April 6, 2018

Remembering Sara Jane Wenger, pioneer missionary and lifelong servant of God

Written by  EMM news service
Margaret, Betty, and Jewel with their parents, Chester and Sara Jane Wenger, prepare to go for a family bike ride in Nazareth, Ethiopia, circa 1950. EMM archives. Margaret, Betty, and Jewel with their parents, Chester and Sara Jane Wenger, prepare to go for a family bike ride in Nazareth, Ethiopia, circa 1950. EMM archives.

LANCASTER, Pa. — Sara Jane (Weaver) Wenger — faithful servant of God, pioneer Eastern Mennonite Missions (EMM) worker, and beloved wife, mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother — died at the age of 95 on March 23, 2018, peacefully at her home in Lancaster, Pa.

Sara Jane lived a life of adventure and service. She was a native of Lancaster County, where her grandparents and parents owned a grocery store and had several farm stands at Lancaster’s Central Market. As a young teenager, Sara Jane loved both the Bible and teaching. She taught Bible school, sometimes traveling outside of Lancaster County to do so.

After graduating from Eastern Mennonite School in 1942 with an associate’s degree in education, Sara Jane began teaching in a two-room schoolhouse in Chesapeake, Va., which just happened to be the home community of Chester Wenger.

“The community fell in love with her, just like I did,” Chester said. On July 2, 1944, Sara Jane married Chester Wenger. They shared life and ministry together for more than 73 years.

“In our work, in our home, as parents, in solving problems, in discerning God’s will, we have worked as a twosome,” Chester recalled in their recent memoir, Bearing Fruit: A Collection of Memories (Mennonite Press Inc., Newton, Kansas).

In 1949 Sara Jane and Chester, with their three young daughters, began service as mission educators in Ethiopia, part of a pioneer EMM team. Ethiopia was only the second overseas location where EMM sent missionaries, the first being Tanganyika (now Tanzania).

After moving first to Deder and then later to Nazareth, Ethiopia, the Wengers devoted themselves to postwar relief efforts and the founding of a variety of educational institutions, including the Nazareth Dresser Bible School and the Bible Academy.

During their first five-year term, Sara Jane focused on language learning, homeschooling her children, and involving herself in the life of the mission. Four of their eight children were born in Ethiopia and four in Chesapeake, Va.

During that first term, Sara Jane and Chester were pleased to begin walking with a group of young believers as foundations were laid for what would become the Meserete Kristos Church. After returning for a second term of service, Sara Jane wrote in a 1956 letter:

In addition to the joy of seeing souls find Christ there were the added joys of spiritual blessing in our lives and of sitting back and observing the efficient ways the Ethiopians conducted their own conference. None of us could have done nearly so well. Truly the Spirit of the Lord was present in both wisdom and power. To our God be all the glory, for He hath done great things among us.

After 17 years of service, the Wengers returned to the U.S. in 1966, settling in Lancaster, Pa., where Chester began work as director of Home Ministries and Evangelism for EMM and Sara Jane began working as a remedial reading teacher at Smoketown Elementary School. She was also a sought-after speaker, writer, and volunteer leader, serving a three-year term as the president of the Women’s Missionary and Service Commission of the Lancaster, Pa. area.

Along with two of her sons, Sara Jane started a plant and flower business that operated at several different farmers’ markets in the region. When Chester began pastoring Blossom Hill Mennonite Church in 1981, Sara Jane threw herself into the ministries of the church. She especially enjoyed teaching a youth Sunday school class and hosting an annual corn roast picnic for the congregation in their spacious backyard that boasted a large vegetable garden and a half acre of Concord grapes, Chester’s hobby.

Sara Jane is survived by her husband Chester and their children: Betty Wenger Good-White, Margaret Wenger Johnson, Jewel (Wenger) Showalter, Sara Wenger Shenk, Mark Wenger, Philip Wenger, and Thomas Wenger. Her son Chester Wenger died on November 16, 2001. She has 16 grandchildren and 23 great-grandchildren.

"All along the way I have held a deep desire to do the Lord's will. I have wanted to serve him in every way possible, and I've wanted my life to be an expression of His love,” Sara Jane said in her memoirs.

Her daughter Jewel Showalter, who along with her husband Richard Showalter has been living with her parents since February, said, “It’s moving to see how my mother’s love and service for the Lord has touched countless lives all over the world. Just this week, Tilahun Beyene, an EMM employee and former Bible Academy student in Ethiopia, stopped in to give his condolences.”

“I’ll never forget what your mother shared with the students at the Nazareth Bible Academy before your family left,” Tilahun said. “I was a junior in high school, and she challenged us to continue serving the Lord. She said ‘It’s wonderful to see you walking with the Lord now, but when I see you 20 years from now, will that still be the case?’ Then she quoted 3 John 1:4: ‘I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in the truth.’”

“Truly we are her children, and her words have stayed with us,” Tilahun said. “I’ve used your mother’s powerful words to challenge many others.”