As a 22-year-old Journeyman, Jeri Whitfield saw long-term missionaries commit their lives to God and the people they served. That was her model for missions — a missionary presence that creates gospel access and transforms lives. It’s still her desire today, 40 years later.
It’s also why she’s returned to serve in Thailand through the International Mission Board three times.
“My heart was still here. I didn’t feel like the job was done.”
The first time she left, she’d finished a two-year Journeyman term. She was in her 20s.
She returned to Thailand as a career missionary in her 40s. At age 55, she faced health concerns from cancer at the same time the IMB was reducing the number of missionaries on the field. She made the difficult decision to take an early retirement and return to the U.S.
Once again, now in her 60s, she’s returned to the field. This time she brings with her a passion to connect students to what God is doing around the world, especially in Thailand – where she’s beginning her 17th year of service with the IMB.
Whitfield recalls visiting a Thai “spirit doctor” during some of her in-between years. After her retirement with the IMB, she became a college professor. She took a group of students from California Baptist University on a short-term mission trip to her beloved Thailand.
Her students were learning local customs and a spirit doctor hosted them in his home to talk about practices within his field. Whitfield was struck by the fact that usually, spirit doctors in this culture recognize the “Jesus Spirit” as more powerful than the spirts they call upon. But this man was different, and he stuck out.
Whitfield carried a burden for him in her heart, knowing that even though he’d heard a gospel presentation, he was still lost.
Recently, Whitfield returned to visit him, this time back as a full-time missionary. He was bedridden and could no longer speak after suffering a stroke.
“But with his eyes, he spoke, he knew me, and I certainly remembered him,” Whitfield recalled. “It saddened me that he knows and has heard the gospel. He’s still not interested in changing, and we don’t know how long he’s got.”
It’s a burden for this spirit doctor and the people like him that Whitfield has encountered over her time of service in Thailand that has driven her back. She’s convinced God’s call on her life is until He calls her home.
Whitfield has experienced many other aspects of life in between her terms of service. “But my whole life since I was a Journeyman, I felt called to missions,” Whitfield shared. “My heart has been to give as many years as I can with this.”
Those years with the IMB have included times of collaborative ministry with national partners, times of serving alongside her mom who would come aid her as a volunteer — even into her golden years — sweet moments showing Jesus’ love to villagers by washing their feet before gifting them flip-flops and adventurous times pulling up to do ministry in a remote area on a motorcycle.
She’s also seen how God has used unique experiences in the U.S. to better equip her for serving in Thailand.
Why does she keep returning to reach the nations through the IMB? The answer for Whitfield is simple. She’s committed her life to being a steadfast missionary presence, even though the commitment hasn’t been easy. God isn’t finished using her to reach the nations.
“My experience with missions was that when you’re called, it’s for life,” she said. “When you look at the stats, you know the IMB has always tried to put people first. They take care of their personnel and solve problems.”