Roberta Lynn Stephens, American Baptist Foreign Mission Society (ABFMS) alumna, was called home at the age of 74, on August 11, 2022, in Burien, Washington. She was born on June 27, 1948, in Palo Alto, California, the daughter of Gene and Doris Stephens.
Roberta and her sister Patricia (Pat) were brought up by their parents in a Bible believing tradition. Roberta’s most vivid memory was that of family devotions. At the age of 7, through the help of a visiting missionary from Japan, Roberta accepted Christ. Roberta wrote about that time: “It was a true conversation as my behavior changed radically.” It was also at that time that Roberta decided she would one day become a missionary.
Growing up Roberta had several activities which consumed a lot of time: athletics and playing the violin. She preferred athletics, but over a 10-year period she became proficient in both. With a special interest in, and aptitude for athletic competition and outdoor activity, Roberta spent four years earning a B.S. degree at the University of Oregon, majoring in Recreation and Park Management, with a minor in Special Education. She still maintained that she would become a missionary.
It was at the University of Oregon Roberta became heavily involved with international students through the on-campus YWCA. For three years most of her extracurricular activities consisted of befriending foreign students, orienting them to American and campus life and even arranging for their housing in the Women’s Co-op where she lived. In late 1967 she attended the Urbana Missionary Conference. It was there that she actively pursued mission service with the American Baptists. She was told that they had never heard of her occupation and did not know how it could be used. Roberta returned to Oregon disappointed but challenged. During this time, she was becoming increasingly involved in work with handicapped people through her university classes in recreation. It was this interest that took her to the position of Recreational Therapist at Pacific State Hospital in Pomona, CA
Six and a half years in Pomona gave Roberta the opportunity of a long-term relationship with the First Baptist Church. It was there that she found a Minister and Ministry to International Students. Roberta assisted and learned much from Maureen Brians who was Minister to these students. In 1971 she visited India for two weeks with Maureen and other members of the Pomona church. In 1975 Roberta returned to India for two months as a volunteer at the Vellore Christian Medical College and Hospital, Vellore, India. Here she used her recreation therapy skills with patients and taught the same skills to students of occupational therapy. Roberta found herself more fulfilled when meeting the needs of and interacting with students at the College. The Robert Carman’s were very influential in Roberta learning the process there. Through this experience, Roberta became more open to becoming a missionary with or without her occupational skills.
Prolonged contact with international students and active overseas mission programs brought Roberta to a clear understanding of God’s call for her life in mission service. She acquired specific preparation for this service through missions courses at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA and at California State University in Los Angeles where she did linguistics study in Teaching English as a Second Language.
On April 25, 1977, Roberta was appointed by the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society (ABFMS) for mission service designated to serve in Japan.
After studying Japanese in Tokyo, Roberta moved to Sendai where she was involved with the Shokei Girls’ Jr. and Sr. High School. She taught English Conversation classes, helped with clubs, and all English Department related activities, worked on the Religious Committee, which arranged for all non-academic Christian Education related activities. She also spoke in chapel four times each month. She worked with Shokei Church for several years and did the same with Kashima-dai Church. One highlight of Roberta’s time was the beginning of the Shokei Abroad Program which ran for a number of years. Students and teachers staying in Christian homes in the USA for 3 weeks really changed the atmosphere of the school. One way was that the teachers began to understand the role of “missionary” in their midst. Some of the students became openly interested in spiritual things compared almost no spiritual interest among students before this program. Every girl who participated showed a marked improvement in all of her academic work.
Another area which Roberta considered integral to her work is that of Christian witness to both students and faculty. Roberta found joy in helping disenchanted Christian teachers to begin afresh with Christ and getting them back to church again. A number of non-Christian teachers wanted to help Roberta in translating her devotionals into Japanese. They read the Bible seriously and listened to Roberta’s explanations in order to correctly translate.
In 1997 Roberta felt God was calling her to do personal evangelism, small groups and motivating clergy and laity in evangelism full time. She left Shokei and moved to the Rifu area. She helped with different ministries in the area. She was able to offer English classes and a Bible reading class for adults in the surrounding area. The Shichigahama Preaching Place was happy to have Roberta’s help and encouragement.
Having served in Japan for 37 years, Roberta officially retired from missionary service on July 31, 2014, but that did not end her service to the Lord. She moved back to the States to a condo she had bought several years earlier in Kent, WA. From there Roberta participated in Japanese Baptist Church (JBC) in Seattle where she took a strong interest in the history of the World War II internment of west coast Japanese Americans and JBC’s strong support of those in the camps where JBC members were interned. Up until her latest illness she had taught Bible studies and Sunday school classes at Japanese Baptist Church where people there now call her “Sensei” Teacher. Roberta’s interest in history extended beyond JBC and the interment to Shokei School in Sendai. She wrote a book, A Flower with Roots, about the history of the school and Mary D. Jesse, an educator that led the school through critical times. She also co-authored a book, An Invitation to Kokeshi Dolls, about styles of kokeshi dolls in northeast Japan.
In retirement, Roberta found some extra time to spend with family. Roberta joined in family celebrations including hosting holiday meals. Roberta joined her sister Pat and Pat’s husband Dave on a two-week trip to Kenya with a team from John Knox Presbyterian Church. They visited Kinyago Dandora Schools (KDS) in a slum in Nairobi where Roberta decided to support a child named Juliah through the ministry counterpart of KDS in the US called Kenya Children’s Fund. This trip also included a safari to Maasai Mara. A year ago, Roberta, Pat, and Dave made a journey to California to visit friends and family. In June, Roberta took her niece Deborah and family to Canmore and Banff British Columbia, a far more important trip than imagined being that it was a last time for them to spend time with Roberta.
Throughout her life, Roberta has been full of hospitality, hosting folks from America in Japan, and hosting folks from Japan in the States. Her home was always open for visitors.
Roberta passed peacefully on August 11th, 2022 at the age of 74. She is survived by her sister Patricia Kelley and her brother-in-law David of Normandy Park WA, niece Deborah Mullan of Spruce Grove, Alberta, Canada, nephew Joshua Kelley of Des Moines WA, nephew Thatcher Kelley of Des Moines WA, and seven grandnephews and grandnieces. Roberta is also survived by her uncle Isaac Stephens and his wife Annetta of Modesto CA, and cousins Janetta, Lynetta, Gary, and their families.
A Memorial Service for Roberta will take place on August 20, 2022, at 1:00 pm (PDT) at John Knox Presbyterian Church in Normandy Park, WA 98166. Family will be live streaming the service. The link, which can be accessed afterwards, is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nBrJUSfqvk0
In lieu of flowers, please consider making a donation through Kenya Children’s Fund to the education of Roberta’s sponsored child, Juliah, so she can finish her education through secondary school. Please include, “In Memory of Roberta Stephens” in the “Dedicate” section. For checks, mail to:
Kenya Children’s Fund, PO Box 4159, Hopkins, MN 55343-0499
(in the notes section on the check write “Memorial Roberta Stephens”)