TUPELO • Greg Buell is a get-it-done guy – intense, articulate and attentive.
He’s the vice president of development for Global Outreach International, a missions agency headquartered in Tupelo. He and his team are responsible for raising the organization’s $1.2 million annual budget.
His freshly decorated office at Global Outreach looks like all the others along the corridor, except that Buell’s shoes and socks are on the floor under his desk, side-by-side with his computer keyboard.
Born without arms, Buell types with his toes. The 43-year-old pastor’s son said for all his life, he’s been figuring out how to get along without arms.
“My mom said I sucked my toe when I was young,” he said. “It was what I had. People ask, ‘When did you learn to write?’ and I say, ‘About the same time as everybody else; I just did it with my toes.’”
Buell said while he manages most tasks just fine, some of his “workarounds” take more of a toll as he matures.
“I eat with my feet; I do my hair with my feet,” he said. “But as I get older I notice I can’t do everything I used to. When I wash dishes, I sit on a barstool with my feet in the sink. I tend to arch my back, and it gets really tight, so now I have a disc problem.”
While Buell said he’s used to the attention his disability engenders, there are times when he’d just prefer to be another face in the crowd.
“There’s a desire to just shut if off,” he said. “I’d like to be able to go to the grocery store and buy a couple of things and have some anonymity. The most common question I get asked is ‘Are you cold?’ I mean, what 40-year-old man walks around with his arms in his shirt?”
Buell and his wife, Becky, moved to North Mississippi from the Seattle, Washington area in 2018. He said the move from the Pacific Northwest to the sunny South took a bit of getting used to.
“It’s hot,” he said. “So hot. No one in Seattle has air conditioning. When we moved, my friends said ‘You’re going to die.’ In Seattle we have three months of good weather: July through September. In Mississippi, those are the three bad ones.”
Buell said he and his wife left their home and family, and his lucrative career in marketing, to join the Global Outreach team after a mission trip to Africa left them feeling a sense of calling.
“All our family is back in Washington, and I was making a great living,” he said. “But after that trip to Uganda, we had the sense that God was calling us to something. That led to a conversation with Global Outreach. I worked for them for about a year long-distance, and then we moved here.”
Buell earned a bachelor’s degree from Seattle Pacific University, and a master’s degree in Christian Studies from the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology. He said his time in graduate school helped him grapple with age-old theological questions about suffering.
“Grad school gave me the ability to ‘wrestle with God,’ like Jacob in the Old Testament,” he said. “I remember being angry and asking ‘why?’ God seemed to say, ‘You can wrestle and I’ll be present. I’ll be present when you weep and when you celebrate.’ To this day I still wrestle, and I don’t think God is angry with me for that.”
Buell likened these intermittent “wrestling matches” to a familiar theme of child rearing.
“I think of a kid throwing a tantrum,” he said. “The kid is screaming and flailing, while a stable God holds on and says, ‘That’s fine.’ I love the fact that God is present for that. I love that freedom.”
After years of asking big questions, Buell said he’s getting more comfortable with incomplete answers.
“The theme of my life for the last 15 years has been mystery,” he said. “I love it that there are all these biblical passages that lead to mystery. We just don’t get it. We love to nail it down, but I’m starting to become more OK with not having answers.”
Buell said living with a disability has given him a unique perspective on race relations.
“There is a parallel story between our experiences,” he said. “We want everybody to be the same, but we’re not. Whether it’s race or disability, instead of pretending we’re all the same, we need to listen and learn and actively engage with people who are different. We need an appreciation of those who are different from us.”