Autistic MK helps reach Uruguayans
Nov 27, 2013

ASUNCION, Paraguay (BP)—When 23-year-old Steven Kunkel became a volunteer missionary to Japan, his mother gave him a jigsaw puzzle piece.

“Remember, God’s still putting the puzzle of your life together," she said.

For Tim and Iracema Kunkel, the “puzzle” surrounding their son, Steven, began almost 20 years ago when doctors diagnosed him with autism, a developmental brain disorder. The Kunkels were new Southern Baptist missionaries in Salto, Uruguay.

“At first I thought, ‘Let’s just pack up and go home,’” admitted Tim. “But then I realized that when God called us to missions, He knew the children we were going to have. He allowed this to happen, and He has a purpose in this.”

LIFE JOURNEY In this 1999 photo shot in Uruguay, missionary kid Steven Kunkel tries to think of the right answer during a homeschool session with his mom, missionary Iracema Kunkel. Today, Steven, who has autism, is a volunteer missionary in Japan. His parents are missionaries in Paraguay. IMB photo
The Kunkels saw that purpose unfold while staying faithful to their missions calling and working hard to help Steven—and their two older children—become all God created them to be. At the same time, they shared the Gospel, trained church leaders and helped Uruguayan Baptists start churches.

Because Uruguay offered few services for people with autism, Iracema studied special education so she could teach Steven herself. Soon, God opened doors for sharing the Gospel with Uruguayan families affected by autism.

Meanwhile, Steven made amazing progress. He accepted Christ at age 8 and at 15 felt called to Japan. No Japanese people lived in Salto, so he started learning Japanese on his own. Iracema bought him a Japanese phrasebook in her native Brazil, a country with the largest Japanese population outside of Japan. Steven quickly mastered all the phrases.

The next year, the Kunkels transferred to Paraguay, where many Japanese immigrants live. Steven attended a Japanese school, served in a Japanese-Paraguayan house church and learned to speak and read Japanese. In 2011 Steven visited Japan with a family friend, and the trip opened the door for him to serve as a volunteer missionary there.

“I’m realizing now that a lot of what God’s had us doing on the mission field … [wasn’t] so much about us as missionaries. It was about Steven,” Iracema said. “God was [putting the] puzzle pieces in place … so this autistic child could grow up to be a missionary for His glory.”

Remarkably, one major piece fell into place a century earlier.

In the 1880s, Southern Baptists sent William and Anne Bagby as one of the first Foreign Mission Board (now IMB) missionary couples to Brazil. The Bagbys led Iracema’s grandparents and their 13 children to Christ.

LIFE JOURNEY Missionary kid Steven Kunkel (left) and other worship team members lead children and youth in a praise chorus at a Japanese-Paraguayan house church in Asuncion, Paraguay. Japanese-Paraguayan Mari Nowada (center left) and her husband, Koki, the pastor, mentored Steven in Japanese language, culture and ministry to help prepare him for missions service in Japan. IMB photo
“Four generations later, and missions is still working!” Tim observed.

The pieces of God’s “puzzle” now form a clear picture.

As a 5-year-old boy, Steven couldn’t speak because of autism. Today, he serves as Christ’s heart, hands and voice in Japan.

“I’m fulfilling the work that God called me to do, and I am following my vision and my dreams for what God wants me to do on this earth,” Steven said.

The Kunkels are serving in Paraguay through Southern Baptists’ gifts to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering and Cooperative Program, which fund the presence and missions outreach of nearly 5,000 Southern Baptist missionaries internationally. Give to the offering through your local Southern Baptist church or online at, where there are resources for church leaders to promote the offering.

This story is available in Spanish.



Alina Smith (11/27/2013)
I am happy for Steven- and today he serves as voice of Japan.It's the real example that almighty God is everywhere. The important thing is God stay in the human heart and show his power or bless his goodness through human. source: jigsaw - Alina Smith, Australia, AR

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