EDITOR’S NOTE: This year’s Week of Prayer for International Missions in the Southern Baptist Convention is Dec. 1-8 with the theme of “Totally His heart, hands, voice” from Matthew 22:36-39. The Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions in tandem with Cooperative Program gifts from Southern Baptist churches support nearly 5,000 international missionaries in seeking to fulfill the Great Commission. Gifts to the Lottie Moon offering are received through local Southern Baptist churches or online at imb.org/offering, where there are resources to promote the offering. This year’s goal is $175 million.
ASUNCION, Paraguay (BP) — Inside a small Buddhist temple in Shiojiri, Japan, 23-year-old missionary Steven Kunkel — who hails from Paraguay — sits at a grand piano, playing one of his original compositions called “Creation.” Seated on the floor nearby, a Buddhist woman listens to the music, enthralled.
She’s the caretaker of the temple and an adjoining Buddhist training center, and she’s giving a tour of the place to Steven along with a Japanese pastor and a media crew from the International Mission Board. The impromptu concert develops after Steven spots the Yamaha piano and asks the woman’s permission to play it for her.
She watches and listens, transfixed, as Steven’s fingers glide across the keyboard. When he finishes, she wants to hear more. His next song, another original called “The Battle,” leaves her equally captivated.
Listening to Steven’s music, I feel my own heart stir a bit, too. I remember the first time I heard him play these songs — a half a world away in Asunción, Paraguay. It was the day after he was commissioned by his church as an independent missionary to Japan.
Steven sat at the piano in his parents’ home, sharing his music with family friend Jonathan Yao, IMB photographer Rebecca Springer and me. As Steven’s moving melodies filled the living room, I glanced at his parents — IMB missionaries Tim and Iracema Kunkel — who listened nearby.
The joy in their eyes told a story.
It was a story I started writing more than 13 years ago, when Tim and Iracema were IMB missionaries in Salto, Uruguay. Then I worked as a writer at IMB’s home office in Richmond, Va., but I knew God was calling me to serve overseas as a missionary.
“There’s no way I’ll go,” I told God.
I loved traveling to the mission field, reporting stories about missionaries and their families. But go myself as a missionary?
“Please don’t make me do this,” I prayed.
I had every excuse in the book and voiced each one of them to God. Often.
“Forget it, Lord,” I actually prayed. “I don’t have what it takes.”
In the midst of that struggle, I spent a week with the Kunkel family in Uruguay, on IMB assignment for what was then The Commission magazine. Steven was just 10 years old; his older brother, John Glenn, was 12. Their older sister, Julia, had already left home for college.
Down-to-earth, authentic and fun, Tim and Iracema opened their home to an IMB photographer and me that week.
In an interview I’ll never forget, the couple shared candidly what they experienced the day they learned Steven had autism, a developmental brain disorder causing problems in communication, behavior and social interaction.
“It was like I lost one child and then another one was born,” Iracema remembered. “But I knew God had a plan for Steven.”
“At first I thought, ‘Let’s just pack up and go home,'” Tim admitted. “But then I realized that when God called us to missions, He knew the children we were going to have. He allowed this to happen and He has a purpose in this.”
The Kunkels saw that purpose unfold while staying faithful to their missions calling and trying to help Steven — and their two older children — become all God created them to be. At the same time, they shared the Gospel, trained Uruguayan church leaders and helped Uruguayan Baptists start churches.
“I’m realizing now that a lot of what God’s had us doing on the mission field … [wasn’t] so much about us as missionaries. It was about Steven,” Iracema said.
Because Uruguay offered few educational programs for people with autism, Iracema studied special education so she could teach Steven herself. Soon, God opened doors for sharing Christ with Uruguayan families affected by autism. Other doors opened through the Kunkels’ friendships with Uruguayans.
“Many people we’ve met think we’ve been dealt a ‘bum hand,'” Tim said. “But when they realize we don’t feel that way, it helps us be a witness of God’s power.”
I saw that power for myself one night in a restaurant while we shared a meal with the Kunkel family. After we finished eating, Steven walked up to the restaurant host and looked him straight in the eye.
“Do you have ice cream?” he asked in Spanish.
His parents watched, amazed at how far God had brought Steven. Six years earlier Steven couldn’t even speak English, let alone Spanish.
“He’s a walking miracle,” Tim said.
Iracema added, “A lesson I’ve learned through Steven is that miracles don’t always happen in the blink of an eye. Sometimes God does miracles through a long slow process, using many different people.
“Autism is never cured. But I feel God has been healing Steven little by little.”
From South America to East Asia
After I returned to Richmond, I prayed for the right words to tell this family’s story.
“Call it, ‘A lesson in miracles,'” God seemed to say.
Soon after that, God did a miracle in me, too. Five months after the story was published, I was appointed an IMB media missionary.
In the years that followed, I lost touch with the Kunkels. But this past year at an IMB meeting in Chile, I heard Iracema call my name.
“When I saw your name on the list [of participants], I couldn’t wait to talk to you!” she said. “You won’t believe what’s happened with Steven! He’s going to be a missionary — to Japan!”
Over a meal the next day, she and Tim shared the rest of their story.
At age 15 in Uruguay, Steven felt God’s call to Japan. No Japanese people lived in Salto, so Steven started trying to learn Japanese on his own. Iracema bought him a Japanese phrasebook and he soon mastered all of it.
“He couldn’t stop talking about Japan,” she recalled.
The next year, the IMB transferred the Kunkels to Paraguay, where many Japanese immigrants live. Steven attended a Japanese school, served in a Japanese-Paraguayan church and learned to speak and read Japanese. In 2011 Steven visited Japan with family friend Jonathan Yao, and that trip opened the door for him to serve as a volunteer missionary there.
Three weeks after seeing the Kunkels in Chile, I flew to Paraguay to attend Steven’s commissioning service at a Japanese-Paraguayan house church in Asunción.
“I’ve felt today that so many questions about Steven’s autism have been answered, like a veil is being lifted from my eyes and I’m seeing things through God’s eyes,” Iracema told me after the service. “I’m thinking, ‘for this day you were born, Steven.'”
A few months later, I saw some things through God’s eyes, too.
On location in Japan’s Nagano province, our IMB media crew interviewed Steven about his work as a missionary there. For a “Kids On Mission” video we titled, “God Can Use You,” Steven shared what God had done in his life.
“My favorite verse is Philippians 4:13: ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,'” Steven said. “No matter how disabled you are or what kind of house you live in or what kind of country you’re from or what kind of race you are, you just know that if God is with you, who can be against you, because through Him we can do all things.”
He added, “I’m fulfilling the work that God called me to do, and I feel I am following my vision and my dreams for what God wants me to do on this earth.”
Listening to Steven’s interview that day, I realized I was following God’s dream for me, too.
“Thank you, Lord, for your ‘lesson in miracles,'” I prayed.
Remarkably, the miracles of the Kunkel family began to unfold a century earlier.
In the 1880s, Southern Baptists sent William and Anne Bagby as one of the first Foreign Mission Board (now IMB) missionary couples to Brazil. The Bagbys led Iracema’s grandparents and their 13 children to Christ.
“Four generations later,” Tim reflected, “and missions is still working!”
Maria Elena Baseler serves as an IMB writer/editor in the Americas.