What makes a missionary family?
It was a simple choice that set an unexpected life trajectory which guides a family on mission into the third generation. In the 1960s, a newly-minted U.S. Mennonite teacher chose voluntary service with the Mennonite Brethren – teaching high school in Colombia – as conscientious objection to the U.S. army. Some five decades later, Harold Ens is retired from a missionary career that included service in DR Congo and Panama, and as mission administrator, first of Latin America, then as general director of the international MB agency. Now he and Helen watch their three children and families serve God: Carmen and her husband Andy Owen, in Thailand long-term; Lowell and his wife Melissa completing a three-year term in Peru; and Matt and his wife Anne, nurturing a church plant in California.
So what turns one man’s choice into a generational family business?
Though Harold and Helen are the first to carry the title “missionary,” the family legacy of mission-heartedness doesn’t start with them. Growing up on a farm in Dinuba, Cal., Harold watched his father develop chapels for farm workers and spend many a Sunday preaching to Dustbowl families. “I was exposed to this whole idea of mission in my childhood through my dad’s work, but I never thought that’s what I was going to do,” he says with a laugh.
In rural Kansas, Helen’s parents always hosted travelling missionaries, opening a door to the world for a girl living in a culturally homogenous community. “They thought a lot of missionaries,” she says, and they encouraged her to serve an eye-opening summer term with Mennonite Central Committee in Washington D.C. as a young woman.
From their respective locations, Harold and Helen chose to join the Christian service team in Cali, Colombia, once they had graduated with their teaching certification – and the rest is history. Married shortly after their return to the U.S., they soon followed their sense of God’s leading abroad again when they were apprised of need for a math teacher (Harold’s field) in the mission-founded American school in DR Congo.
Once their four-year term was completed, they were ready to come back and “begin the American dream…but God worked in our hearts.” They’d settled into jobs and a house in a mountain town in California, but they felt God asking, “What are you doing here?” Still calling themselves teachers, not missionaries, they prayed together and tentatively sent applications to MB Mission.
The Ens family landed in Panama City, Panama, taking a supporting role to the indigenous churches. “Growing up in Panama really gave [the children] a picture of mission,” says Harold. Lowell, Carmen and Matt learned by watching and doing. At the Indian centre in Panama City where Harold and Helen ministered to youth from Embera and Wounaan tribes, preteen Carmen’s tasks involved making popsicles or preparing crafts for the children. She recalls “feeling it was a privilege to be there with my folks, being involved in what they were doing.”
Lowell, who remembers accompanying his father on trips to the jungle, now takes one of his own children with him when his work in Peru involves visiting churches a 6–10 hour bus ride away. “These trips are a highlight,” he says. The children have learned to appreciate the Peruvians who are so different from them. “They love the people even in those rural churches.”
In their church planting activities in Thailand, Carmen and Andy gave their boys responsibility, some sort of engagement, “even if just befriending a new child,” says Carmen. “We tried to bring them alongside, so they were part of what we were doing.” The Owens are now working in member care where the children are less involved, but son Connor, who starred in MB Mission’s multimedia children’s curriculum on Thailand, says, “I consider myself a missionary; it’s hard to think about life as being something else.”
When the Enses returned to the U.S. for Harold to take up the mantle of administrator for the Latin American field, “We tried to be sensitive to our children – how will we help our children grow, and be discipled and have friends in Christian community,” says Harold. In Hillsboro, Kan., where they settled, there were three MB churches (two with ties to Helen’s family), but before Harold had a chance to check them out, Carmen and Lowell had been drawn in by the youth group at the third. So that was where the family went together.
Similarly, the Owens make decisions as a family. Even with big decisions like moving, “we ask [the children] to pray and hear from the Lord,” says Carmen. This flows naturally out of searching God’s Word together. “Morning devotions were just a standard for our family,” says Harold, and Carmen has continued the tradition at the other end of the day. “Even if it’s really late, we share what the Lord has done in that day and pray about the hard things,” says Carmen. “We share highs and lows every day at dinner [too], and that becomes an opportunity to talk about how God is at work around us, both transforming us and using us to impact others for his glory.”
It rubs off. “It’s really impacted me,” says Connor. “It’s been good to have a regular rhythm of reading the Bible and talking about it with [my parents].”
“Our home was always open to people,” says Helen. While in Panama, several indigenous Panamanian students lived with the family for periods of several weeks to two years. “I think of those guys as my older brothers,” says Lowell. Other times, couples undergoing marriage counselling would stay over. Back on U.S. soil, “we would invite anyone we found,” says Helen.
Matt says, “I experienced the heart of discipleship first-hand.” He watched his parents adopt spiritual children as they trained, empowered and promoted the next generation of local leaders in Panama. “The platform was anywhere the people were: the indigenous church, our Mitsubishi minivan, our kitchen table.” Even after returning to the States, he saw that “going out from church walls was how kingdom impact happened.”
Though it never left Lowell’s heart to return overseas, he and Melissa worked in the marketplace for many years before heading to Peru. However, that didn’t prevent their children from having childhood experiences that gave them a broader sense of the world. Toby and Mikaela both attended dual-immersion school in Fresno, so were already fluent in Spanish before arriving in Peru.
In every sphere of life, but particularly in full-time ministry, “the prayer piece is so crucial,” Lowell says. He notes how his prayer life has changed: “it’s less a morning devotions thing and more of a constant communication.”
Canadian missionary nurse Herta Voth modelled this for the Ens family in Panama. “She taught us and the kids that the first thing was prayer and then the injection,” says Harold.
Lowell has learned that it’s not only his own prayers but those of others that have impact. “It’s become crucial to send out newsletters,” he says. “We almost sit there and wait for people to respond. All they have to do is write back and say ‘We’re praying for you’…. That’s what I need to know. We can sense when people are praying for us.”
“We should have been robbed by now, we should have been mugged; it’s only by the grace of God and people who have prayed for us,” he says. And in the really tough times, like when young son Timothy contracted multiple infections and landed up in the hospital, “when you don’t know how to pray, the body of Christ comes around you – knowing they are praying for you; it’s such an amazing experience.”
In his years in mission administration, Harold crisscrossed the globe and visited hundreds of North American MB churches. He’s taken planes, trains, and automobiles aplenty, and all the danger that comes with travel – international and domestic. “It’s only by God’s grace I’m here for retirement,” he says. “Many times in churches where I’d go for mission conferences, in the back, people would stop me and say, ‘Just want to let you know we pray for you every day….’ There were hundreds that had me on their prayer list.”
Carmen has received “countless” emails saying ‘We’re praying for you,’ and seen her name on a particular calendar date. “So often it coincides with a very specific need or impact season,” she says. “We see how clearly the Lord is speaking to his faithful prayer warriors. We don’t have to be proximally close. He knows our needs before we ask. He’s already raised up people to stand in the gap.”
Humbled and encouraged, she appreciates those who also pray “for the people we have grown to love, the hearts we have seen open to the gospel. It feels so not alone.”
Harold recalls the joy of the news that Carmen’s language helper, for whom he and Helen had prayed for years, had opened her heart to Jesus. “It’s the Lord’s timing,” says Carmen. “He is orchestrating. He loves prayer because it brings his picture in our world, helps us see so much more clearly his heavenly agenda.”
Just recently, Carmen says, the prison where she leads a Bible study allowed a baptism for the young women inmates whose lives had been transformed. “My heart and my hope is it will encourage people who are praying that they would know God is hearing them pray, not just about people who are here but about a global team working together to see his kingdom come.”
Lowell values prayer support above all. “When we were fundraising, I told people ‘it’s great if you help our financial needs, but I’d rather you just pray for us. God’s got the money;…if you will commit to pray for us, I know that God will take care of the rest.’”
Overseas work is full of variety and adventure – and risk and sacrifice. When young Helen and Harold left for DR Congo, Helen’s mother said, “I know you want to follow God, but don’t you think he could use you a little closer to home?” They laughed at the time, but when Carmen left for Thailand with 8-month-old Connor, Harold and Helen “experienced that feeling of loss.” But, Helen says, “We felt it was better for them to be where God is calling them than close by.”
Sometimes the tough things are unexpected. Returning to the States when Harold took a job in administration was actually “the most difficult cross-cultural experience.” In cosmopolitan Panama City, the children daily moved between three cultures (American expatriates, Hispanic Panamanians, indigenous Wounaan and Embera) with ease. Relocating to Hillsboro, a town of 3,000, “the children said, ‘where are the stoplights?’” says Harold. Lowell found it bizarre there was only one black person in the entire town. “I remember my high school friends looking at me, thinking ‘poor missionary kid.’ I was looking at them the same way!”
His adjustment to U.S. life was rough; now Lowell has watched his children struggle in Peru. Despite Lowell and Melissa’s best intentions to immerse their children in the culture, the school’s system of rote learning was so ill-suited to the children that Melissa ended up home-schooling. Lacking opportunities to know either local or expatriate peers, Mikaela, Toby and Timothy especially “miss deep friendships” with children they can understand at a profound level.
With a clear call to mission from the time she was 15, Carmen’s choices were filtered through that sense of direction: “I remember a real unsettledness, I consistently felt this urge in my heart to go [on mission],” she says. Seeing deep-seated despair and fear in the eyes of her host family on short-term service to Thailand, Carmen’s call was confirmed as she heard God saying to her, “This is a people with no hope. Will you come back and give them hope?” Debriefing her trip later, she resolved, “If you [God] ask me to be a single old missionary in a hut telling my Thai mom and dad about you, I will do it.”
In the end, she did go into the field with a family, but learned there were challenges in that as well. Three months into her 10-year commitment to Thailand, she recalls calling out to the Lord saying “‘God, I did not sign up for this!’ – in context of ‘what did I think I was doing bringing my family to the mission field!?’” When her young son came home from Thai nursery school saying Buddhist prayers, she had to trust that “God’s promises for my children are the same: he will never leave or forsake us; he’s called us and will finish the work he began.”
God’s faithfulness is where the story starts and ends. “It’s been the best of all worlds if I look back now over 13 years raising my children overseas,” says Carmen. “The Lord has blessed us.”
Lowell says, “Mission has been such a part of us. I have no regrets for having followed God’s call to Peru. It has been a risk-taking adventure for all of us. Peru will always be part of our hearts.”
Even as he brings his family home to the U.S., he trusts his children will have an inheritance of mission as he did. “Things of this world don’t have the same value to us as they do for other people. We’re building up stores in heaven.” He sees himself in a sending role, supporting missions through prayer and finances and encouraging others, even families, to try short-term experiences. “I would rather put $500 toward a mission trip for Christmas than give presents,” he says.
“I’m convinced that every believer is called to be a leader for Jesus – a person of kingdom influence,” says Matt. “We have different expressions, different platforms, but the same call to ‘go and make disciples.’”
Anyone can raise missional-minded children by “grabbing the opportunities you’ve got,” says Helen.
“Encourage multicultural exposure,” says Harold. “Learn another language. Have people in your home who are not like you. If you can travel, go into other cultures.”
Even in North America, parents can stretch their children’s understanding of the world. “If there’s a missionary coming to your area, bring them home, let them get to know your kids,” says Helen. “[In your own city], get outside your comfort zone so your kids can know there are other precious people besides your own kind.”