Whispering Willows began with a homemade peach pie. Who would have thought it? Certainly not Bob or me (Grace), newlyweds returning from our honeymoon with 75 cents in our pocket. Bob was soon to receive a payroll check, but it wasn’t that much. But we were in love and that was enough. One Sunday morning after church, we invited a visiting missionary couple home for lunch. Though we didn’t have much to offer, we completed our meal with a homemade peach pie for dessert. When our guests realized I had made a pie crust from scratch and used fresh peaches, they were amazed.
Unbeknownst to them, I had been cooking for my family for many years before marriage (unlike many a precious new bride). What sweet fellowship we had, and when the last crumb was missing from their plates and they left our home, Bob and I looked at each other, overwhelmed with what had just transpired in our cozy little place. On that Sunday afternoon on a June day in 1977, a new door of ministry through hospitality had swung open to us.
Many meals later and after many overnight guests (often strangers to us), we discovered a pattern…it was more common to have guests in our modest but comfortable home than to not. Our four children graciously entered into the servant hospitality mentality, and we saw how God was gifting them to minister to some precious people far more effectively than we could have done as adults. As we embraced the opportunity of reaching out to missionaries all around the world, students at Columbia International University, church members, neighbors, relatives, and friends, our family was enriched and, in part, made us who we are today.
Twenty years later, the idea of rest became a prevalent need among many of our guests. We could give from the abundance of what we had, but space was not particularly private for them. We longed to offer more (a place of respite away from the demands of ministry or day-to-day responsibility) and give an opportunity for personal renewal in a more relaxed setting. At that point, though, there were no plans for changes in our residence, this home in which all of our children had grown up. But then came the weddings…first for one daughter and then six months later, another.
I had also been taking care of a great aunt for about 1½ years as well as working full time as an eighth grade English teacher, so the activity level was high, and I was getting a bit exhausted. On our anniversary weekend in 2003, one of our married daughters and her husband gave us a free-night stay at a contemporary-style bed and breakfast in the mountains of NC. Bob went inside to check in while I stayed in the car for a bit.
After a few minutes I opened the car door only to hear ever-so-soft music playing…it swept gently in the breeze, and as I got out of the car, I thought, “Wow! This feels like a monastery or something.” Now, mind you, I’d never actually been to a monastery before, but this was exactly what I thought one would “feel” like. I told the innkeeper as we were shown to our room, “You know you have this figured out, don’t you?” She questioned me further. I said, “The low music, the rolling hills, the crisp contemporary feel of the place…you have it figured out.” She smiled sweetly and left us to enjoy.
For the next few days, we could not stop talking about the possibility of providing something like this close to Columbia, SC. “I’d like to do something like this some day,” I contemplatively said, and Bob seemed to think it possible. He had spent years remodeling an older house and had no interest in doing that again.
We decided to give ourselves one year to find eight acres of land on which to construct a house for the purpose God had placed on our hearts. A short time later, we invited our children and their spouses for supper and introduced the idea to them. There was overwhelming confirmation that we were the perfect couple to do this. Bob was gifted in building, repairs and yard care while I loved the hospitality side of it. Our children asked, “What’s different about what you want to do now from what you’ve been doing all these years?” We shared that we wanted more space and privacy for our guests, a quiet area not too far from the city but enough so that people could feel there was some distance from their responsibilities.
Two weeks later, a son-in-law found 23 acres of land in Fairfield County for the price that we thought we’d have to pay for eight. Initially we wondered what we would do with 23 acres, but later we would clear about eight acres of land and see the wisdom in leaving a perimeter of woods for privacy.
Already we were almost a year ahead of our goal, and seriously, we looked at each other and wondered what we should do next. Over the course of several years, Bob physically labored by clearing trees and rocks, building a shed, planting grass, and doing general upkeep of this newly-cleared land. We both poured over house plans, down to the finest of details that building any new house requires. Bob continued to work at a hospital in Columbia as a microbiologist. He put in long hours, days, and weekends, working tirelessly to prepare for the ground breaking.
On January 17, 2008, we broke ground and began construction with Bob as the contractor and doing much of the work. Life was long and hard for several years, but this was the only way we felt we could afford such a project. About halfway through construction, a shocking financial crisis hit America. If it had happened before the project got started, it is highly probable that we would not have considered building. But, God was not surprised, and as it says in scripture, “In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps.” (NIV 2006) Though we had thought it out, prayed it through, planned to the best of our ability, we were to be stretched beyond our own means. God kept providing a bit of encouragement and provision here and there, however, and we found ourselves in our home January, 2010.
There were some hard months finishing up, physically and financially. God knew our limitations but also our heart and desire for His work to be accomplished. He heard our prayers and crying out to Him. We were not wealthy enough to carry this out on our own. We often hit walls where we questioned ourselves. Thankfully, we acknowledged that it was not our house but God’s. We maintain that whatever He does with it is fine with us. We just happen to be allowed to live in it for a time.
Dear friends, if you’ve ever gotten into something that you felt God called you to but it was way beyond you, then you may know a bit of what we have faced. Our strong foundation is that we can trust God to faithfully lead us as we serve here at Whispering Willows.
And what a journey it has been so far! Stories could be told about this place, but there is not enough time to share them with you here. For the first few years, we followed our Jesus, one step at a time and openly shared with those who asked that often we did not really know what we were doing. Sometimes they would laugh, but we assured them that we were serious.
People started asking us to stay for a night, a weekend, a week…for a celebration, for fasting and prayer, for a time of reflection and renewal. We saw over the first few years that people began hearing of this home and they’d hear of our mission statement for the place, “That many would come to reflect on all that God had done and was doing in their lives and, after being renewed in spirit, return to that which God had called them.” Precious people were finding peace at Whispering Willows and it was encouraging. They understood the mission statement and wanted to honor it.
The location (30 minutes from downtown Columbia and hidden in the woods) was proving to be perfect for many. They were being blessed, and we were being blessed by knowing they were being refreshed.
At times our hearts remained unsettled as we reached the point of deciding whether our home should be a ministry or a business. What a struggle these two words were for us. One of us was good with a business; the other wanted it to be a ministry. We knew it could be both, but it was hard to figure out exactly how to do it. Each question brought its own set of challenges, and to find the answers seemed to be costly for us. We had to be careful about asking for too much help. But it was not beyond God. He’d send advice our way and we were appreciative. Finally, during the winter of 2013 Bob and I had come to an agreement. We would seek to open our home as a business and be ever mindful of ministry, and we would trust God to lead and provide.
One special gift from Bob was that he allowed me to name the place. I had always loved weeping willow trees, as they seemed to be reaching out and down for all, carefully desiring to embrace those weary ones sitting under their branches. I was also mindful of the fact that God often uses a gentle whisper to touch hearts…a reminder to be ready and willing to hear His softest of whispers. Thus, the name Whispering Willows was born.
This narrative is written for those who have learned about us and have been interested in the story of our beginnings. It is our desire to share what God has done and continues to do in this place for His glory. In closing, remember that I said it all started with a homemade peach pie? Well, take note of this interesting piece of information that only God could have orchestrated… Whispering Willows is located off Peach Road. Isn’t that awesome? Perhaps one day we will name our access road Cobbler Lane. You know…turn down Peach then Cobbler.
Thank you for following us on this part of our journey. If there is any way we can minister to you on yours, know that we are here.