Dreams of a distant shore: Craig couple fulfilling shared goal to work and serve overseas
March 31, 2012
“This was a goal for our marriage.”
— John Wall, 36, on the commitment he and his wife, Tracey, made to serve with Mercy Ships, a ministry that will take them along Africa’s western coast
John and Tracey Wall's life together could be a blueprint for the American dream.
They own a house on Yampa Avenue, complete with a back yard, a dog and a couple of cozy-looking hammocks on the front porch.
John, 36, works as an accountant at Colowyo Coal Co. Tracey, 32, was until recently a physican's assistant at Moffat Family Clinic.
They have a 17-month-old daughter, Adalynn, with another due in April.
But a "For Sale" sign stands in front of John and Tracey's two-story home, and Tracey's last day at the clinic was Friday.
The Walls are putting aside the house, the job and many other trappings of a comfortable small-town life in exchange for another dream that waits on the shores of western Africa.
They've signed aboard a floating hospital, one of several vessels in a fleet operated by the Christian charity Mercy Ships. The ministry offers a range of surgeries for residents of developing countries.
John, Tracey and their two children will embark in mid-July, and their first destination is Conakry, which stands on a small sliver of land jutting out from Guinea.
Yet other details of the Walls' journey are uncertain.
They don't know where their next destination lies.
They don't know how long their sojourn will last.
"The commitment is for two years, but it's open-ended and we hope that it's longer," John said.
They don't know if they will return to Craig at the journey's end, although "it's definitely not out of the realm of possibility," Tracey said.
The uncertainty doesn't seem to bother them, though.
Their trip is more than a brief departure from the normal and familiar. It fulfills a dream to return to the place they grew to love, first individually then as a couple.
"This was a goal for our marriage," John said.
The history of their shared vision goes back to 2005. Tracey and John hadn't met yet, but they were both in Africa, albeit in different countries.
That summer, Tracey was completing part of her physician's assistant's training at a rural Kenyan hospital. She made her first trip to Africa in 2001, where she spent two months living in Mali, yet her longing to do medical work in the continent began when she was a young girl, she said.
"Honestly, I think it was God placing that in my heart early on," she said.
"I can't explain it any other way."
John, however, found Africa by a less direct path.
Once, he was on the fast track to what many would consider success and acclaim.
He worked at a South Carolina office of Ernst & Young, "one of the big four" accounting firms, he said. The work required a lot of time on the road visiting clients, as well as grueling hours. He sometimes crammed 60 to 70 hours of work into a week, he said.
Then, craving a change of pace, John left it all to become a ski instructor at Keystone Ski Resort near Dillon.
"I barely knew how to ski, honestly," he said.
Although he didn't know it then, the change in direction may have opened the door to what would follow.
In 2005, he ran into a friend in Texas who happened to be going on a mission trip to an orphanage in Sudan. One of the participants on the trip had backed out, but his plane ticket was still available.
"On such short notice my friend said I was the only one he knew that could go because I didn't have a real job," John said.
He went for it, even though he had "no idea what I was getting myself into," he said.
Africa introduced him to a lifestyle he'd never known. Electricity was scarce, a water hose took the place of modern showers, and the roads were riddled with "massive potholes," he said.
But what the country lacked in conveniences, it offered in hospitality and a slower pace of life.
The culture was "warm" and "accepting," he said, and he had little desire to leave the orphanage's six-acre spot of ground to seek the attractions of a nearby town.
He went back to the orphanage twice after that initial visit and returned with what he would later describe as "this African experience I can't get out of my brain."
John and Tracey's paths eventually crossed on the electronic superhighway.
They met on eHarmony.com, where John had posted a picture taken of himself with a young African girl during one of his trips.
The image was enough to spark a connection.
"That intrigued me," Tracey said.
Their mutual interest in Africa remained a theme throughout their courtship.
During their first Christmas together, John gave Tracey a painted egg-shaped rock he had bought in Africa.
"This is what we want," he said, recalling the gift's significance as a symbol of their shared goal. "I can see us doing this someday together."
The couple married in September 2008 and eventually moved to Craig, where they put down roots at The Journey at First Baptist.
The Walls did what most young couples do. They found jobs, began a family and gradually paid off student loans.
Then, the couple stumbled upon the Mercy Ships ministry.
The couple sent in their qualifications, including Tracey's medical experience and John's career as an accountant.
About two hours later, they got their answer, John said.
The organization needed a ship financial director, and he fit the bill.
Tracey will offer her medical expertise when needed, she said, but her main priority will be caring for their two children aboard the ship, which also includes a school onboard.
As John and Tracey look to the future that awaits them, they can't help glancing back at what they will leave behind.
"We really do love it here," Tracey said.
"It was a really hard decision to think about leaving this community."
Still, the distant shore beckons.
Their dream lies not in the house, the job or even the community they've grown to love, but in a place they long for, together.
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