By Jean A. Flanagan
It’s been said that the road of life seldom follows a straight line. That is certainly the case with McKenzie Clark Bounaiuto.
McKenzie grew up in Moorefield, the daughter of Bob and Melissa Clark. She graduated from Moorefield High School in 2008 and went on to attend West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buchannon. She studied Political Science, which included an internship with U.S. Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito in Washington, D.C.
When she graduated from West Virginia Wesleyan in 2012, McKenzie went back to Washington to sort out her future.
“I was thinking about going to law school, so I went back to DC to get some advice from people I worked with there,” she said. “It just so happened that Sen. Capito had an opening on her staff, so I went to work as a Legislative Aide for Foreign Policy.”
McKenzie began traveling outside the United States and felt a connection with people in the Middle East. Instead of law school, she decided to get a Master’s Degree in International Affairs with a specialty on the Middle East.
All was well, but her world was about to be turned upside down.
In August 2015, McKenzie reconnected with a college friend, Joe Buonaiuto.
Joe graduated from Fairmont High School in 2008 and went to West Virginia Wesleyan to study accounting. He graduated in 2012 with a degree in accounting and economics and went on to West Virginia University to earn his MBA. He went to work for Price Waterhouse Cooper, a large accounting firm in Virginia.[private]
Quickly disillusioned with the corporate world, Joe began missionary work in 2013.
“My first trip with Overland Missions was six weeks in Africa,” he said. “It is where I’m supposed to be.”
Overland Missions is an interdenominational effort based on the gospel of Jesus Christ. Teams of missionaries go on short-term expeditions to isolated villages in Africa, Asia and South America to preach the gospel.
In addition to the ministry, Overland Missions also support clean water projects, provides health and social services, agricultural and livestock management. The objective is self-sustainability and the program has an exit strategy once that goal is reached.
Overland has missions in Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Morocco and Zanzibar on the African continent. They also work in Cambodia and Brazil.
The missionaries work with the leaders of the tribes of the sector they are assigned. In Zambia, for example, there are 228 Chiefdoms.
“We work to find a spiritual advisor for each of the chiefs,” Joe said. “They continue to spread the Word to the people of the village once we’re gone.”
In August, 2015, McKenzie made a donation to Overland Missions.
“I got a message back from Joe, and I just assumed it was because of the donation,” she said. “We hadn’t spoken in years.”
But it wasn’t about the donation at all. Joe had just stumbled on McKenzie’s contact information and recognized her from college.
“We started talking and met again in November,” McKenzie said. “Between November and January we decided to get married.”
So, what would make a woman from Moorefield, West Virginia, quit her very lucrative, high-profile job as a Legislative Aide in Washington D.C. get married and go to Africa to be a missionary?
McKenzie laughed. “I found that working on foreign policy in Senator Capito’s office, I had a real passion for the Middle East and the people there. It was something inside me that said doing God’s work would take me away from the United States.”
There were some challenges to overcome. McKenzie was enrolled at American University, working on her Master’s Degree. Both her and Joe had a ton of student loans.
And, she had never been to Africa, never considered becoming a missionary.
And there was the great job, and family and friends.
“I was sitting in church one day, just praying about everything and kind-of looking for direction,” McKenzie said. “A lady walked up and put her hand on my shoulder and said, ‘God’s provision is greater than whatever financial concerns you might have.’ I was blown away. That was my answer. I found that woman later and told her how much her words meant to me.”
Shortly thereafter, Joe was offered a three-month job at Price Waterhouse and Cooper. It provided enough money to pay off their student loans.
In February, McKenzie met with Senator Capito and told her of their plans. “She was very supportive and wished us the best,” she said.
McKenzie’s last day of work was April 15, 2016. She took final exams at the end of April. She and Joe got married on May 1 and left for Zambia the next day. “We did take a week for kind-of a honeymoon in Istanbul, Turkey,” she said.
Overland Missions has an orientation process and Advanced Mission Training. McKenzie’s Advanced Mission Training was six months long.
“We learn everything from wilderness first aide to vehicle repair to preaching the gospel,” she said. “It was the first time I had been to Africa, so it was an exciting adventure.”
They staying in Livingston, Zambia, but traveled around central Africa.
“The capital of Zambia is Lusaka, which is about seven hours away,” Joe said.
“There was a certain amount of anxiety because of the separation from everything I’ve ever known,” McKenzie said. “But there is also a peace that comes from re-centering on what I believe is important. It comes from a desire to help people.
“The base camp has basic amenities, indoor plumbing and electricity. When we go into the villages, it’s only for a week and it’s refreshing to connect with the people.”
Joe said while he sometimes misses family, friends and good food, “The benefits of what we’re doing in the grand scheme of things totally outweighs any of that.”
“Some of my family and friends thought I was crazy,” McKenzie said. “My Mom said she could see it coming, but had a lot of questions. She wanted to make sure I was going to be safe.”
“There is some amount of risk,” Joe said. “But in the realm of what matters, there is definitely more risk, but definitely more rewards.
“And I always think of Joshua 1:9, ‘Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.’ That pretty much says it all.”
McKenzie and Joe left last week for what they call a reconnaissance visit. They will be traveling to Oman, Israel, Jordon, Iraq and Kuwait.
“Israel is a great place to launch out of into other countries,” McKenzie said. “A lot of missionaries that do work all over the Middle East are based out of Israel. We will be meeting with those people to get an idea of what other ministries are going on throughout the region.”
“We want to see what the need is with the intent of establishing bases in the future,” Joe said.
Joe and McKenzie do not plan to be back in the United States until November 2018, although they could be back as early as November this year. “We actually don’t know yet, when we’ll be back,” McKenzie said.
Joe and McKenzie said they hoped by telling their story, others become interested in missionary work.
“I would encourage them to contact Joe or I via email,” McKenzie said. “You can also find out more about Overland and our short-term mission trips on the website www.overlandmissions.com.”
Those email addresses are as follows: