I met Jodi Gilkerson at our first volunteer leader meeting for Young Life in Branson, Missouri in September of 1990. I lived and worked in Branson, my hometown, while volunteering for Young Life. Jodi, a graduate of Cassville High School back in 1983, and a former teacher, moved to Branson to spend a year in the Doulos Discipleship program under the direction of founder Richard Beach.
As part of her ministry portion of her training, she too would volunteer for Young Life, with her focus being at Reeds Spring High School. John Haddad directed Young Life at that time, and he and his wife Nancy were good friends. They quickly pointed Jodi out to their 26-year-old single friend. I had been in a relationship the year before, and had come to the point of feeling tired of all the emotions that come with dating relationships, so my guard was up.
Then I met Jodi. I noticed quickly her kind smile, curly brown hair, and her joyous laugh.
I was hooked.
I decided soon after to attend the open house for her and the other female Doulos students who were helping with Young Life. When I walked in, Jodi was sitting at a table talking with a guy I didn’t know. I brooded as I visited with others. In the corner of my eye, I saw the guy and Jodi hug and then he left. Soon after Jodi was getting ready to walk out the door. I walked over to her.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“I have to run some errands so I’m walking up the hill to get my car.”
“I parked down here. I’ll be glad to drive you up to your car,” I offered.
Jodi smiled. “Sure, thank you!”
We drove up to her car. As I pulled up I noticed she was quiet.
“You seem a little sad,” I said. “What’s wrong?”
“Oh, my good friend who just left is leaving town,” she said.
Before I could stop myself, these words came tumbling out of my mouth.
I remember Jodi smiling and saying something like “That’s sweet.” As soon as she pulled out in her car, I sat stunned in my car, banging my head on the steering wheel like Chris Farley saying over and over again, “Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!”
I backed off for a time, embarrassed to make eye contact with Jodi. However, after a couple of weeks I resumed smiling at her during our leader meetings, and she would always smile back.
Finally, after going together with kids and other leaders on a ski trip after Christmas, I gathered the courage to ask Jodi on a date. We went to see the movie, Dances with Wolves in Springfield. I remember the theater was pretty full. After getting our seats, I went to get us popcorn and drinks. Coming back, I decided to have a little fun. I pretended to have trouble finding her and walked right past our row. I stepped all the way to the front of the theater, turned around, and in my best Rocky voice yelled out, “Jodi! Jodi!” A small hand raised halfway up the theater and I walked back up to our seats, snickering all around us.
We dated over the next few months, attempting to play tennis one day along Lake Taneycomo where Branson Landing parking is today. I say attempting because Jodi, who hadn’t played tennis before, kept moon-shooting the tennis balls over the backstop toward the lake.
On my birthday on April 29th, Jodi asked me to come over to her cabin off Lakeshore Drive. At the cabin she had a nice meal planned, with one of her fellow Doulos students, Jay Phelps, serving as our waiter. Jay wore a suit and tie, and was an excellent waiter.
After dinner Jodi walked me down to the lake below her cabin where a dock stood. On the dock she had dessert laid out with candlelight. As we sat together on the dock I got up the nerve to tell her for the first time that I loved her. I’ll never forget her eyes, bright and shining in the moonlight reflecting off the lake. She smiled and said, “ I love you too, a lot!”
Jodi and I will celebrate 30 years of marriage together this coming May. I thank God every day for this amazing partner He has given me, who puts Christ first above all so she can love me in the deepest way. I am forever grateful for her. She has gone through a lot of pain over the years, especially the past few, but through it all her faith remains fixed and sure.
She is my hero.