Jacobs: Surprised by God's Grace
Donald R. Jacobs, PhD
Lifetime Service Award, 2008
EMU Alumni Association
Missiologist and Director Emeritus of Mennonite Christian Leadership Foundation
Long-standing other work
Mennonite missionary, with wife Anna Ruth, in Tanzania and Kenya,
1954 to 1973
Director of Overseas Ministeries (in 23 nations) of the Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions, 1975 to 1980
Chestnut Hill Mennonite Church, Lancaster, Pennyslvania
Studies at EMU, 1945 and 1948; B.A., Franklin and Marshall, 1952 ; M.A., European History, U. of Md., 1953; grad diploma in education, U. of London, U.K., 1954; Ph.D., religion and education, N.Y.U., 1961
Wife Anna Ruth; children Jane, David, Alan and Paul; ten grandchildren.
- We were ordinary people - there was nothing very special about who I am and the missionaries I worked with. The momentum was created by the locals.
- I had to change my belief system in Africa. Their belief in the supernatural was so contrary to my worldview – I had come from a secular society dominated by the Enlightenment.
- I came to feel somehow at home in that (African) world. It was a little more like the world as Jesus talked about it.
As one of the first Mennonite missionaries in East Africa, "we were stumblers, bumblers," says Donald R. Jacobs '49, PhD, recipient of EMU's Lifetime Service Award. "I just tried to put one foot in front of the next each day – I didn't know who I was or what I was doing."
Thankfully, something larger was at work. "I have lived a life surprised by God's grace," he adds.
Jacobs was a missionary in Tanzania and Kenya for 20 years, from 1953 to 1973. During these decades, he saw the Mennonite church grow from 500 to 5,000 members. He also saw these members step into leadership roles originally filled by missionaries.
Yet he feels no sadness at having been the last expatriate Mennonite bishop in Tanzania, just joy.
"We (missionaries) had very little to do with the extraordinary growth of the church," he says. "We were ordinary people – there was very little special about who I am and was, and the other missionaries I worked with.
"So it was a great surprise that so much happened so quickly, considering how little we had going for us. We planted some seeds, but the locals caused their rapid growth and were responsible for the harvest. Our churches quickly became truly African."
Jacobs also became Africanized. "For my first 5 years in Africa, I was very uncomfortable. I was thrust into a world with a completely different world view from the one I had come from - a secular society dominated by the Enlightenment."
Jacobs found that African Christians were more focused than he on fending off evil in a day-to-day battle with the Devil, linking this battle to their survival. "I had to change my belief system in Africa. Their belief in the supernatural was so contrary to my worldview."
Yet he came to feel at home in Africa. "It was a little more like the world as Jesus talked about it," he said. "I felt like an onion getting peeled back and peeled back until a new person emerged."
Jacobs was instrumental in developing four Christian educational programs in East Africa, including serving as secretary and professor for the first Faculty of Religious Studies at the University of Nairobi.
After Jacobs returned to the United States in 1973, he directed the Mennonite Christian Leadership Foundation until he retired in 2000. The foundation assists leaders in newer churches around the world through seminars and short courses.
Through his many lectures, books and journal articles, Jacobs has urged Westerners to respect other peoples' cultures and their ways of embodying Christianity. Non-Westerners often have a better grasp of the Bible's message that the Lordship of Christ enables his followers to be saved from the powers of Satan and sin, he says.
Africans quickly embraced Christianity, he says, because they found Jesus to be "the way to peace, power, hope and healing."
Jacobs' most recent books are A Gentle Wind of God: The Influence of the East Africa Revival, with Richard MacMaster (2006) and Consider Jesus: Daily Reflections on the Book of Hebrews (2006).
He stays active in growing the Mennonite church, often using modern technology for the cause. At a recent missiology gathering in Lancaster, for instance, his talents in using a computer for video production and editing were apparent. Jacobs also enjoys bird watching, tennis, woodworking and gardening.
Jacobs is married to Anna Ruth, who focused on the family and the home during their many years overseas. They have four children - Jane, David, Alan and Paul - and ten grandchildren.
For information on appearances by Donald Jacobs at this year's Homecoming, click here: www.emu.edu/homecoming.