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Born to be a missionary

Vonitta Gurney-Boylan, 90, served as a missionary for 38 years, a calling her mother predicted while she was still in the womb


Vonitta Gurney-Boylan was always destined to become a missionary.

The 90-year-old Woodburn resident’s religious mother knew it would be so when she pregnant with her first child.by: LINDSAY KEEFER - Vonitta Gurney-Boylan is still active and in good health, even though she is 90 years old. She spent 38 years as a missionary in Central and South America, and still leads worship at Woodburn Foursquare Church.

“My mom said I was called to be a missionary,” Vonitta said. “She married young and she married someone not in her faith, so she prayed before I was born that, whether I was a boy or a girl, I would be a missionary.”

So when Vonitta was only 7 years old and said she wanted to preach at church, her mother didn’t stop her.

“The churches all closed to hear a little girl preach!” she said.

Vonitta would grow up and serve 38 years as a missionary, living mostly in Central and South America before settling in Woodburn, where she still leads worship at times at the Foursquare Church. Vonitta considers Woodburn her hometown, having moved there at the age of 15 from Wyoming with her family.

“(My father) started the first taxi service in Woodburn,” she said.

It was at the Foursquare Church where she met her future husband, Ed Gurney, whose parents owned Gurney’s Cash Grocery in town.

“We were new and two boys walked by — one stumbled trying to see my face,” she laughed. “It was my husband. He would always joke that he fell for me at first sight.”

After high school, the two traveled to Los Angeles for Life Bible College, graduating in 1944. That year, they also were married by the founder of the Foursquare Church, Aimee Semple McPherson.

“There were 5,000 people at my wedding,” Vonitta said proudly. “(McPherson) would conduct weddings right after her Sunday service, so all those people were there for that.”

Because World War II was raging at the time, Ed would have to be appointed to a mission right away or be drafted into the military. So they were sent to Ohio, where their daughter, Lolita, was born in 1945.

“That’s where we really learned to live by faith,” Vonitta remembered. “We didn’t really have a paycheck and I remember once we had no food in the house. My husband set the table and I asked, ‘Why are you doing that? We have no food.’ He said, ‘God will fill our needs.’ It wasn’t 10 minutes when there was a knock on the door. It was our neighbor saying they had too much food and would it trouble us to take some!”

The couple returned to the Northwest, establishing the Foursquare Church in Dallas and preaching in Seattle. But when they were called to Central America, they packed up and moved, first to Nicaragua, and then Tegucigalpa, Honduras, where they helped establish the first Foursquare Church in Central America.

“My husband had looked at a map and said, ‘I know where we should go — a place called Tegucigalpa,’” she said. “And we stayed there for 15 years. We just felt so much at home.”

While in Honduras, the couple had a son, Gary, and adopted 10-month-old Judy, whose teenaged mother had cleaned the family’s house but fled after her baby was born.

Ed had taken Spanish lessons, but whenever Vonitta preached, it was translated from English. That is, until one day, she said she was going to speak in Spanish.by: SUBMITTED - Vonitta Gurney Boylan (center) leads a worship team at Woodburn Foursquare Church recently.

“And I just began speaking Spanish for 20 minutes — and I didn’t know what I was saying!” Vonitta exclaimed. Since then, she said she has been able to speak some in Spanish, as the spirit moves her.

From there, they moved to Ecuador, first in Quito for a month and then in Guayaquil, where they lived for 10 years.

“Quito is a beautiful place to live and Guayaquil is on the coast,” she said. “It’s noted for being dirty. Just walking down the sidewalk you can slip on a banana or a fish. It was hot there, too, so we’d preach in the morning. We loved the people.”

In the meantime, Lolita had gone to school to become a missionary as well, moving to Argentina, where she met and married her husband. She invited her parents to work at the mission with her in Buenos Aires.

“We lived a block from each other for 10 years,” Vonitta said. “It was a very different place from anywhere we’d been. The people are proud and classy. We didn’t really fit in!”

Ed started Bible institutions around the country to train ministers and also opened a second Foursquare Church in Buenos Aires.

“I went down there with Lolita last year for their 50th anniversary,” Vonitta said. “They paid our fare and we had a good time with a lot of people.”

The Gurneys decided to return to the United States in 1986 but it wasn’t quite time for Vonitta to retire. At a transitional missionary home in Los Angeles, they decided to take on an interim position back in their beloved Honduras.

“That night, before he went to bed, my husband said, ‘I can’t believe I’m going to be home tomorrow,’” Vonitta said. “And he died of a massive heart attack that night.”

Vonitta said she felt lost at that point, not sure where to go from there.

“Even though it’s discouraging, you can’t feel alone in God’s love,” she said. “I was told, ‘We’re not through with you and neither is the Lord.’”

So she went back to Honduras for one year but stayed four, after which she returned to Woodburn and moved into her parents’ house.

Since then, Vonitta has been active in the Foursquare Church, still leading worship at times and conducting weddings and funerals. Now, her daughter Judy is the worship leader for the Spanish speaking church, for which Vonitta also leads worship.

Up until this year, she has also managed to go with a group from the church every year to visit an orphanage in Honduras sponsored by the church.

“It was started by the missionaries who followed us,” she said. “I’ve tried to go every time. The children there call me Grandma.”

In 1995, Vonitta remarried, this time also to someone she met at church.

“I tell single women looking for a mate to look at the Foursquare Church, because I got two there!” she laughed.

Marvin Boylan, Vonitta’s second husband, died in 2010. Including his family, she has nine grandchildren and 20 great-grandchildren.

Now 90, Vonitta is still active, driving herself around town and keeping in good health. She said she also makes sure to count her blessings every day.

“If I could live my life again, I wouldn’t change a thing, except perhaps my (first) husband’s death,” she said. “But now I am more in love with heaven every day. It will be worth it all when I see Jesus.”




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