Jerry and Cherry settled on the farm in Shedd. But they decided not to farm the 171 acres—at least, not in the traditional sense. Not unlike their own retirement out of the traditional missionary life, Jerry and Cherry retired their fields, devoting much of their land to wildlife protection. They planted trees along the Calapooia River to allow cooler water for salmon habitats, and milkweed to encourage the migration of monarch butterflies.

As his farmland took on a new kind of productivity, Jerry embarked on a new kind of mission work, and he began to pour his knowledge of agriculture into farmers overseas. Soon after returning home from Ivory Coast, Jerry joined Farmer-to-Farmer, an organization that sends agriculture specialists on short-term assignments to assist farmers around the world with specific problems, from controlling pests to marketing products. From Southern Sudan to Laos to Guinea, agriculture became Jerry’s entry point. The Gospel remained his motive.

Unexploded Ordnances

“If you say to people, ‘We want to help you,’ you have an open door,” Jerry says. So he and Cherry helped people, entering areas where decades of conflict and civil war had prevented farmers from learning the skills Americans take for granted: planning, budgeting, preparing for the future.

Many of the farmers Jerry encountered had spent years not knowing when the next wave of militants would come through. How can one plan when to plant if the harvest is so uncertain? “In Southern Sudan in Juba, they didn’t have buildings; they brought in shipping containers, hooked them up with air conditioning, and lived in them,” Jerry says. “Sudan has experienced decades of war. Who wants to invest in infrastructure of brick and mortar?” One of Jerry’s tasks was to give farmers tools to plan for the future and help them budget not only their money but also their time and resources.

But it wasn’t just the memory of conflict that prevented farmers from moving forward—often, the remnants of war provided a real threat. “In Laos,” Cherry says, “we were working with children, teaching them how to cultivate, plant, and water their little gardens so they would have food at school. Some of them were putting up fish wells, raising chickens . . .” But what Cherry came to learn was that there were still unexploded bombs out in the bush—remnants from the Vietnam War, just as dangerous then as they were 40 years ago. “They called them ‘unexploded ordnances,’” Jerry says.

As they worked alongside farmers facing such real and imminent challenges, Jerry and Cherry’s American preconceptions about farming had to shift. Each Farmer-to Farmer assignment had to be weighed differently, in light of a culture’s values, history, resources, and challenges. What might have been good advice for one group might not have worked for another. American ideas of productivity might not translate to villages that still lived under the threat of unexploded ordnances.

Waiting for Salmon

Jerry and Cherry are neither conventional farmers nor conventional missionaries—although they have been both. Their mission work may not be as dramatic or overt as it was when they were 27, but it’s just as intentional, just as earnest. It’s a different kind of productivity. They no longer till acres upon acres with an industrial plow—instead, they give the land what it needs: rest, and milkweed for the butterflies, and trees for the salmon. They no longer uproot their lives in the States to sleep on dirt floors and preach the Gospel; instead, they meet practical needs, plant seeds, watch the milkweed grow, and wait for the salmon to come back.

Jerry and Cherry Skiles both completed their degrees through Corban University’s online undergraduate program. Jerry graduated with a Management and Communication degree in 2006, and Cherry Skiles graduated with a degree in Family Studies in 2007.