Missionary couple looks back of service abroad, home
The things Joe Walter of Hillsboro learned while growing up on a farm in South Dakota served him well after he became a missionary to Peru.
He built houses, churches, and a motor boat and taught the indigenous population how to farm and secure their property with deeds.
Walter was attending Bible college when he felt the call to missions.
“The thought came to me that I would be a pastor in the Midwest, but then I thought, why not be a missionary,” he said.
He knew his parents and his church conference would heartily approve.
“I told God, ‘I will try to be a missionary, and if You don’t want me to do it, close the door,’” he said. “He has never closed the door.”
He met his wife, Jan, at Grace Bible Institute in Omaha, Nebraska. They married in June 1953 and, in six months were on their way to Peru after visiting Krimmer Mennonite Brethren churches in Canada, California, Kansas, and South Dakota.
Joe was 26 and Jan was 22. They were assigned to serve Spanish settlers in the jungle along the Amazon River. The settlers were known as whites by the natives. They had come from the coast to establish farms and rubber plantations.
The Walters lived in Lima, Peru, for five months to learn Spanish, and then were flown over the Andes Mountains to live near the headwaters of the Amazon River.
They were young and adventuresome and had no idea what jungle living would be like. They had taken Matthew 28:20b as their wedding verse: “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
The closest large town, one and one-half hours away by plane and two-weeks by boat, was headquarters for Wycliffe Bible Translators. The Walters got their supplies from there on a riverboat.
Walter built a house from rough-hewn lumber and built a motor boat to travel from village to village.
The couple later settled in a little village five miles down the river, where they built another house and a church.
Jan led Bible studies with the village women.
“We had to learn to eat plantain and manioc,” Jan said. “Root vegetables did not work there because of the rainfall. We bought fish from the Indians, butchered cattle and pigs, and had a milk cow. We kind of had our own little farm.”
When their first child was born, Jan flew to the coast two weeks prior to the birth and returned to the jungle two weeks after the birth.
Three were born at Wycliffe headquarters, and one was born while they were on furlough in the United States.
“Ruth always wished she was born in Peru,” Jan said. “But going so far away by plane to have children was a test of our faith. God was faithful and gave us five healthy children.”
The children attended mission schools but learned Spanish from their friends.
“We spoke to them in English, but they spoke to us in Spanish,” Walter said. “Jan speaks a perfect Spanish, and I butcher it.”
After 15 years, Walter turned over the church to a Spanish pastor. He coordinated an evangelistic effort in Peru that led the couple to Columbia, where he continued in the same capacity for a year. The couple spent the next six years starting churches in large cities.
By then, some of the children were in their teens. One was in college in the states and two were in boarding school. The couple took a 3-year leave of absence to return to the states so their family could be together for a while. They lived in Hutchinson.
With their two youngest children, they returned to Peru to work among the indigenous natives. The older children were in college, and one was married.
“Leaving the three children behind was the hardest thing I have done,” Jan said.
They lived at the Wycliffe mission station while Walter flew out to work in villages. He had young livestock brought to the villages so farmers would have another source of income. He helped them dig wells and taught carpentry.
The Spanish tended to usurp native lands, so Walter helped them get deeds to their properties.
“The natives were lovable, safe people,” Walter said. “I get hungry for fish like the Indians fixed it.”
In 1988, as Walter neared 65 years of age and was facing forced retirement from missions, he requested a few more years of service. The couple went to Guadalajara, Mexico, where they helped establish Spanish churches.
“It was a different culture, different greetings, different vegetables,” Jan said.
In 1991, they came back to the states, reported to supporting churches, which had merged with the Mennonite Brethren conference, and then settled in a house they owned in Hillsboro.
However, their service was not finished. In 1999, they spent six months in Honduras after a hurricane ravished the country. They also spent 16 years working for the Spanish department of a Bible correspondence school.
Their children are scattered throughout the country, and one lives in Spain. All use their Spanish skills in one capacity or another. Jan occasionally is asked to help translate Spanish into English.
“I would do my missionary work all over again at the drop of a hat,” Walter said.
“He loved the Indians and that’s why they loved him,” Jan said. “So many people prayed faithfully for us, and we learned the power of prayer.”
The Walters are in good health and will celebrate their 65th wedding anniversary in May. Joe is 91 and Jan is 86.
Walter said their story is not about themselves but about what God has done through them.
“We want this story to be for the glory of God,” he said.
Last modified Feb. 21, 2018