Ejler Jensen, the first Adventist missionary to Okinawa who
planted a vibrant church community on the Japanese island after World War II,
has died at the age of 102.
Jensen may be remembered by friends for
his personal stories of faith, such as how he secured scant building materials on
war-ravaged Okinawa or was rescued by a mysterious stranger after a plane
accident in an Alaskan blizzard.
But his two daughters said they would
remember a father who dedicated much of his life to serving others as a pastor and hospital
administrator in Japan and Malaysia — a missionary spirit that stemmed from a childhood
in Canada when he would watch, enthralled, at camp meeting as missionaries used
a magic lantern projector to share hand-painted glass slides of their travels.
“From those days, he
determined that he would be a missionary when he grew up,” his elder daughter,
Linda Jensen, said from her home in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Ejler Jensen died in his sleep at
around 11 p.m. on Aug. 27 at a nursing home in Napa, California, family members
said. His younger daughter, Yvonne Truby, who lives in
Napa, was at his side.
“Sitting at his bedside as
he was passing was truly an honor as I reflected on the many lives that he
touched throughout his 102 years,” Yvonne said. “I not only felt my loss
and the loss for our family but for those who have been so blessed by his
commitment to serving the Lord.”
Masumi Shimada, president of
the church’s Japan Union Conference, expressed his condolences and paid tribute
to Jensen and his love for Jesus.
"Adventist members in
Okinawa and the Japan Union Conference will never forget Elder Jensen, who
built the foundation of the Okinawa Mission,” he said Friday. “We appreciate
his efforts and love for Okinawa and remember his service to the Lord. We all
expect to meet him again in heaven after the second coming of Jesus.”
Marvin Wray, Jensen’s pastor
at the Napa Community SDA Church for the past 15 years, described Jensen as lean,
quiet and “just the sweetest, happiest, most positive guy, who never bragged
about what he had accomplished in his mission work.”
“When I visited, he would clasp
his hands together and say, “Pastor, it’s so good to see you! I don’t know why
the Lord still has me here, but it’s good to see you!” Wray said.
Ejler Jensen’s childhood dream
of becoming a foreign missionary came true in 1948 when he accepted an invitation to serve in Indonesia as the head of the North Celebes Mission. At the
time, he and his wife, Iona Clark Jensen, were living in Juneau, Alaska, where he headed the
The couple boarded an old
freighter with their daughter Linda, who was born in Alaska and was 18 months
old, and embarked on a voyage across the Pacific Ocean.
Seventeen days into the
trip, Jensen received a cable asking him to go to Japan instead.
Without complaint, the
couple set sail for Yokohama, Linda said.
They enrolled in a language school and spent the next year
and a half becoming fluent in Japanese, a requirement to receive residency
In late 1949, local Adventist
leaders decided to open mission work on Okinawa, and the Jensens agreed to move
was not very large, we discovered by dusting off the atlas and searching for
dots in the Pacific,” Iona Clark Jensen
later wrote in a 1960 book titled, “Adventure for God in Okinawa.” “After much looking we found
it, lying like a small speck about a thousand miles southwest of Tokyo.”
Under the law, no one could
move to Okinawa unless they first had a place to live, so Jensen traveled to the island first to build a home. He confidently
promised his wife that he would return in six weeks. It took four months.
Okinawa, with a population of
600,000, was devastated after the war. The island’s vegetation had been flattened
to grass and shrubs. No trees remained to supply lumber. The only building
materials consisted of war remnants and military supplies.
Jensen credited countless
miracles for providing building materials: A U.S. army general suggested that
he visit an old warehouse where he happened to find several sacks of cement.
The U.S. Army Signal Corps donated unserviceable utility poles. A local
contractor donated a load of gravel for a road.
“All the miracles were in
response to a lot of prayer,” Linda said.
Her father bought a small
plot of land in the village of Shuri, home of the Ryukyu Kingdom that ruled
Okinawa and several surrounding islands from the 14th to 19th
centuries, and built a small, traditional wooden house with a tile roof.
Once the home was finished, Jensen
moved in with his family and got to work on securing a lease for nearby government land to
build the island’s first Adventist church. In a sign of his faith, he built a
church that could hold several hundred people, even though not a single church
member lived on the island, Linda said. He advertised the church by hiring a
young university student who knew a little English to print flyers and pass
them out. Forty people attended the first church meeting on Aug. 4, 1951.
Okinawa, whose population
has grown to 1.4 million, currently has 16 Adventist churches with a membership
of 2,096, according to the Adventist Yearbook database.
After the first church was
established, Jensen decided to expand his efforts beyond the community’s spiritual
needs to include education and health care.
It took two years to get
permission to open the first school, in the southern part of the island, and
then a church attached to the school. As church membership increased, Jensen
began designing a 15-bed hospital that is regarded today as the leading private
hospital on the island.
Thirty-nine patients showed
up on opening day of the clinic, even though no buses offered service to the
facility. In addition, the nearest road was about six blocks away, and the clinic
was located up a steep hillside.
“Within a year, the lone
doctor was seeing over 200 patients a day,” Linda said.
The facility, the
Adobenchisuto (Adventist) Medical Center, moved to a new location with more
than 100 beds a few years ago.
Jensen’s second daughter,
Yvonne, was born in a tiny Quonset hut on a U.S. military base on Okinawa in
Ejler Jensen was born on June 26, 1912, to Danish immigrants
August and Mette Jensen in Gleichen, Alberta. He grew up in the small prairie
town of Standard, where his family lived a comfortable life running a livery
stable and drayage business as well as the first car dealership in the area,
selling Ford vehicles.
His parents had a Lutheran
background but rarely attended church services on the isolated prairie, where
neighbors lived miles apart and churches were few and far between.
Then one day an Adventist
literature evangelist knocked on the front door.
“In those days book salesmen
were welcomed into homes to stay for several weeks and became part of the
family,” Linda said. “They were fed, would help with farm chores, and would
share the stories and pictures from the books.
“The family was so impressed
with this colporteur that they converted to Adventism,” she said.
The family started attending
annual camp meetings at Canadian Junior College (now Canadian University College), a
trip of 150 miles (240 kilometers) from their home on terribly muddy roads. The
Jensens traveled with a team of horses that pulled a wagon loaded with feed, a
crate of chickens for eggs, and a cow tied to the back for milk.
The young Ejler, who wasn’t
in grade school yet, looked forward to the new family tradition — and
especially the opportunity to hear about mission work.
“Dad was fascinated with the
big magic lantern that the missionaries used to show colored slides of the
mission fields,” Linda said. “These were 4-inch, hand-painted glass slides!”
In 1918, when Ejler was
about 6, the Jensen family used a bonus from the Ford Motor Co. to move to
Modesto, California, where they bought a small plot of land and tried to grow
Thompson Seedless grapes. The family worked diligently, but a combination of drought,
gophers, and a weak economy devastated them. Financially ruined, they moved
back to Canada.
Attempts to farm wheat
proved successful until the Dust Bowl and Great Depression hit in 1929 and
1930. The howling winds blew crops and soil away. The farm was almost buried in
sand. The family lost everything and had to walk away, destitute and heavily in
At the age of 20, Jensen
decided to become a literature evangelist to raise money for college. He was
given an old bicycle with wooden wheels and a territory of hundreds of miles.
He later described this time as the most lonely of his life, going from house
to house in the country, strange faces every day, asking for a bed to sleep on.
Often the wind blew the dust so hard the bicycle proved worthless. He took a
few book orders, but deliveries were extremely difficult to make, and many
farmers could not pay.
Jensen attended Canadian Junior College from 1936 to 1939
and then transferred to California-based Pacific Union College, where he graduated
in 1942 with a double major in Bible and
history. At PUC, he met Iona Clark, the
daughter of biology professor and prominent creationist Harold W. Clark. They
married on May 27, 1942.
The young couple lived the first two years of their marriage
in Nevada and Utah, where Jensen worked as an evangelist and pastor.
1944, Jensen accepted a call to work as head of the Alaska Mission, a territory that covered thousands
of miles from the Aleutian Islands to the southern panhandle. At times it took
days to reach remote parts of the state, with Jensen catching rides on fishing
boats, on old Coast Guard lifeboats, and with bush pilots delivering supplies
or mail. Many times he faced intense storms or blizzards.
Jensen told a story of flying with a bush pilot in a small one-engine
amphibian plane to a small homestead near Homer. It was winter, the weather was
bad, and a snow squall enveloped the plane.
“It was like a blanket being
thrown over the plane with zero visibility,” Linda said.
With high winds and no
visibility, the wings began to ice over. The pilot dove sharply and brought the
plane up beneath the cloud ceiling just in time to land on a small, isolated
inlet. But the water spray from landing froze the propeller and wings. With the
added weight of the ice, the plane began to sink.
Jensen and the pilot jumped
out and waded to shore. Disoriented, wet, and freezing to death, Jensen began
to pray fervently.
Suddenly, out of the blowing
snow, a figure appeared. An old Eskimo, dressed in solid white, waved at the lost
pair to follow him. He led them through the storm to a small settlement, where
villagers gave them shelter until the storm passed.
When Jensen asked the
villagers for the rescuer’s name in order to thank him, the villagers replied
that no such person lived in the area.
“Dad was certain that his
guardian angel had appeared to save him that day,” Linda said.
In 1960, after a decade on
Okinawa, Jensen was appointed as the head of the Tokyo Sanitarium and Hospital
(now Tokyo Adventist Hospital) and the pastor of a church on the same property.
Six years later he moved to Malaysia, where he worked as business manager of
the Penang Sanitarium (now Penang Adventist Hospital) as well as the pastor of
the English-speaking church with a membership of 200.
With both daughters in
college, he and his wife decided to return to the U.S. in 1969.
He worked for four years as
an assistant credit manager at St. Helena Hospital in Deer Park, California,
and then pastored a church in Miranda, California.
The couple retired in 1975 in California’s Napa Valley.
Iona Clark Jensen died in 2005. Jensen also was
predeceased by his three siblings, brothers Harold and Anker and a sister, Alfreda.
In addition to two daughters, he is
survived by sons-in-law Lou Marines, Bill Truby and Fernando Canales,
daughter-in-law Joann Truby, four grandsons, three great-grandsons, and one
great-granddaughter. His ashes will be interred at St. Helena Cemetery in the
Clark family plot in a private ceremony this fall.
Jensen remained active until the last year of his life,
tuning cars for other retirees in his neighborhood, fixing plumbing, gardening,
and working on small building projects.
“He loved to tell
stories and read his Bible,” Linda said.
He was happy and content even after he grew too weak to get
out of bed at the nursing home, she said. He spent his last weeks and months reading
the Bible, listening to gospel music, and welcoming visitors.
“He loved small pleasures — fresh-picked strawberries,
Hawaiian chocolate-covered macadamia nuts, brightly colored flowers,” his
daughters wrote in a letter published this week on the Web site of the church’s
Northern Asia-Pacific Division, which includes Japan. “Your cards and letters,
and occasional visits, were highlights of his days.”
Jensen passed away
“He had no illnesses
and was healthy to the end,” Linda said. “His body finally gave out, and he
fell into a deep sleep.”
Did you know Ejler Jensen, or did the influence of his work affect your life? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below or contact Adventist Review news editor Andrew McChesney at [email protected].
Letter from daughters Linda Jensen and Yvonne Turby about Ejler Jensen's death on Northern Asia-Pacific Division Web site
Read the first chapter of Iona Clark Jensen's 1960 book, “Adventure for God
in Okinawa” on the Adventist Book Center Web site. The book was re-released in 2013 by Pacific Press.