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Love Story: 42 years and counting for Spokane couple who fell in love in Africa

Her: a quiet, studious girl from Wisconsin who grows up to be a nurse midwife caring for impoverished villagers in Burundi.

Him: a loud, brash boy from Washington who joins the Navy during the Vietnam War, and later serves as a volunteer missionary/mechanic in Rwanda.

Together: They fall in love in Africa and launch a marriage and adventure that spans 42 years and counting.

Though Nate and Pris Thompson “officially” met in Rwanda, their paths had crossed 13 years earlier when they both attended a high school/ junior college in Wessington Springs, South Dakota.

“She was a college freshman and I was a high school senior,” said Nate.

They moved in different circles.

When Nate graduated from high school, he returned to his hometown of Colville. In November 1962, he drove to the Navy recruiter in Spokane and said, “I want diesel school. I want four years, and I want to go as soon as possible.”

Four days later he was sworn in.

“I could hear my mother sobbing in the background,” he recalled. “The next day I was in San Diego.”

Meanwhile, Pris pursued her dreams. After graduating from nursing school in South Dakota, she continued her education at Seattle Pacific University and the University of Washington, where she received her Bachelor of Science in nursing and public health.

But she had a bigger dream in mind.

“I really felt God had called me to be a missionary,” she said.

And her church wanted her to continue her education.

“They said there’d be many times I would be working without a doctor and it would be great if I could become a midwife.”

So that’s what she did, attending Frontier Midwifery School in Kentucky and practicing her skills in rural Harlan County.

She still remembers stitching up a coal miner’s eye.

“We had to learn to do everything – not just deliver babies,” she said. “It prepared me well for Africa.”

While she was suturing miners and delivering babies, Nate was immersed in a different kind of action. In 1964, he was assigned to the USS Ogden and was deployed twice to Vietnam.

“It hurts me to say it, but my ship is now a reef,” Nate said. “They towed her offshore of Hawaii (in 2014) and sunk her.”

When he was discharged, he returned to the girl he’d left behind in San Diego.

“She said, ‘I’ll marry you when you get out of the Navy,’ but when I got out she gave my ring back.”

So he returned to the Northwest, eventually settling in Spokane.

A world away, Pris was in Belgium learning French in preparation for her posting to Africa. In 1972, she and her roommate, Mim, arrived in Burundi.

“It was a time of war and violence,” Pris recalled. “Mim and I were the only medical staff – no doctors. We grew up fast.”

Back in Spokane, Nate attended a church service where a missionary spoke of the great need for mechanics in Africa. That service sparked a childhood memory.

“A missionary from Africa came to our church. He’d shot a lion and put little locks of the lion’s mane in plastic bags and gave us each one.”

Tears filled his eyes at the memory.

“I still have it. Such a little thing that ended up meaning everything.”

He wanted to serve as a volunteer. But it took eight months for all the pieces to fall into place. He sold the trailer he’d been living in to a pastor in Chewelah. The pastor’s wife had attended school in Wessington Springs and pulled out a photo of Pris.

“You should look her up,” she said.

Nate replied, “She’s in Burundi. They’re killing people there. I’m going to Rwanda. Besides, I’m done with women.”

In April 1973, he arrived in Rwanda, shortly before an areawide missionary retreat was scheduled. Pris’s friend Mim had married a fellow missionary and was living there.

“Mim wrote to me and told me that a volunteer missionary named Nate Thompson was coming,” said Pris. “She wrote, ‘But I don’t think you’ll like him. He’s big. He’s loud. He’s like a truck driver.’ ”

Mim was wrong.

“I walked into the dining hall and saw him. I just remember his eyes were so blue – it was like his orbits were blue,” said Pris. “And then, when I heard him share his testimony, it dawned on me – that’s the man I’m going to marry. I knew in my heart I loved him.”

Nate found the black-haired beauty attractive, and they worked closely together as youth leaders during the 10-day retreat.

Soon it was time to say goodbye. Nate was going to Zaire, and Pris was returning to Burundi.

“We need to lay our cards on the table,” he said.

“Nate, I love you,” she replied.

In their North Side living room, they fell silent and looked at each other.

“That’s where it got difficult,” Nate said. “I knew her personal call to be a missionary was more important than being married and I did not have a call.”

“I wished I hadn’t revealed my heart so openly,” said Pris.

She needn’t have worried. A short time later while reading a passage in 2 Corinthians, Nate received his own personal call to the mission field.

Three weeks later, Pris came to Zaire to train nurses. On the shores of Lake Tanganyika, Nate told her that he loved her and asked, “Pris, will you have me for better for worse, in sickness and health and all that rot?”

She replied, “If you’re stupid enough to ask me, I’m smart enough to say yes.”

They then spent their eight-month engagement in different countries, seeing each other just twice, and one of those visits was for only an hour.

On April 16, 1974, they married in Burundi, with villagers peeking in through the church window and goats frolicking outside. Soon they returned stateside where Nate was commissioned as a full-time missionary and where Pris gave birth to their daughter, Cerissa.

The following year they returned to Burundi for a three-year assignment. Their son, Nate, arrived in 1978. Constant political turmoil and violence erupted and resulted in them being expelled from the country with just 48 hours notice.

While stateside, Pris worked at both Deaconess and Sacred Heart hospitals, and Nate graduated from Spokane Community College.

In 1985, they were sent to Zaire for four years and their children, then 8 and 11, were sent to boarding school.

Of being apart from her children, Pris said, “It was terrible. It was so hard. I feel like it was the only thing I truly had to sacrifice as a missionary.”

During another posting in war-torn Zaire, Pris learned that their son had checked the school bulletin board every day to see if they’d been killed during the evacuation.

Finally in 1993, the family returned to Spokane to stay. Pris worked for Providence Sacred Heart for 17 years and spent many years volunteering and working on the staff of Life Services. Nate worked as a mechanic for the Sheriff’s Office before retiring in 2007.

Their 42-year marriage has spanned two continents, survived political uprisings, endured separation from family and left them profoundly thankful.

“Marriage takes commitment and love that recognizes that we can get through the hard times as well as enjoy the wonderful times.” said Pris, 75. “Nate honors me and lets me be myself.”

When Nate, 73, paused to consider what he most appreciates about his wife, he choked up. Then he turned his blue eyes toward her. “She loves me in spite of me,” he said.


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