Emeritus missionaries recount ups & downs
"Are you an angel?" the woman asked. "Have you come to tell my family about Jesus?"
"I eventually learned this lady had come to know the Lord through dreams and visions," Eardensohn recounted at a Sept. 14 service honoring emeritus International Mission Board missionaries. "She had once been a devout Muslim. Now she is a devout follower of Jesus."
It was only one moment in the 27 years Eardensohn and her husband Bill spent serving as missionaries in Tanzania. But she will never forget it. Telling people about Jesus is the reason the couple went to Africa in the first place.
The Eardensohns joined 50 other missionaries honored at the annual emeritus recognition service, held this year at IMB's International Learning Center in Rockville, Va. Among them, the missionaries counted 1,357 combined years of service in places stretching from Argentina to Indonesia, from Australia to sub-Saharan Africa.
"This is not really the ending. It is the beginning of a new chapter in [their] lives," said IMB President Tom Elliff as he introduced the veteran workers. "They've got their sights set on what God has for them in the days ahead. But we get to celebrate the fact that they have sown their lives into the lives of countless thousands of people around this world."
The missionaries' memories were as varied as the places where they worked. But they shared several common themes: God told them to go. He used them despite their own shortcomings, fears and struggles. He multiplied new believers through them -- believers who are now discipling many others for Christ.
And He's not through with these faithful folks yet.
Pediatrician Ken Hinton treated children at Kediri Baptist Hospital in Indonesia for his first 19 years of service and taught pediatrics and other subjects to university students for an additional 15. But before he even finished language school as a first-termer, Hinton discovered his true gift: teaching Scripture to young people.
"Words cannot express my gratitude to the Lord for turning this shy, attention-fearing, self-doubting baby doctor into, of all things, a teacher who discovered the absolute joy of telling the old, old stories of Jesus and His love to slack-jawed, goggle-eyed youth -- many hearing them for the first time," Hinton said. "I thank Him for the precious privilege of seeing some of these become pastors, evangelists and even medical missionaries, doing far more for the coming Kingdom than I ever imagined."
In retirement, Hinton is still mentoring and counseling young Indonesians via Facebook, Skype and telephone.
During 34 years in Peru and Chile, Ken and Linda Bowie experienced earthquakes, droughts, floods, a military coup, martial law, terrorism, robberies, illnesses and shortages of food and water. But God protected them, and their persistence gained them credibility with the people they served.
"When we left Kansas to go to Peru, we didn't know that the overwhelming physical need of Peruvians for water would give us an opportunity to go to villages high in the Andes Mountains and to barren coastal deserts to drill wells, which in turn would soften hearts to hear and accept Jesus Christ as the Living Water that they most needed," Linda said.
Now they're seeing some of the Peruvians and Chileans they trained as disciples reach out to a new generation, not only in their own nations but as missionaries in other places. The Bowies plan to stay vitally involved in retirement as they lead volunteer groups to Latin America.
Jim and Kay Chandler have seen former students at Taiwan's Morrison Christian Academy "join the ranks of radical believers reaching the uttermost parts of the world." One is living in a hovel beside untouchables in India. Another is striving to reach Muslims in Southeast Asia.
"With sadness and joy we leave after 30 years of serving in Taiwan," Jim reflected. "We're sad to say goodbye to those we'll never see again in this world, but we rejoice as we think of these we will see again in heaven because God allowed us to have a part in their salvation."
Baker and Gail Hill, who spent 27 years ministering to Muslims in West Africa, initially scoffed at the idea of spending the closing days of their missionary careers in the Canadian province of Quebec. "We wanted to continue working with unreached peoples," Gail said. "But God has a sense of humor -- and a global perspective."
Even though four years in chilly Quebec felt like going from "the oven to the freezer" after West Africa, Baker explained, "God enlarged our hearts and let us fall in love with a new people group less evangelized than many we had worked with in Africa." They planted a French-speaking church in Montreal that now has a network of cell groups, a daughter church and a thriving ministry to children.
Dan and Brenda Caldwell already had two grown sons when they became missionaries. Entering middle age, they weren't ready for the staggering challenges they would face in South America. But God doesn't call people to be fully prepared before they follow Him; He calls people to be obedient.
Twenty-two years ago, "God said 'Go,'" the Caldwells said. "So we left sons in college and took our daughter to the Amazon Valley of Brazil. He said, 'Make disciples and baptize them,' so we witnessed and baptized believers in the river.
"He said, 'Teach them to obey all I have commanded,' so we taught in churches, training classes, English classes and Bible institutes in the jungle and on the river. He said, 'I am with you always' -- and He was, as we struggled with Portuguese, dengue fever and pneumonia, when our parents and siblings died, as we ministered to the needs of others. Was it hard? Extremely. Worth it? Definitely, [as we saw] the lost saved and those we discipled now discipling others."
Brian and Linda Peterson, 25-year veterans of ministry in South and Southeast Asia, sang one of the worship songs they hear South Asian believers sing as they worship in their own way. Most Americans wouldn't recognize the song or the worship styles, but God does.
"God is multiplying churches like this" in South Asia, Linda said. "They do not look or sound like our American churches, but they clearly belong to Jesus. They proclaim the Gospel in ways that Hindus can understand." Hundreds of spiritual seekers are hearing the Good News every week, even as persecution by militant Hindus increases.
After 25 years in Fiji and the Philippines, Dwight and Gloria Fern are still amazed by God's power to transform lives. They remember the young Indian drug dealer in Fiji who gave his life to Christ and led more than 100 friends and family members to faith within a year. They remember the Philippine pastor they mentored for 10 years. He used "Training for Trainers" methods to start 80 small groups out of a church with only 50 members.
"Hundreds of people came to Christ and two new churches were formed," Dwight said. The pastor continues mentoring "hundreds of pastors with a vision for reaching Manila for Christ. Thank you so much, Southern Baptists, for the privilege of taking the Gospel to the world."
When the missionaries finished sharing their memories and reflections, Elliff called on listeners to pay tribute to their service. An extended standing ovation followed.
"What you have in these front rows are people who said [to God], 'I'm yours; I'm not afraid to die,'" Elliff said of the emeritus group. "Any man or woman who is unafraid to die is ready to live."
Turning to them, he added, "God bless you. Thank you for showing me -- for showing us -- what it means to finish well."
Erich Bridges is global correspondent for the International Mission Board. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).