Cuiabá, Brazil is a long way from Dayton, Tennessee. In fact Google maps measured the distance to be 4,003 miles. Barbara and Menno Kroeker’s Valentine story started out in that far away location and continues here on Karen Street today. It’s a story of sacrifice, contentment, success, commitment, and love.
The couple’s love story began with their love for God. It was a deep love for Him that led them on an adventure the likes of which I had only read in books until last month when we sat around their dining table. There I heard their words of how God had brought together a young single school teacher from Kalamazoo, Michigan and a linguist from Nebraska to enjoy married life while devoted to a divine purpose in a jungle village in Brazil. I hope you will both enjoy and be inspired by their story.
While in her early twenties, Barb was in a Bible study group where she heard a guest talk about the need for teachers for children of missionaries. The speaker asked the group to pray about that need. Barb agreed to pray, but knew she could never teach in a foreign country because she became homesick when gone for just a day or two. She said it seemed God answered her prayer with the words, “You may not be able to do it, but I can do it through you.”
She had a sincere desire to give God’s Word and gospel to unreached people groups. Convinced of God’s direction, Barb attended the Summer Institute of Linguistics in Oklahoma which was sponsored by Wycliffe Bible Translators. She stayed all summer - no homesickness.
Soon she became the teacher for children of missionaries in Cuiabá, Brazil. Her first assignment was teaching 4th, 5th and 6th graders. That assignment was coupled with the responsibility of driving a stick shift pick-up to transport her students to and from the school. Stick shift driving was a totally new experience for her!
But what about Menno? They hadn’t met yet. Most of his childhood had been spent in Nebraska. Many of his relatives lived in the community where he grew up. Several were missionaries in three different African countries and in Japan. Even as a child, Menno felt a distinct calling from God for missions.
In 1961 Menno accepted an appointment with Wycliffe Bible Translators in Brazil. His call to language missions seemed so appropriate for a man who had grown up with Plautdietsch as his native language and often heard German spoken in the community church. Menno learned English when he began school. He also studied French and Spanish.
Menno’s long term goal was to share the Christian gospel with indigenous people of the Nambikuara tribe and to translate the Bible into their language. A significant challenge for his project was that the Nambikuara people had no written language.
Menno’s outpost assignment in a jungle area of Brazil required that he go to Cuiabá every few months for supplies. He told me that he had heard that a new single school teacher had come and he began to pray about meeting her. Menno first heard her voice when Barb had filled in for the regular ham radio operator during a daily check of Wycliffe missionaries in outposts. On one of his supply trips, Menno, Barb and the resident hostess were the only occupants of the mission’s base house where often 30-40 persons filled the rooms.
The 6th grade teacher who needed help with an astronomy unit found that as she and Menno studied the constellations, in Barb’s words, “The stars fell in our eyes.” Months later, one of their nightly walks ended with his proposal and her “yes.”
The wedding was held in December1969, when all Barb’s students could be there. The couple honeymooned at Iguazu Falls (the Niagara Falls of South America) on the border of Brazil and Argentina. Barb recalled that while there a plaque caught her eye, “The LORD on high is mightier than the noise of many waters, yea, than the mighty waves of the sea.” Psalm 93:4 (KJ21). As Barb was about to learn, the truth of that verse would give her assurance for the opportunities (or perhaps challenges is a better word) that lay ahead.
Barb had never been to the remote jungle village which was about to become her new home. She had envisioned a small personal cottage where she and her new husband could set up housekeeping. Boy, was she in for a surprise!
During the 70s Brazil was only beginning to make earnest efforts at developing the interior of the country and providing needed infrastructure. Barb described the trip to reach the Nambikuara villages as a 15-hour drive in their pick-up truck along a dirt road where they met between 7 and 10 vehicles during the entire trip. They carried gasoline in the bed of the truck because they definitely would not be passing service stations!
Their arrival was welcomed by a crowd of naked villagers who were eager to see Menno, their friend of several years, and to meet his new bride. The small private cottage Barb had envisioned was better described as a structure with a rough-textured concrete floor built from irregular-sized boards and covered with shingles hand made from jungle trees. In Barb’s words, “There was running water, when you ran with the water from the river” (about 3 football field lengths away). Forget privacy. The building was used for many purposes.
But for Barb the most difficult part of the new living arrangement was that villagers were always in their house – some laying on the floor, others sitting, watching her cook, watching them eat, some clothed, most not. She began to secretly pray for relief. After several months, the village chief, who was unaware of her prayers, appeared at their house and suddenly declared that villagers would be allowed only in the meeting room side of the building. Those words were truly an answer to Barb’s prayers and to her delight, the villagers moved immediately to follow the chief’s instructions.
A part of the Kroekers’ ministry involved dispensing of basic pain killers. One day a woman with a toothache came to their house for help. At the same time, their baby Jonathan needed attention. A grandmother-like woman took him outside so his mother could be free to assist with medication. When Barb went to retrieve Jonathan she found another woman nursing him. Barb told that she calmly took the child, went into the house and burst out crying. Cultural differences come in many forms!
As a baby, their daughter Cristy was sleeping near on open window. When her cries woke the household, it was discovered that a monkey had climbed in through the window and was an unwanted guest in her bed. Monkeys, toucans, and macaws were common sights.
As Menno and Barb recalled many stories of their remote living, I also sensed a love, respect and caring they had for each other that had led to a happy marriage.
When I asked their advice for a happy marriage, Menno replied with words that reminded me of Paul’s in I Corinthians 13, “open communication, listening, sharing, patience, slow to anger, forgiving, and understanding.” From Barb, “Make Christ the center of your life and your home.”
What did they see as challenges for a good marriage? They agreed that taking (or making) time to listen to each other, to share each other’s interests and to be together can be difficult. They also agreed that meeting those challenges leads to the joy of a deep friendship – a kindred spirit.
So how does Dayton, Tennessee enter into the Kroekers’ story? When daughter Cristy began to look for a college, she discovered Bryan. The school’s values, curricular offerings and student body, which included several children of missionaries, seemed to fit her criteria for a good school.
At that time, Menno and Barb were still actively involved in their work in Brazil, but decided to buy a house in Dayton as their home base. The house on Karen Street has been a recording studio for Menno’s work, a place of respite when the Kroekers made trips to the US, and now is their full-time home.
During their lifetime, the Kroekers were successful in sharing the Christian gospel with the Nambikuara, a semi nomadic indigenous people in the interior of Brazil. The couple developed a writing system for the Nambikuara language, taught the people to read and write their language, translated and recorded the New Testament into their language, and gave the villagers solar powered devices with Menno’s reading of the New Testament. Talk about success in achieving the goal of their mission!!!
The Kroekers’ story seems to me to be a perfect love story because it transcends materialistic values of new cars, bigger houses, and elaborate trips. Instead, their story focuses on selflessness, simplicity, authenticity, and fulfilling divine purpose. Their story which began with love for God tells the adventures of love in action!