Called to serve in global mission, Rob Witmer writes about his lifelong passion to serve in Japan.

Retired missionaries Rob Witmer, a White Canadian man, and Keiko Witmer, a Japanese woman, stand outside a door, wearing coats and other clothing for the chilly Japanese winter.
Rob and Keiko Witmer
Credit: Courtesy of Rob and Keiko Witmer
Published On: April 25, 2019

Answering God’s call to ministry is a fundamentally transformational experience. Vocation Sunday is a great opportunity to lift up these reflections from those who God called to leave their home community of faith and engage in ministry with Mission & Service Partners in other parts of the world. The People in Partnership program of The United Church of Canada supports face to face encounters between United Church people and global partners, allowing us to accompany each other in God’s mission, and learn more about the joys and challenges of each other’s contexts. Here are stories of encounters that changed people’s lives as they answered God’s call to ministry through global engagement.


This year it will be 50 years since I first came to Japan in 1969. I ended up coming here through meeting Robert McClure, the first layperson and only former missionary to serve as Moderator of The United Church of Canada. He spoke at a church in Kingston, Ontario when I was going to Queen’s University, and after the service I had lunch with him.

I shared my desire to go overseas, and McClure said, “If you want to go overseas, you should go through the church. The church works through partners and so you know there will be a partner there to meet you, and there will be a partner to care for whatever work you have been involved in after you leave.”

I was moved by his words of wisdom and the passion with which he spoke. I ended up contacting the Board of World Mission of the United Church and discovered that, with the qualifications I had at that time, there was a possibility of going to Hong Kong, South Korea, or Japan. I was not particularly interested in Asia but had memories of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and so I chose to go to Japan.

After orientation in Canada, I arrived in Japan in September, 1969 as a short-term educational missionary, which meant six months studying Japanese in Tokyo while looking for a church-related school where I might teach English.

My choice was to go to Hokkaido, in northern Japan. I taught English at a church-related university in Sapporo and, as I was nearing the end of my term there, met Keiko Kido who became my life partner I have been with since 1973. After marriage, my term was extended and, along with teaching English, I worked in many other capacities as well.

Attracted to work in rural areas, Keiko and I jumped at the chance in 1975 to go to Nayoro, a small city in northern Hokkaido, when United Church missionaries Floyd and Doreen Howlett asked us to fill in for them for a year while they were in Canada on home assignment. The Howletts were good friends and had been staff at my orientation before I came to Japan.

The Dohoku Centre in Nayoro was a rural church centre, involved in various activities. Their work was based on the three values of love for God, love for humanity, and love for the soil. We stayed on for another year after the Howletts returned and wanted to stay even longer. But, to do so, I felt I should become an ordained minister. So Keiko and I went to Canada from 1977-1980 where I studied theology at Emmanuel College. We returned to Nayoro in 1980. Keiko and I spent 43 years there working with farmers, rural churches, teaching English conversation, working with people under psychiatric care, and carrying out programs to support Japan’s peace constitution.

From 1985 to present, we have been involved in exchange trips with groups going from Hokkaido to Canada, as well as groups coming from Canada to Hokkaido and other parts of Japan. We have had many great experiences with people who have come to Japan to share and learn with one another.  

Keiko and I officially retired in 2015, but I am now working as principal of the Theological Seminary for Rural Mission in Tokyo, which trains people for rural ministry and has a strong historical connection with The United Church of Canada.

Through the church, we work together with partners around the world and have regular periods of home assignment in Canada which enable us to share our learning experiences with people throughout the country.  

—Rob Witmer has had a lifelong calling and passion for global service in Japan since 1969.