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Autistic man serves in Japan, inspires IMB media representativecomment (0)

May 1, 2014

By Maria Elena Baseler

Autistic man serves in Japan, inspires IMB media representative

Inside a small Buddhist temple in Shiojiri, Japan, 23-year-old International Mission Board (IMB) representative Steven Kunkel 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 Steven, our IMB media crew and a Japanese pastor a tour of the place. The impromptu concert develops after Steven spots the Yamaha piano and asks the woman’s permission to play it for her.

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 representative 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 representatives Tim and Iracema Kunkel — who listened nearby.

It was a story I started writing more than 13 years ago, when Tim and Iracema were IMB representatives 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.

“There’s no way I’ll go,” I told God.

I loved traveling to the missions field, reporting stories about representatives and their families. But go myself as a representative?

I had every excuse in the book and voiced each one of them to God. Often.

In the midst of that struggle, I spent a week with the Kunkel family in Uruguay, on assignment for what then was IMB’s 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.

“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.

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. 

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.”

After I got back to Richmond, I prayed for the right words to tell this family’s story. Five months after the story was published, I was appointed an IMB media representative. 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.

“You won’t believe what’s happened with Steven. He’s going to be a [representative] — to Japan,” Iracema said. 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.

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 a family friend and that trip opened the door for him to serve as a volunteer 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.

A few months later, on location in Japan’s Nagano province, our IMB media crew interviewed Steven about his work there.

“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 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.”

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.

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