By Robert Chapman
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (SBTS) — Six months after his parents moved from California to Uruguay with the International Mission Board in 1990, Steven Kunkel stopped speaking. His parents first thought their one-year-old son had culture shock, but knew something else was wrong when Kunkel did not speak for nearly three years.
When Kunkel was 4, his father took him to Sacramento, California, for a formal diagnosis. The doctors informed him his son was severely autistic, saying he would never be able to live on his own, learn to speak or make any friends. This diagnosis left Kunkel’s parents in a difficult situation. The doctors recommended they leave the mission field and put Steven in a school for autistic children, but they knew God had other plans for their family.
“My parents decided to trust the Lord and take me back to the mission field knowing that their children belong to God,” said Kunkel, now a 26-year-old student at Boyce College, the undergraduate school of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. “They brought me back to Uruguay and the Lord began working in me and I started speaking at the age of 5. I received Christ as Lord and Savior at age 8 by understanding that Jesus came to die for my sins at the cross.”
Even though the doctors told his parents Kunkel would have trouble speaking, he showed a knack for languages early in his life. By the age of 15, Kunkel spoke three languages: English, Spanish and Portuguese. At that point, Kunkel sensed a call from the Lord to be a missionary to Japan, which would wed his love for God and languages. Since he could not speak Japanese, Kunkel wasn’t sure how to answer the call, but God soon provided the opportunity for Steven to learn the language while still living in South America.
“After I got my calling, I realized that there were no Japanese speakers in Uruguay. So we were concerned how God was going to teach me Japanese. But then God opened a path with one of the IMB leaders, and they transferred my family to Paraguay,” Kunkel said. “Paraguay had more international people, including Japanese people. We lived in Paraguay for seven years, and I learned Japanese by working at a Japanese church with a Japanese pastor.”
After working with the Japanese church for seven years, Kunkel answered God’s call by moving to Japan when he was 22. While in Japan, God continued to use Kunkel to reach internationals through his gift of languages. Kunkel spent the majority of his time in Japan working with Jesus the Gospel International, a non-denominational church. It was a mostly Filipino Church and Kunkel served as a translator for them while continuing to evangelize the native Japanese people. Kunkel was able to help the church learn Japanese the same way God helped him earlier.
“I believe that God gave me the gift of languages, and I realized that since God has given me a gift I need to use it for his glory,” Kunkel. “I was aware that a lot of people learn languages for money or power, but I am fond of learning languages because I am fond of reaching out to unreached peoples.”
Kunkel stayed in Japan for two years and enrolled in Boyce College as a Global Studies major in spring 2015. Kunkel’s academic success continues to astound his parents.
“When you have a special needs child you never know exactly what to expect,” said Tim Kunkel, Steven’s father. “God is working in his life, and constantly healing him. Steven manages his own schedule, is on the dean’s list, and has over a 3.8 GPA. So to see him thriving is just amazing and gratifying.”
Kunkel has continued to learn other languages and currently speaks seven fluently: English, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, Arabic, French, and Turkish. Kunkel is always learning more languages to better prepare him for future ministry and so he can spread the gospel to as many people as possible.
“Steven is an incredible student,” said John Klaassen, program coordinator and associate professor of global studies at Boyce College. “God has gifted him in so many ways, especially in his ability to communicate in other languages. It is a pleasure to watch the Father work in and through his life as he reaches out across cultures to share the gospel.”
After graduating from Boyce, Kunkel desires to return to Japan, but he remains open for whatever God has planned for his life. Kunkel says while he loved living with the unreached Japanese people, the pervasive spiritual darkness burdened him.
As Kunkel prepares at Boyce for missionary service, he hopes to encourage others to trust that God can use them no matter what is standing in the way. Through living with autism, Kunkel has learned to rely completely on God’s power so much so he now thanks God for his disability.
“My autism is one of the greatest gifts the Lord has given me. The Lord healed me, but not 100 percent because he wants me to rely on him,” Kunkel said. “If it was not for my autism, I would not be determined to learn languages, meet friends or share the gospel with people, and to encourage others.”