Derek Chen ’99 and Chantal Chen never pictured living in the remote jungles of Papua New Guinea, but in 2018, their calling in Christian ministry brought them to the island country where they built a home among a local tribe and began to learn their local language. Though they recently came back to stay in Taiwan, Derek and Chantal are hopeful to return to their work in Papua New Guinea soon. In this interview, the couple reflect on their journey so far and what brought them to Papua New Guinea.
What was your TAS experience and your college experience like? Did you know you would become a missionary even then?
Derek: “Not at all. In high school, I was in the music circle, studying under Stephen Abernethy and Kristin Love, and I represented TAS at IASAS. People even used to call me Yo-Yo Chen, because I played the cello. Back then, becoming a missionary in the middle of nowhere didn’t even occur to me. Growing up in Taiwan, I attended church, but I didn’t really consider myself a Christian. I loved my time at TAS, because those were my building blocks. I think one of the biggest things I learned here was being a third culture kid. This experience allowed me to see and appreciate cultures, and as a missionary, I have to constantly work across cultures.
“It was at Northwestern where I met my wife Chantal in a Bible study that I started reexamining what the core message of Christianity was. Truly becoming a Christian is the touchstone that has reshaped my identity in many ways. The message of the Bible was life-changing for me, and even though I had been going to church most of my life, I had missed that message early on. I felt like there was a responsibility for me to share that understanding.”
What planted the seed for you to do ministry work as missionaries in very remote parts of the world?
Chantal: “Our Bible study was led by a student who was a missionary kid, and he told us a lot of real-life missionary stories. After Derek and I graduated from college, we lived in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, for three years, and worked with a parachurch organization. I met and wrote a book about a missionary couple who had lived and worked in a tribe in Paraguay for 17 years. Even when I was interviewing them, we were inspired by how special their lives were, but at that time we thought we ourselves could never do anything like that.”
Did you start off in your ministry as overseas missionaries? What experiences or formal training did you bring to missionary work?
Derek: “Before we started doing missionary work, we both attended Dallas Theological Seminary for four years. Afterwards, I served as the Assistant Mandarin Pastor at Westside Calgary Chinese Alliance Church in Calgary, Canada. We learned a lot there through shepherding a church, doing marriage counseling, officiating weddings and conducting funerals. The Mandarin congregation was 99% mainland Chinese, and that was where we learned to do cross-cultural ministry. We learned not to assume too much or impose our culture on them. Many of them are first-generation Christians, who didn’t grow up in Christian households, so they needed a lot of teaching on how to parent as Christians or live out their marriages biblically.”
Chantal: “We are so grateful God brought us there, because we had a lot of learning and growing to do, and they are still our home church which supports us financially and prays for us. After three years, we began to pursue our calling to become overseas missionaries by training in Ontario.”
What kind of missionary work are you doing?
Derek: “We serve with Ethnos Canada (known as Ethnos360 in the U.S.), which focuses on unreached people groups. That means these groups don’t have Christian presence or Scripture in their own language, because nobody has gone there to learn their language and translate Scripture into their mother tongue. Our goal is to do that and train the people there in what we call discipleship, so they can become church elders and learn to teach the next generation. It’s the same way that many missionaries worked in Taiwan, and now these Taiwanese churches are standing on their own. We chose Papua New Guinea because its official language is an English-based creole, which we could learn fairly quickly and then be able to move into an unreached people group. Ethnos also has good infrastructure in this country, and many experienced missionaries.
How has the experience been so far? What are some unique experiences you’ve had?
Derek: “We arrived in early 2017 in Papua New Guinea for our training in-country. In 2018, we visited the Tanguat people in the Ramu Valley, asking for permission to work with their community. This is an area of the country that doesn’t get much attention from the government, so there aren’t any roads, and the closest medical facility is at least a few hours’ hike away. When we asked if we could come, they considered it an honor of sorts. Some groups in the country can be hostile, but most—like ours—are fairly receptive, and they know that outsiders come with their benefits, so we have to be careful about what we’re promising.”
Chantal: “Before we moved in, we told them: ‘We commit to learning your language, teaching you how to read and write in your own language, translating the Bible into your language, teaching you the Bible’s message, and then teaching you how to teach others.’ Everything else is bonus. The temptation is always to give them more material goods, but that doesn’t help them become self-sufficient, and sometimes even harms them. In Papua New Guinea, 97% of people are subsistence farmers, so while malnutrition may be common, there are rarely any famines or problems of hunger. They’re very community oriented, and there are hardly any orphans because children are immediately taken in by relatives.”
Derek: “After we got the permission to move in, the first thing we did was to build our new house in the village from scratch. We worked alongside the villagers and community to cut and fell trees with chainsaws, and shaped and milled the lumber together. Even the children made makeshift ‘wheelbarrows’ and carried the dirt away from the holes we dug to accommodate the posts of the house. Ethnos brought in eight helicopter loads of building materials. The house is simple, but we do have a few modern amenities – running water, a flushing toilet, solar panels with a water heater, a stove and oven, and even a semi-automatic laundry washer and spinner.”
Chantal: “One of the more unique experiences we’ve had so far was harvesting a sago palm tree with the village. Sago starch is a basic food product for many Papua New Guineans, and the whole process is quite involved. We had to cut down the tree, scrape away the inside, rinse the starch out of the pulp, and then cook it. Our three boys really got into the entire experience.”
What are the biggest challenges that you face in your ministry here?
Derek: “We trained for one of the biggest challenges: how to learn an unwritten language and put it into writing. We can only learn the language from a native speaker, so we would go out every day, find families to talk to, and just start naming things, moving from objects and nouns to verbs and connectors. We took pictures of different kinds of trees. Even though at first glance, it’s not important to learn the names of twenty different types of trees to translate the Bible, it’s important to understanding their culture. Chantal actually has documented twenty different kinds of bananas, because they eat all twenty kinds and can tell you all about them!
“Another challenge is homeschooling. We’ve met a lot of missionary families, and while most of them have lived in the bush or in remote places, we’ve seen that a lot of them end up pretty well adjusted. We were both products of another path, where you put your children in the best school and give them everything you can, and in the beginning, we really weren’t sure we wanted to homeschool. But for us, it’s been an important lesson to learn that there is no silver bullet that will guarantee “success” for our children. We don’t want to make idols out of our children. Schools can facilitate that growth into maturity, but it’s our job as parents to teach them and disciple them, and becoming a Christian has shown me that that’s where the parents’ responsibility is.”
Chantal: “I think the most challenging thing about ministry here is really understanding their culture. You can learn someone’s language but culture takes years and years and years of spending time with people to understand what they think.”
Derek: “But we also see learning another culture as being one of the biggest benefits of being a missionary. You’re leaving your comfort zone and trying to become comfortable in another context. Someone once said, one of the biggest gifts you can give people is to learn their language and culture. You understand what makes them tick, what motivates them, and what makes them happy.
“I would say another challenge is the isolation. We have teammates close by, but it’s difficult to communicate with family or friends. When our nearby cell tower is down, sometimes we have to hike into the bush to get cell reception. We’re thankful our parents are pretty supportive, but it’s hard to be isolated from them as they age.”
What brought you back to Taipei? How are you dealing with this unexpected setback?
Chantal: “In March 2019, we came back to Taiwan for a short check-up on an existing medical condition that I had. During the same routine check-up, they diagnosed me with a fast-growing lymphoma cancer. So we unexpectedly had to stay here while I received chemo treatment, and we even put our two older sons in a local elementary school. We’re now waiting for the green light to return to Papua New Guinea at the end of 2019.”
Derek: “Cancer can be a scary word, but we’re keeping the bigger picture in mind. Missionary work has been a very personal call for us. It’s not something abstract, or even something we’re particularly good at. But for us, it’s very clear. We have a relationship with Jesus, and we want to share his life-changing message. As long as God allows us to be there and keeps opening doors for us to do that work, that’s what we want too. To us, we won’t be devastated if a door closes. Ultimately, we know that God is loving, God is powerful, and whatever he gives us, it’s ultimately for our own good. That’s how we’ve been facing this cancer thing. It sucks, but God knows what’s best.”
Chantal: “Yes, the most fulfilling thing is that we’re finally doing what we’re called to do. Even when I was working in a law firm in Chicago, I enjoyed a good living, but the entire time, I didn’t feel like I was serving my purpose in life. Just being here is a great gift. We’re thankful for God’s plan and that we have resources. We have to think about how we can bless others with that privilege.”