February 20, 1921 – April 28, 2012
Gwen was born in South Dakota to Rev. R. B. and Mrs. Priscilla Bonney. Gwen’s father served as a pastor in the Methodist Church. Although her family conducted daily Bible reading and said prayers together, Gwen believed her greatest Christian influence was her grandmother.
While Gwen was visiting an aunt in Oregon, she met Tillman Houser. Gwen graduated from North Dakota’s Wessington Springs College in 1942 with a secretarial certificate and married Tillman the same month. The Housers served at a preaching point in Roseburg, Oregon, from 1942 to 1944.
While Tillman was a student at Seattle Pacific University, God began speaking to his and Gwen’s hearts about helping fill global needs. They applied for missionary service in 1947, were approved and left for Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, in the spring of 1948 with their two young sons.
They first located at Dumisa Mission and served in rural areas nearly 25 years. Throughout their ministry, Gwen and Tillman concentrated their work on developing African leadership. Gwen also carried medical equipment with her on their travels. One year she treated 1,600 patients.
Gwen served as advisor to the active conference women’s organization, “Vahlanganyeti” (The Keepers of the Fire). Established in July 1952, the group started with only four members but soon grew through their evangelism efforts. The first and third Tuesdays of the month the women met for prayer, testimonies and Bible study. The second and fourth Tuesdays the women spent visiting neighboring villages, as far away as six miles.
The Housers designed a home on wheels – a van converted into a camper that served as their home and doubled as a bookshop. Traveling in the van allowed them opportunities for personal evangelism, as well as an avenue to visit and encourage village churches and their leaders.
In 1975, as the Housers left for furlough, the several-years-old revolutionary conflict in Zimbabwe was commencing to spread and intensify. Within several months, guerillas filtered into areas where Free Methodist schools and churches were located. The church pled with the Housers to not forget them.
In October 1976, Tillman and Gwen returned to Zimbabwe, settling in the capital city, Harare, at that time called Salisbury. Their goal was to find people who were Free Methodist or had Free Methodist connections and had moved to find work in the city. Many, who found their native language was not spoken, had drifted away from the church. The Housers offered spiritual help, counseling, Theological Education by Extension courses, and Bible studies. Preaching points were begun. On April 18, 1980, Gwen and Tillman witnessed the celebration of Independence Day and the official end of the armed conflict.
In early 1981, the Housers retired, turning their responsibilities over to Henry and Bonnie Church.
Gwen’s Colleagues Write
Missionary colleague Henry Church writes, “Gwen and Tillman Houser served in Rhodesia long ago. They were pioneer missionaries, living alone deep in the bush establishing a remote mission station called ‘Dumisa.’ During the civil war their lives were often in danger. We were sent to the new Zimbabwe as Tillman and Gwen retired from the field. They handed us their jobs, as well as much of their furniture and dishes, etc. Gwen taught Bonnie how to keep financial books. They also handed us their prayers. Gwen was a praying lady. She was a quiet hostess and a lady who was loved by missionaries and Africans alike. She was a strong supporter and co-worker with her husband. She was a friend and a faithful servant of God.”
Colleagues Eldon and Florence Sayre write, “Our memories of Gwen go way back. We remember a smiling, petite, blonde Gwen, with a happy, tall Tillman and two little boys who arrived at Lundi Mission one day long ago. We worked together for nearly 30 years. Gwen was always so cheerful, positive and gracious in all circumstances. The Lord used Gwen among the Africans, the missionaries, their kids and many others.”
Carmena Capp writes, “Gwen was a dear, dear colleague and one of my favorite persons in all of Africa. We worked together for 20-some years, and I do not remember even one unkind word that had its origin with her or one hurtful situation that she had created. Gwen took care of Tillman, and she worked at that task 24/7. Tillman’s work took him all over a large section of Rhodesia. He was constantly on the move, and he never went anywhere without Gwen. She had a home which she loved, but she didn’t get to spend much time in it. She slept in tents, in huts, in the car … generally on the floor. She cooked over an open fire, did the washing in a bucket and dug a hole in the sand down by the river in order to bathe. She knew everyone in the whole Rhodesian Free Methodist Church, from the old grannies to the tiny little kids, and she knew not only their names, but also their place in the network of family relationships.
“I loved being with Gwen. I never heard her whine or complain about anything, and she didn’t find it necessary to pontificate at length on every subject under discussion. She mostly listened and thought about things. When she did speak it was to the point and often very funny. She had a wonderful sense of humor which stood her in good stead because she was often in situations where the only bright spot was Gwen’s hilarious assessment of the problem.
“Gwen knew a crisis when she saw one, but she never panicked. She was not demonstrative or hysterical. She simply did what needed to be done if it was something she could do. She faced with quiet courage the dust, heat and uncertainty of the African bush, the exhaustion and demands of constant travel, and the heartbreaking long separations from her two boys who were away at school for most of their growing up years. And she welcomed everyone who knocked at her door. Her life was a precious gift to us all.”