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