How one family exchanged the American Dream for a new life in South Africa
By Carol Pipes
Joey Lankford’s life was almost too perfect.
He and his wife, Courtney, had a successful business near Nashville, Tennessee, a big house in the ‘burbs, cars, money, two vacation homes, everything you can imagine.
“Life was good. I was making a great salary running the family business; we bought a farm on the south side of town and built a 5,000-square-foot dream house; we were living the epitome of the American dream.
“At the time, I was content with our lifestyle,” says Joey.
But if you ask him where God ranked in his life, he’d say somewhere at the bottom of the list.
“I’d compartmentalized my life into work, family, friends, church, and faith,” says Joey. “The cogs weren’t even touching each other.”
In 2008, Joey turned 30. He took a good long look at his life—and his bank account. Materially, nothing was lacking. But deep down he knew something was missing.
“I remember asking myself, why do I feel like there’s supposed to be more to life than this?”
That same year Joey’s brother invited him to go on a mission trip to Nicaragua with his church. He said yes.
“That trip was a squirt of fuel on a fire that was already burning inside of me,” recalls Joey. “I knew something was extremely wrong with the way I was living my life. I had problems with my wife, problems with my kids, and I felt like faith had zero influence on my daily life.”
He had everything culture said was important, and was absolutely miserable.
One winter night he went down to his barn, settled in on the hay, and began to pray and pour out his heart to God. He stayed in the barn for two more days.
“By Saturday afternoon, I was broken,” says Joey. “I was pleading with God to come to me in that place if He was real.”
God showed up. “God began to reveal to me that He could be the ‘more’ of my life if I would get down off the throne of my life and put Him there.
“I went back to the house, grabbed Courtney, looked her in the eyes, and told her things were going to be different, that I had surrendered my life to the Lord,” says Joey.
Together they began to pray and ask God for what was next in their lives.
Soon Joey and Courtney began to see God’s provision and plan. He placed a desire in them to serve on the international mission field. With no college degree, much less a seminary degree, this camo-wearing, Tennessee boy couldn’t imagine how God would use him on the mission field.
Through his church in Brentwood, Tennessee, Joey learned of Living Hope, a ministry in South Africa. Living Hope began in 2000 through the work of John Thomas, a local South African pastor, who saw the need to minister to his neighbors who were suffering from HIV/AIDs. The ministry is divided into four areas addressing the problems of healthcare, homelessness, HIV/AIDS education and prevention, and economic empowerment.
The 14-year-old non-profit had begun a job creation and empowerment arm of the organization. That got Joey’s attention.
“God said to me, ‘I’m going to use you in the way I’ve wired you—to do business and to love people. I’m going to allow you to develop relationships and connect with as many people as you can get in front of. I’m going to give you something you’re more passionate about than medical equipment.’”
God confirmed to both Courtney and Joey that He was calling them to South Africa. They sold everything and moved the family to a town 30 minutes outside Cape Town, where Joey is using his God-given gifts to equip people with job skills and lead them out of poverty through agricultural business.
Scores of people from rural areas have left their farmlands to come to the city seeking work and a better life, Joey explains. Many never find the dream they’re chasing. Most live in poverty. With the right vision and training, a number of these people can not only supply their daily needs through their farms, but they can develop them into successful businesses.
Joey uses a work-study approach, where students earn a wage while learning hands-on skills. He’s teaching his students to grow superior quality produce equivalent to what you’d buy at an American Whole Foods. He’s also teaching them to market and sell their product.
The vegetables are grown in 100-foot-long hydroponic tunnels. The program has captured the attention of local restaurant owners as well as South Africa’s elite. Who knew a fancy tomato could level the playing field between the poorest of South Africa and the richest?
Joey has watched several of his graduates go on to start their own businesses, and others find employment at other cooperative farms.
“I haven’t done anything for the South African people that God couldn’t have done with someone else,” Joey says. “God moved me to South Africa, because He wanted me to know Him more fully and deeply. He wanted the power of that to flow through me and spill out on other people. Because it is God’s love that changes lives.”
Joey spends his days working alongside the students, digging in the dirt and discipling them. And he loves it.
He and Courtney now have five children: Briley, Braxton, Barron, Bristol—who they adopted from Ethiopia—and Baylor, who was born in South Africa last year. They love the life they’ve carved out with their family near the southern-most tip of the continent. Joey tells the story of their journey in his book Fulfilled, published this summer by B&H.
He says the book is not about international missions, but rather about surrendering everything to God.
“I want people to know true fulfillment is waiting on the other side of surrender,” he says. “I hope people will come away from reading this book inspired and encouraged to inquire more seriously of God about what He wants of their lives so they can step into that fulfillment.”
Carol Pipes (@CarolPipes) is editor of Facts & Trends. Above photo by David Kiern (www.davidkiern.com).