“Will it ever be my turn?” I wondered as my plane winged its way to Washington, D.C. that July. Would I ever marry? Most of my friends had married by then. I longed for someone to lavish my love on, but had never met that someone who was just right for me.

The five-day planning meetings for our international conference, EXPLO 85, began the next morning at L’Enfant Plaza Hotel. Having grown up in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, I found it curious to actually stay downtown in this hotel named after the city’s French architect, Pierre L’Enfant. 

Most of us who had gathered for this planning conference were Campus Crusade for Christ staff members from different parts of the world; a few were satellite experts. As we introduced ourselves, I learned that one tall, soft spoken man was an American who had travelled from the Philippines. Ed Neibling was single, a little older than I was, and had been serving overseas for 12 years. That was interesting. 

By then, I had lived outside the U.S. for six years myself. When I arrived for work on EXPLO 85 at our California office earlier that year, the unmarried guys were younger than I, seemed immature, and didn’t have a vision for international ministry. I thought of serving overseas again once EXPLO was over in December, so it looked like I would serve single again.

The fortune cookies

During EXPLO, we planned four two-hour simultaneous broadcasts to 95 sites around the world, a bold and untried idea in those days. I was helping to write the broadcast scripts. Ed and others at the meeting were “continental coordinators”; Ed would coordinate conferences and satellite feeds for 13 EXPLO conference sites across Asia.

When the first day of meetings was over, the whole group went out for Chinese food. After the meal, we broke open our cookies and read our “fortunes” out loud. Mine was one of the first. “You will be deeply loved,” I read, oohs and aahs rising around the table. Several others read theirs, and then it was Ed’s turn. “You will be deeply loved,” he read. This time the oohs and aahs were louder, and people turned to look at me. Quite a coincidence!

The next day Ed was surprised to find that the “JF” on his schedule was not a meeting about the “JESUS” film, a movie on the life of Christ produced by our ministry, but an interview by Judy Ford. As a writer on the team, I was gathering information for stories of God at work while we prepared for EXPLO. I enjoyed Ed’s down-to-earth manner as we talked.

Our first picture together, at the EXPLO 85 meetings

We talked more between sessions, and I began to like Ed quite a bit. He had a fun and easy way of complimenting my teammate Lori and me. He mentioned an Elisabeth Elliot book that had just come out and told me I should send him a copy. We began to sit together during some of the meetings. Sometimes he would take my slim leather briefcase and carry it for me after a meal.

But it was Ed’s valuable contributions to the ministry discussions that really caught my attention. His wise comments fell like music on my ears. He was a man of vision!

Even though I had just finished serving four years in Mexico, and had spent two years prior to that in the Caribbean, I made sure to tell Ed about a connection I had with Asia. I had attended a prayer conference in Korea the previous year and made a stop in Taiwan. I thought that would pique his interest, and it seemed to.

My miracle-working God

But I dreaded manipulating things to make a relationship work out. I knew there would be no real joy unless God was in charge. I began to pray and journal a lot about this man I had just met. I confided my interest to Lori, my roommate at the conference, bemoaning the distance between me in California and Ed in the Philippines. She stopped me short. “Where is your faith in your miracle-working God?” she asked. 

On the final night of our meetings, I was waiting by the elevator as a group of us planned to go outside the hotel for supper. I was sad to see the elevator doors close on a group Ed was with before mine was ready. As we left the hotel a few minutes later, his group was going one way, and my group went another.

Somehow both groups circled around and ended up at Hogate’s, a restaurant on the Potomac waterfront. I saw my director’s eyes twinkling when Ed and I gladly sat next to each other and began to share our food during the meal. Jerry and Ed had been roommates in the Philippines until Jerry married their colleague, Grace, a few years before.

Meeting my parents

Ed offered to help Lori and me with our suitcases on the subway the next day, since she and I planned to visit my parents after the conference. Ed would be staying one more night in Washington to do some sightseeing, and I offered to show him around the following day.

So, five days after I met Ed, he was in my home in Maryland, talking with my Dad about Doniphan County, Kansas, where Ed was from, while I whispered to my Mom in the kitchen, “I like Ed!” It turns out Ed’s hometown, Highland, was six miles from Severance, where my Dad had spent some of his childhood with his aunt and uncle. My Dad’s first cousins still lived in the area. 

Our goodbye on the Washington Mall, reenacted a year later

After sightseeing with others the next day, we said our goodbyes on the long, grassy Mall that L’Enfant envisioned as the centerpiece of Washington. Somehow Ed’s and my hands lingered in a long, drawn-out handshake. Other than the mention of my sending him Elisabeth Elliot’s book, we had not talked about staying in touch.

Still, in the next few days while I visited with my parents, I found myself telling friends about him, looking up the Philippines in the encyclopedia, and playing romantic songs on the piano!

A letter arrives

I was back at work in California when a letter with a Philippine return address, posted in San Francisco, arrived at the office. Ed wrote that meeting me had been the highlight of the planning conference, and asked if I would like to stay in touch. 

I would. I did! Letters crossed the Pacific many times in the next few months, and our Christmas gifts to each other found us at our respective EXPLO 85 sites that December. 

With the tone of our letters deepening, Ed decided he needed to come for a visit the following March. As he left the Philippines for his planned three-week visit, his director shocked him by saying, “Don’t come back until you’re married.” Thomas, from India, had an arranged marriage. Surely a few weeks would be enough for Ed to arrange his marriage!

Thomas’s pressure notwithstanding, we visited for several weeks as we got to know each other better. Ed stayed with a friend to be able to be with me when I wasn’t at work. These weeks showed me more of Ed’s noble character, and I liked, and loved, him more and more. He loved the Lord and was a student of His Word. He was devoted to the cause of Christ — the kind of spiritual leader I had prayed for. His athleticism, sensitive nature, and beautiful brown eyes were special gifts, too! 

Our emotions were up and down, but somehow I felt I’d found someone who could have grown up in my family. I identified with what Mike Mason wrote in The Mystery of Marriage: “It is as if we discover…in a total stranger a near and long-lost relative.”

The big question

I met his family in northeast Kansas for the first time in May. And on May 9, Ed proposed to me on a hill near his home, where the four states in view reminded us of the world we wanted to reach with the good news of Jesus’ love. By then we had talked many hours about so many things, and our dreams and goals seemed to align exactly. I still wondered how much I knew him. But I wanted to be with him. I said yes.

Then, for a time, Ed had cold feet! And I wanted to wait until December to get married. I had always dreamed of having my sister in my wedding. But Ginny and her family lived in Papua New Guinea, where they served with Wycliffe Bible Translators, and were not due to return until December. By the time Ed’s cold feet had warmed, he didn’t think he could wait until December to return to his assignment, and I couldn’t imagine getting married without my sister.

Things were at a standstill one afternoon while we contemplated Ed’s departure for the Philippines without me. As we prayed about it, I was about to say, “Lord, we need a miracle,” when the phone rang. It was Ginny, calling from Papua New Guinea. “When are you getting married?” Ginny asked. “We might be able to come home early.” 

My turn

So, a little over a year from the surprising evening when we had ended up together at Hogate’s restaurant, we hosted our rehearsal dinner there. The next day — Sunday, September 21, 1986 — we were married at my home church in Maryland. Ginny was my matron of honor, and her husband Dan and kids were in the wedding, too, along with other dear family and friends.

In November, Ed and I flew to the Philippines to start our new life together in Asia. My turn to be married had arrived, and it was good. My miracle-working God had done it. 

Years later, I remembered that as a girl, when I had been driving through the Midwest with my family on vacation, I had said to myself, “I wonder what a farmer’s life is really like.” How interesting that I got to find out, because Ed is from a farming family that raises corn and soybeans on the rolling hills of northeast Kansas. 

Still later, I realized that Beverly, a member of Ed’s home church in Highland, was my second cousin. To my delight, as I had little knowledge of my father’s side of the family, she gave me a huge old family Bible and information about generations of our forebears.

Beverly also showed me the home where my father had stayed as a boy and the graveyard where my great-grandmother and great-great-grandmother are buried, all just a few miles from where Ed’s family has lived for generations. I treasure those things.

Passion and purity

By the way, Passion and Purity was the name of the book by Elisabeth Elliot that Ed had wanted me to send him. I did send it to him and got a copy for myself. I couldn’t be more grateful that Ed respected me before our marriage. Though I deeply regretted being unwise to some degree in other relationships, thankfully Ed and I had saved ourselves for our future spouse. I have no doubt our passion after our marriage was made more joyful by our purity before.

Some people say you could end up marrying any one of a number of people. But the way things happened for this suburban girl and her farm boy seemed mighty specific to me. 

I don’t think it was a coincidence that Ed and I ended up with those particular “fortune” cookies. What do you think?

Photo credit: Fortune cookies in process by Meritt Thomas on Unsplash

If you haven’t discovered life in Christ, don’t hesitate to check it out. Life is too short to miss His love and perfect plan for you. Read About “The Nearness of God” or see everyperson.com for more information. You can also read my story of coming to faith in Christ: How My Song Began.

4 thoughts on “Fortune Cookies, A Conference, and A Romance

  1. Even though I lived part of this story with you and got to be at your wedding, the way you wrote this beautiful story made me cry. But they are tears of joy for how God orchestrated everything to bring glory to Himself as he brought you and Ed together.

    1. Thank you so much, dear Harriet. I am happy to hear this. It was special to have you be part of it all. I thought about including the picture I have of one of Ed’s letters, that you and our other housemates decorated with balloons and propped up on pillows on my bed for me to see when I got home. 🙂 Fun memories. So thankful for your prayers that have been a part of all of this too.

  2. Hi Judy, I am thrilled to read this God-honoring story! Thank you for sharing your rich history.

    Devotedly in Christ, Debby Living With Eternal Intentionality®️ First Aid for Our Marriage DebbyThompson.com

    Matthew 28:18-20

    1. Thanks so much, Debby! You are very welcome. I am encouraged to know your thoughts. I’ve been blessed by your writing!

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