​Robert Lee served in Japan with his wife Nancy Burkholder through Mission Network predecessor Mennonite Board of Missions from 1959 to 1964. Photo provided by Nancy Burkholder. Click on image for high resolution.

By Wil LaVeist
Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Elkhart, Indiana (Mennonite Mission Network) – Robert Lee used his intellectual curiosity and versatility to advance the gospel in the United States and Asia. On Feb. 29, Lee died at a nursing home in Virginia after a long battle with cancer. He was 87.

A memorial service was held Mar. 8, at Park View Mennonite Church, where Lee worshiped and served.

The son of Chinese immigrants in Portland, Oregon, Lee was an electrical engineer, educator, mission worker, and author of religious books. He played a significant role in the development of Mennonite churches, particularly in Japan.

“Whether serving as a pastor or a teacher, Bob empowered and equipped many women and men for service in the church,” wrote Stanley W. Green, executive director of Mennonite Mission Network, in a letter to the family. “Bob’s scholarship, mentoring and resourcing of people engaged in mission practice and missiological reflection are an immense gift to the church.”

Lee graduated from Oregon State University in 1949 and worked as a system engineer for the Bonneville Power Administration in Oregon. He served in Europe and Asia under Mennonite Central Committee from 1951 to 1956. After graduating from Goshen Biblical Seminary in 1959 and serving overseas again, he obtained a doctorate in religion from Harvard University in 1974. Lee would go on to serve on the faculty at the University of Tennessee (Knoxville), Amherst (Massachusetts) College, Southwestern University (Georgetown, Texas), and Boston University.

Lee and his wife, Nancy Burkholder, an Eastern Mennonite College (University) alumna, and English teacher at Goshen College (Indiana) served together in Hokkaido, Japan, with Mennonite Board of Missions (MBM) from 1959 to 1964. Lee pastored two Mennonite churches there and helped to develop a teaching program for lay leaders. In 1986, the couple returned to Japan to serve with MBM, and Lee taught in the Department of International Studies at Meiji Gakuin University. He went on to teach in the Asia Graduate School of Theology/Japan and at the Tokyo Biblical Seminary. 

“Robert had an exceptional ability and commitment to analyze, understand, and value the cultural context in which he taught,” said Ronald Yoder, a former MBM director of Asia, Africa and Middle East. “This trait endeared him to the people he served and made his ideas relevant to their life experience. Along with his strong intellect, Robert communicated his ideas with sincere humility. " 

Lee was the founding director of the Tokyo Mission Research Institute, which aimed to “introduce new ideas into Japan in missiology, biblical studies, history, theology, ethics, counseling, and conflict transformation.” Institute staff members helped to establish the Japan Missiological Society, which produced an academic journal.

Sheldon Sawatzky, a former East Asia director for Mission Network and one of its predecessor agencies, the Commission on Overseas Mission, said that Lee was an outspoken proponent for Anabaptist theology. He mentored junior professors and arranged for their further study at Mennonite seminaries in the United States. Every year he invited Anabaptist theologians to lecture in Japan, and published the lectures in Japanese. The seminary became a center for Anabaptist study and influence.                                                                                    

Lee spearheaded the Japanese translation of David Bosch’s groundbreaking missiological work, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (1991). The book was the basis for several seminars, one of which was held at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart in July 2003. The seminar gathered theologians from three Asian countries, and the academic papers were published in a special edition of Mission Focus, Vol. 11

Lee authored The Clash of Civilizations: An Intrusive Gospel in Japanese Civilization and, with his wife, edited the first two books of memoirs of church and educational leaders: Making Sense of the Journey: The Geography of Our Faith and Continuing the Journey: The Geography of Our Faith.

“Robert Lee leaves a legacy in Japan of the academic pursuit of missiology and Anabaptist theology,” Sawatzky said.    

The Lees attended Park View Mennonite Church, Harrisonburg, Virginia. Lee is survived by his wife; three adult children, Steven Lee of Arlington, Massachusetts, Suelyn and Douglas Swiggum of Fitchburg, Wisconsin, and Robert J. and Elaine Meyer-Lee of Decatur, Georgia; four grandsons and a granddaughter-in-law; two sisters, Jean Hawley of San Francisco, California, and Florence Guimary of West Linn, Oregon; and one brother, William Lee of Tustin, California; five nephews, one great-niece, and one great-nephew.        

Memorial contributions may be made to Mennonite Mission Network at www.MennoniteMission.net.







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