Mentors on My Journey in Mission: Harold Kurtz, Gospel Story Teller, Missionary Change Agent
by Jeff Ritchie
By the time I met Harold Kurtz, a central figure in my mission formation for 20 years, he had had two completely different ministries. For twenty-two years Harold Kurtz was a missionary to Ethiopia doing pioneer evangelism. In 1974 the Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selasie, was overthrown and most of the missionaries, including the Kurtz family, had to leave the country within a few years. From the late 1970s until his retirement in 1989, Kurtz served as pastor of an urban parish in Portland, Oregon, a very different kind of missionary challenge from Ethiopia.
While he was still a parish pastor, Harold Kurtz was approached by Ralph Winter to direct the newly founded Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship. Although Harold could give the new frontier mission only part of his time, he and a few volunteers began a Presbyterian edition of a mission magazine devoted to the unreached peoples of the world, the Global Prayer Digest.
It was this publication that caught my attention from far away Korea in 1983. I was excited to learn about a new Presbyterian mission dedicated to mobilizing our church to participate afresh in frontier evangelistic mission among the unreached peoples of the world. I hoped one day to meet Harold Kurtz.
As his 65th birthday approached in 1989, Kurtz saw “retirement” as an opportunity to devote himself full-time to the Presbyterian Frontier Mission Movement. Almost as soon as the last goodbyes were said at the church he had served for over a decade, Harold and a videographer, Ron Symons, made a trip around the world to see places where Presbyterians could engage in frontier evangelistic missions.
The first place they came to was South Korea (see photo at right). While Koreans in South Korea did not fit the profile of an “unreached people group,” the country was on their way to China, which had the world’s largest population of non-Christians.
Like my first encounter with Ralph Winter in the fall of 1973, that time with Harold Kurtz in the spring of 1989 was a pivotal moment in my life. I was no longer going to focus on mission in one country among one people; instead, I would be working with the Presbyterian Church (USA) in its efforts to engage in mission among unreached peoples all over the world, including the United States. Harold Kurtz would become one of my two mentors in this work, and we got off to a good start in Korea. Harold’s energy, infectious enthusiasm, his decades of mission experience, and his depth of spiritual life made me realize what a blessing it would be to spend time with him as a younger co-laborer with him in the emerging frontier mission movement within and beyond the Presbyterian Church.
There are many ways Harold Kurtz left his mark on the Presbyterian Church and on me personally. For one thing, he was an excellent story teller. I will share two of those stories:
After a trip to Nepal in the mid-1990s, Harold came to the church my wife was serving in Louisville, Kentucky. He spoke of his time with first-generation Christians now permitted to worship openly in that country. Particularly moving was his story about an older Nepali Christian who had suffered for his faith. Harold wept as he told of sitting beside this Nepali Christian whose body bore wounds because of his faith. When the Nepali brother served the Lord’s Supper to Harold, he felt almost unworthy to receive from this saint who had paid such a price for his belief. “I should be serving him in some way,” said Harold.
After this story of faith refined by fire, we too shared the Lord’s Supper. It was a powerful experience of the communion of saints, for our Harold had reminded us how our brothers and sisters around the world were suffering because they follow Jesus.
Another of Harold’s stories captured for me how God prepares people to hear the gospel. While he was a missionary, Harold had gone to a remote part of Ethiopia to a people who asked him to come and tell what his religion was all about. Harold went and told the story of the Bible, culminating in the story of Jesus. When he was finished, it was the tribe’s turn to respond. The elder chosen to speak for the tribe simply said, “We had always hoped God would be like that.” The entire tribe became followers of Jesus.
Harold Kurtz could tell stories. He also was a missiologist who wrote mission reflections in articles and small publications that made mission thinking accessible to lay people – and to a whole denomination! From 1989-1991 Kurtz was part of a denominational writing team charged to come up with a statement on evangelism that would provide guidance for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) as it engaged in evangelism in the 1990s. Harold made several significant contributions to the content of the resulting document, “Turn to the Living God: A Call to Evangelism in Jesus Christ’s Way,” which was adopted by the PC(USA) in 1991 as its understanding of global evangelism. Below are a few of these phrases that reflect the direct or indirect input of Harold Kurtz as best as I can remember:
On the incarnational approach to evangelism: “Jesus lived among the people to whom he brought the good news of God’s rule. He ate with them, walked their dusty roads, and made their concerns his own.” (p. 11)
On the call to congregations to engage in local evangelism: “Today the church is called to practice evangelism that reflects open-hearted hospitality, eager seeking, and acceptance of all persons. . . [making] God’s love in Christ visible. . . .” (p. 12)
On what the gospel call is to those “investing their lives in materialism and pleasure":“The good news is both a call to repentance and a word of mercy that with Jesus, servanthood brings wholeness in life, simplicity brings freedom, and life lived in harmony with God’s reign brings meaning and purpose.” (p. 28)
Harold Kurtz was not just a missionary, a mission advocate and a missiologist; he was a warm human being. He took interest in people. He entered into the common life of people. They may have been new believers in Nepal or teenagers at the New Wilmington Mission Conference in Pennsylvania. Whoever they were, Harold Kurtz made them feel special as he listened to them and took interest in the things in which they were interested.
Stepping back from my personal journey with Harold Kurtz, I would like to conclude with the ways he contributed to the transformation of the mission focus of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). My previous blog on the legacy of Ralph Winter shared how he gave me and many others new eyes for seeing the task of global mission. What Harold Kurtz did was to take the missiological insights of Ralph Winter and make them operational in the life of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). He brought a global movement, the Frontier Mission Movement, into the life of the Presbyterian Church to the point that it impacted the programmatic priorities of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
From his time in Ethiopia and from his experience in urban ministry, Harold Kurtz knew how to go about organizational change. It involved working from the margins of an institution in a prophetic, or advocacy role. It also involved spending time developing relationships with people inside the denominational mission structure to be able to work through the process of change. As with any large organization, change did not come easily or quickly for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), but Harold had an excellent sense of timing as to when to work behind the scenes and when to step up to the microphone.
The following are some changes that have taken place in the mission landscape of the Presbyterian Church over the past over three decades, all of which were influenced directly or indirectly by Harold Kurtz:
1. The Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship, started by Ralph Winter, but led by Harold Kurtz, was approved as a mission organization within the overall Presbyterian Church by action of the General Assembly in the early 1980s. PFF and other similar organizations, including The Outreach Foundation, were not part of the regular structure of the church, but were approved as groups that could give focused attention to a specific mission challenge/opportunity.
2. A “Frontier Mission Fund” was approved to enable Presbyterians to make designated gifts for specific efforts to share the gospel with unreached, or unevangelized peoples.
3. From the late 1980s, new missionaries were approved whose work was considered “frontier mission.” They included a missionary working among Japanese people in Chicago and one working among Kurdish people in Berlin.
4. In the mid-1990s the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) affirmed its involvement to the “AD 2000 and Beyond Movement” as a way of saying, “The Presbyterian Church (USA) is committed to reaching unreached peoples.”
5. By the end of the 2000s and into the early part of the 21st century, the PC(USA) had “skin in the game.” In Central Asia alone upwards of seventeen frontier missionaries were serving in countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union and where there were significant numbers of non-Russian unreached people groups. These mission co-workers were supervised by a veteran missionary couple who had served in a frontier mission situation in Iran decades earlier.
Among the many tributes Harold Kurtz received over the course of his life, this one from Dr. Marian McClure, a former Director of the World Mission Division of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), stands out: “There are not many people of whom it can be said that they changed the direction of a denomination. You are one of the few. You have changed the missional direction of the PC(USA).”
That was how I experienced Harold over the twenty years we knew each other. Harold Kurtz not only changed a denomination’s direction of mission; he also touched people and called forth the best in them. I count it a privilege to have been one of those whom Harold Kurtz blessed by his life, his words, and his deeds.
Associate Director for Mission