My Call to India
By Elmer Kilbourne, OMS Missionary and Grandson of OMS Cofounder, Ernest Kilbourne
Editor's note: We thank the Evangelical Church of India and its Church Planter newsletter for this article. In it, they introduce this article with: "One of the greatest missionaries of our time, Dr. Elmer Kilbourne and his wife Ella Ruth Kilbourne ... This month, we are featuring Elmer Kilbourne who spent his life as a missionary to China, South Korea and India. We are focusing on God’s call to Elmer as a missionary to India after his retirement from Korea."
Although I am a third generation missionary kid, I decided early that I did not want to be a missionary. It was too hard. I would have no money and would have to leave my home, my country and my family and friends to go to a strange people and a strange land. I was determined to be a lawyer—not His will, but mine. When I was 20 years old and a student at Asbury College, I fell under terrible conviction. I awoke at 2 a.m. early one morning and finally surrendered. God said one word, “China.” From that moment on, I have said, “Lord, I’ll go where you want me to go.” I am now 93 years old, still following God’s leading and believe that no one has had a better life than mine!
I spent nine years of preparation to serve as a missionary—college, seminary, graduate school and pastoral ministry. In 1947, I finally left for China. I studied for one year at the College of Language Studies in Beijing. Soon thereafter the terrible Communists’ takeover of China began. All missionaries were forced out. We left Beijing on the last plane. We flew to Canton, (now Guangzhou), South China, to hopefully reopen our seminary. But again our plans were altered. In three months, we had to flee. The Lord led both my older brother and me to relocate in Korea. My question at that time was, “Why Korea?”My grandparents and my father had been missionaries there and had helped plant a strong church. “Isn’t there some other field that needs me more, God?”
Upon arrival in Korea, we found the church had been totally destroyed by the Japanese in World War II. This presented a tremendous challenge and much work to be done, with rehabilitation of refugees. Even with all of this, I was still asking, “Why, Lord? Why Korea?” Korea was known as “The Hermit Kingdom,” willingly isolated from the outside world. However, after 25 years, Korea’s economy was sufficiently strong to permit their citizens to travel overseas. In and through suffering, the Korean church multiplied and grew strong. Yet, focused on their own need, they had very little missionary vision. God showed me that this was one of the main reasons for my being in Korea—to help give the Church a mission vision. The best way to do this was to take pastors and church leaders to literally see other needy Asian countries.
I decided to take these Korean men to India first. Since we were visitors, we needed to take a gift according to Oriental custom. I suggested we build miniature churches before we went and dedicate them upon our arrival, as a symbolic act of commitment to help them build churches. After two weeks in India, we returned to Korea. I asked them what God had been saying to them. Their reply was that God was telling them to build 100 churches in the next two years. And they did! That was my introduction to India. My father had helped start the first OMS work in Allahabad and leased the land for the seminary there. But all that had no effect in my young life.
Upon my retirement from Korea after 40 years of service, I asked God what he now wanted me to do. “I want you to go to India,” He said. I replied, “No, I want to go to the land of my calling, China.” He replied, “You cannot do that, the Communists will not allow it.” My reply was still, “No, I don’t want to go to India. It is too difficult.” But God insisted, “Go to India.” I finally surrendered and said that I would go for five years and no more. Afterward, I felt certain that He would let me to go China. Thus, late in my life, I finally learned: Don’t argue with God.
I am a goal-oriented person, so I asked God what He wanted me to do in India. He replied, “Build 2,000 churches and 25 Bible schools in 10 years. Of course, I knew that one cannot build a church without a pastor. God was very good to me. He led me to the greatest church builder I had ever known, Bishop Ezra Sargunam of the Evangelical Church of India.
In those 10 years, together, we were able to raise the money for those churches. Bishop Sargunam, along with national workers, planted the churches as well as 10 Bible schools and a seminary in Calcutta. One of the greatest privileges of my life was to work with the church leaders, such as Bishop-President Sargunam and Bishop Sundar Singh.
During my 20 years in India, God also led me to work with Samaritan’s Purse and its director, Franklin Graham—a fervent, gifted man and wonderful boss. My activities in India finally stopped due to my wife’s Alzheimer’s. I became her round-the-clock caregiver for eight years. How wonderful it was for God to give me that precious time. Although I was not able to go to India physically, I was able to go in the Spirit through prayer. That continues to be my joyous ministry to this day.