August marks 25 years since we arrived in Japan as missionaries. Many of you have prayed for us and also supported us financially from the very beginning. Others of you have known us only recently and are not familiar with the our story. As we think back, we want to say thank you for the many ways you’ve stood with us over these years. Recently a Japanese Deaf pastor borrowed my digital camera and when it was returned I noticed some video recordings that had not been there before. He had taken the camera to church and various Deaf church members had signed their greetings to us. Each one, to a person, expressed their thanks to the Church in America for sending missionaries. We will be seeing this pastor again next week as he is one of two who have asked to work on a translation of Ephesians. They feel it is crucial in teaching the believers they shepherd what it means to be Church. We are thrilled to have such partners, want to join them in thanking you for the privilege of being here. So with our thanks, here starts a recounting of the story that brought us to where we are today.
The Penner Saga, Part 1.
We were still newlyweds with Mark in school studying journalism and Mary Esther working as an RN, when Mark’s parents wrote a letter that, though we didn’t begin to know it then, changed the course of our lives.
Mark’s parents were missionaries in Northeast Japan and needed to take a 6 month Home Assignment to the US. They had an open home Deaf outreach ministry and were discipling a few young Deaf believers and asked if we would consider “filling in” while they were gone. “Just live here, be around, keep the house open to people” sounded like something we should be able to do. We applied to the mission to go to Japan for a 6 month short term missions trip.
Mark’s parent’s home provided a haven for the Deaf who at that time would not sign openly in public and experienced a great deal of discrimination. It served both as the local Deaf “coffee shop” for those who wanted to chat and play games, as well as the meeting place for those eager to study the Bible. Some came just at meals, ready for a free spaghetti dinner. More than physical hunger was their obvious spiritual hunger. During supper we sometimes had to put a stop to further questions so Mark could eat. (Holding chopsticks while signing was a skill we hadn’t mastered yet.) Reading the Japanese Bible was clearly a challenge for many of the Deaf who gathered. The prefectural school they attended did not use sign language in class, so some learned as best they could in the environment, while others occupied themselves socializing. Mark’s parents regularly had Deaf young people stay with them, sometimes living there for weeks at a time, teaching them enough reading that they would be able to pass the written driving test. At one point an indignant parent called the school and reported that the Christian foreigner had succeeded in teaching her son to read where they had failed.
During our time there, people came to the house almost every day. Of the 183 days there, on only 10 days did we have no visitors.
At the end of the 6 months they asked when we’d be returning. We explained that Mark’s parents would be returning; we had our lives to live in the US. They didn’t seem to get it. We tried to be very clear: it was Mark’s parents who were the missionaries, not us. Finally, both they and we agreed to “pray about it.” We returned to the States, Mark went back to school and Mary Esther back to nursing.