Steven Kunkel always knew he was going back to the mission field. This was not only the case because Kunkel’s parents were missionaries, moving from California to Uruguay when he was a one-year-old. It also wasn’t just because he had previously served as a missionary in Japan before he enrolled as a student at Boyce College in 2013.

In a more real sense, Kunkel knew he was going to proclaim the gospel to people who had never heard it before because, deep down, he has always known it is what he was made to do. But that has not come without challenges.

Six months after his family moved to Uruguay, Kunkel stopped speaking, and didn’t start again until three years had gone by. In the process of trying to help the young Steven speak again, his parents discovered that he had autism and would not only struggle to communicate, but also to make friends and develop independence.

The couple faced a choice: Either head back to the United States in hopes that being in a more comfortable environment might help their son overcome his challenges, or stay in Uruguay. An American doctor who evaluated Steven during a trip to the United States when he was four made his recommendation: The family should move back to the United States and enroll their son in a school for autistic children. But Kunkel’s parents decided to stay in Uruguay, and that decision changed his life — but not in the way their doctor might have guessed.

Kunkel’s experience as a missionary kid inspired him to become a missionary himself. He developed a passion to take the gospel to Japan, where he lived for four years in his early 20s before moving back to the United States to study at Boyce College.

“People may say I’m just following my dad’s footsteps. In reality, I’m actually following God’s calling on my life.”

“I initially did not want to be a missionary because of my parents,” he said. “I would have said, ‘Being a missionary is impossible for me. How can I preach a sermon like my dad? How can I plant churches like my dad? What can a person like me actually do?'”

The answer came as he grew older and felt called at age 15, but it became especially resounding when he lived in Japan before college and developed the skills necessary to be a missionary.

“People may say I’m just following my dad’s footsteps. In reality, I’m actually following God’s calling on my life.”

This calling was sharpened and enriched during Kunkel’s time as a global studies major at Boyce from 2015 to 2018. He credits his friends and teachers with mentoring him and preparing him for his second stint as a missionary in Japan. During his first trip, Kunkel mostly distributed tracts, but now he is able to have numerous gospel conversations thanks to his Boyce education, he said.

The most significant challenge, according to Kunkel, is the difficulty of language learning and cultural adjustment. He is currently enrolled as a student in Southern Seminary’s Macedonia Project, a program that allows students to earn a Master of Arts in Theological Studies degree while serving on the mission field. He is currently taking the class Cultural Acquisitions for Missionaries, which aims to help students adapt to new cultures.

But the thing most might assume would be Kunkel’s biggest challenge — his autism — is actually a “blessing,” he says.

“My autism is a benefit and a blessing. It requires me to focus on one or two things at a time,” which helped him focus on learning Japanese, which is notoriously difficult to learn. “That part of autism made me very passionate about learning Japanese, and it’s easy for me to spend hours and hours reading books, watching videos, and developing my language skills. God has blessed me.”