SKOPJE, Macedonia (BP) — A few months after Gef Smock was born in Michigan in 1933, she spoke her first words — in the Macedonian language.
But it would be more than 70 years before she would see God use the language she learned from birth to share the Gospel with Macedonian people.
“Sometimes I wonder why He waited until I was in my 70s to call me here, but it’s His timing, not mine,” she said.
Smock, one of the oldest International Mission Board missionaries at age 78, was born to a Macedonian couple living in the United States. Though she grew up fluent in both Macedonian and English, she was ashamed of her Macedonian heritage.
“Sometimes we would be out shopping, and my mother would slip into Macedonian, and I would get so embarrassed. I just wanted her to speak English,” she said.
So when her mother suggested they take a trip to Macedonia when she was 30, she was less than thrilled. “Paris. London. Shakespeare country. I had all these places in Western Europe I wanted to go. Why would I want to visit Macedonia?”
But she did — and she fell in love with it. “God completely changed my heart. They were so warm, they greeted me with flowers, and I loved their culture. Suddenly I was proud to be Macedonian,” she said.
It would still be a long time before she made it back there to stay.
She married Donald Smock, a U.S. diplomat, and they lived all over the place — everywhere but Macedonia, it seemed. They adopted two children — including a daughter from Macedonia — but they never lived there with her. Smock was content in where the Lord took her family, but she always had a fondness for the country that God had led her to love.
Then in 2001, on their 33rd wedding anniversary, Don died.
“My kids called thinking they were wishing us a happy anniversary, and I had to say, ‘Your dad died,'” Smock said.
Smock still celebrates their anniversary every year. “I go out with friends, do something special,” she said.
She’s not one to stop loving — or living.
Within a year of his passing, Smock had already answered the tug she’d known for a long time — the call to do missions work overseas.
“Someone told me to go to a missions conference, that it would make me feel better,” she said. “I listened to the missionaries tell stories, and I knew I needed to go. So when they gave the invitation, I walked down.”
She was 70.
People asked, “Are you running away?”
“No,” she said. “No, I wasn’t. I knew this was exactly what I was supposed to be doing. All those years of traveling with my husband had prepared me for this, for what God was going to do with me at this age. I was going to go wherever the Lord led.”
At first, that wasn’t Macedonia. Smock spent three years serving as a high school English teacher for missionary kids in Thailand. And then, through what she said was “the obvious work of God’s hand,” she ended up in Macedonia.
Now she spends her days teaching literacy courses for the Roma people of Skopje, a gypsy people who live in poverty and sift through trash for recyclable materials to sell.
At night, Smock walks the dusty streets of their neighborhoods and talks with Roma families — families like Susana’s.
Susana and her family, like most Macedonian Roma, are nominally Muslim. Also like many Roma, Susana lacks basic education. She is not even able to read or write. As Gef sits and chats with Susana in her meager, cinderblock home, Susana confesses that she considers Gef a mother to her.
“And she’s a daughter to me,” Gef says.
Susana’s teenage son walks in and sits down on the floor, half listening to the conversation.
“How’s the fasting going?” Gef asks him in Macedonian. She knew he had begun fasting for the Muslim month of Ramadan.
“I quit already,” he said with a grin. It was only five days into the fast.
He doesn’t really adhere to Islam, as most of them don’t, but he has not previously been willing to listen to Smock talk about Jesus, either. That night, he sat and listened as she explained the Gospel in perfect Macedonian for him and for Susana.
“They’re very open now,” Smock said. “We’re going to start in the book of John, and I’m going to read the Bible to her and talk more about how to be saved. I think they are ready to hear.”
It’s these types of relationships Smock is going to have a hard time leaving when she retires in March.
“It has been six great years living among friends and relatives here,” said Smock, who served the first three years serving the Macedonian people and the last three serving the Roma.
She will be resettling in Florida at 79, “starting all over,” she said.
“I don’t want to leave, but I know God is leading me back. He used me here in His timing. Macedonians are my heart.”
Ava Thomas is an International Mission Board writer based in Europe.