At the age of fourteen, Richard Sterkenburg (M.Div. ’56) pledged his life to the mission field. But it wasn’t until senior year of high school, in making a college decision, did the Lord remind him of that promise. This prompting led Richard to begin his college career, in which he obtained his B.A. in secondary education from Calvin College, his M.Div. from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, his Th.M. from Calvin Seminary and his D.Miss. from Trinity University. Upon completing his education, Richard and his wife, Betty (Kolkman, Diploma ’50) Sterkenburg, were sent out from Wealthy Street Baptist Church to be the hands and feet of Christ.
The couple then spent the next forty years of their lives in São Paulo, Brazil, doing the Lord’s work in many different ministries. They planted four churches, and Richard worked as an interim pastor for sixteen other churches during that time. The main part of their ministry, however, was focused on joining the staff who had launched the seminary program in São Paulo two years prior, which was the first such school in the city.
Living Out the Call
Richard found himself wearing many different hats over those years with the seminary, serving as teacher, treasurer, librarian, dean of curriculum and students and even as the seminary president for the last 15 years of the couple’s time in Brazil.
Being the president of the seminary came with its share of obstacles. Richard’s goals as president were to have a Brazilian director, a master’s program in place, ten thousand titles for the library, an endowment fund of $50,000 and 150 students enrolled in the various courses of study, all before retirement. That was anything but easy, with other missionaries coming and going, and with a lack of qualified teachers to hire. Richard was often teaching twelve to fourteen hours a week, on top of running other aspects of the school. He found himself implementing the work ethic of his father:
“They pay me for a good day’s work, and I’m going to put it in.” He could do no less for the Lord’s work.
Though there were obstacles Richard and Betty faced, their time in Brazil was extremely fulfilling. When asked what one of the most rewarding parts of their mission work was, the response was filled with multiple stories: one of the churches that they had started from scratch those forty years ago now has a four floor edifice, with a congregation of approximately five hundred; one of their former students has started his own seminary; and another student currently serves as a missionary in Chile.
All this couldn’t have been accomplished without the work of the Lord. But, sometimes, God’s voice can be hard to hear. Richard confessed that throughout their time in Brazil, he struggled with prayer. It seemed that all they could do at times was just wait for God to move.
“In that time, one of the things God taught me was dependence on Him,” Richard reflected.
Yet, thanks to the providence and glory of the Lord, all of the goals for the seminary were met, and Richard and Betty were able to retire from their work in São Paulo in 1998. Richard now spends his time volunteering in the graphics department of Our Daily Bread ministries, serving as a substitute Sunday School teacher at Good News Baptist Church in Grand Rapids and being a great-grandfather to four great-grandchildren. Betty has recently completed her volunteer service in the mailing department at Our Daily Bread after being honored for dedicating a thousand hours to her work there.
Preparing for the Call
When asked what advice he had for current students seeking to enter the mission field, Richard had one thing to say:
“Be totally committed and active in a church all throughout college.”
Knowing the importance of prayer, Richard seldom missed a prayer meeting at his local church throughout his seven years of higher education. Though he could have been using that time to catch up on schoolwork, he knew the importance of staying involved in a church, building those relationships and deepening his understanding of the Word. His goal was to work in churches in other countries, so he knew that it was crucial to put that into practice at that moment.
“If you’re not successful in a church now, you won’t be successful in one overseas.” It is because of that kind of dedication that Brazil’s Protestant population rose from 2.5% to 35% in forty years, thanks to the Lord and the small part that they had in this evangelical explosion. They listened to God’s call and acted—and now, we must do the same.