October 22, 2020

Honoring Chester L. Wenger: pioneer missionary and former Home Ministries director

Written by  Linda Moffett
Margaret, Betty, and Jewel Wenger with parents Chester and Sara Jane, in Ethiopia in the early 1950s. Photo provided by Jewel Showalter. Margaret, Betty, and Jewel Wenger with parents Chester and Sara Jane, in Ethiopia in the early 1950s. Photo provided by Jewel Showalter.

SALUNGA, Pa. Chester L. Wenger, 102, died on October 1, 2020, in Lititz, Pa. He and his wife Sara Jane were pioneering missionaries in Ethiopia.

Chester, along with his wife and three preschool daughters, left to serve in Ethiopia in 1949. He would go on to serve with his growing family until 1967 as an educator and church leader. 

In one of his earliest reports from the field, Chester wrote; “What we desire is not less problems but the wisdom of the Spirit and His cleansing power. Problems draw us closer to Him and test the work as to what sort of material it is. ‘The God of heaven, he will prosper us; therefore we his servants will arise and build’ (Neh. 2:20). ‘Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, saith the Lord’ (Zech. 4:6).” (Missionary Messenger, May 1954.)

His daughter Jewel Showalter recalls one story about his time in Ethiopia in the late 1950s, Chester had already purchased building supplies and hired employees for a project when he received an urgent letter from the mission board. 

“Don’t spend any more money,” because program funds were low. Without being able to consult further with the board, he decided to move ahead with the building project and pay for it from his own pocket. The mission board later apologized and offered to reimburse him. (Missionary Messenger, Apr. 2007). The birth of Meserete Kristos Church in Ethiopia occurred during this period and is today the largest Mennonite-related church in the world.

“Chester and Sara Jane received the Rhoda E. Wenger Life Service Award from EMM in 2005,” said Joe Hollinger, Director of Advancement. “Together they had a significant influence on the church and international missions. Their lifetime of faithful service impacted many lives and has an eternal impact.” 

Chester served as the first full-time Home Ministries director at EMM from 1967 to 1980. He was noted for promoting evangelism as outreach from every local congregation; establishing leadership training events for pastors, evangelism conferences, and the Keystone Bible Institute (short courses on biblical study and ministry held in local churches). EMM Home Ministries also planted many churches in ethnic communities with ethnic church planters under Chester's leadership.

“My own life story was greatly impacted by Chester’s insight and wise counsel in his role as director of Home Ministries,” said Gerry Keener, EMM President. “I was at a point of decision about future ministry and he counseled me to engage in an urban setting in the States before going back overseas. This served to be some of the best counsel I ever received. Following that course of action set the trajectory of living out God’s call on my life in New York City, Vietnam, and now in Lancaster, Pa. I have often recalled and reflected on Chester’s apt counsel to me at that time and have counted it as a special blessing from God ever since.”

When asked what has given him the greatest joy in the more than a decade of service in Home Ministries and Evangelism at Eastern Board (Missionary Messenger, Oct. 1980), Chester answered, “That’s an easy one. My fellowship with Christians of various backgrounds is the greatest joy that I have. Praying with them, counseling with them, planning with them, be they from Alabama, New York City, or locally, fellowship is the joy.”

Chester and Sara Jane (who preceded him in death on March 23, 2018) loved their large family. They leave behind seven living children (Chester Wenger, deceased 11/16/2001): Betty Wenger Good-White; Margaret Wenger Johnson; Jewel (Wenger) Showalter; Sara Wenger Shenk; Mark Wenger; Philip Wenger; and Thomas Wenger as well as their spouses, 16 grandchildren, and 25 grandchildren.

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