Ivan Dornon 1928-2008

April 27, 2008

Ivan Dornon

Kay’s dad died this past Wednesday morning. He single-handedly baptized more Japanese people than the rest of the missionaries I know put together. Here are the biggest mission principles I learned from him:

Respect the culture. One of the first things Dad did in Japan was study Buddhism, meeting with a Buddhist priest once a week. He studied the culture and learned that for the Japanese, Buddhism provided some underlying assumptions but for the most part did not influence their day-to-day living. In his later years, he told us the single greatest lesson he wished we would learn from him was to respect people.

Let them drive. Dad established the Sendai Student Center, a hangout for university students. The center was mostly in the hands of the students — non-Christians — with Dad acting as an advisor. The Japanese church was not too keen about this arrangement. The students loved it. For any class or activity, Dad arranged to have an “advisor” who was both a committed Christian and someone who related well with the students.

It was my privilege to work as one of those advisors in my three years of missionary work. I will never forget the time Dad was busy and asked me to sit in for him in a Bible study. Only one student came that day, but we looked at the beginning of Mark, where it says,

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

The student looked at me. “What is this good news?” he asked. I was stuck. Everything I had learned about evangelism up that time was suddenly challenged by this simple and honest question. At the time, I did not have a good answer, so I kind of mumbled something. That student’s question continues to lead me.

Bring people together. Dad took Japanese students to the United States, where for a few weeks they would live with Christian families. This experience changed the Americans as well as the Japanese, and before long he was arranging for them to come experience homestays with Japanese families.

He also led the students in trips to Southeast Asia, staying with Christian workers there. I got to help lead one of those trips, taking a group of students to Thailand, India and Nepal. These students from wealthy and powerful Japan got to meet lepers, girls saved from prostitution, and stay in a Christian ashram (a monastic community) in the heart of India. The students got to see Christian compassion in action, and were stretched to become world citizens.

Treat people with dignity. Dad also served as a chaplain in a Japanese federal penitentiary. The penitentiary asked the Japanese Christian pastors for a chaplain, and they declined! Dad couldn’t let this go, so he offered to do it. As he met prisoners, he looked them in eyes, shook their hands, and told them God loves them. The guards objected, because prisoners were not allowed physical contact with people on the outside. But Dad insisted to the warden that this was a necessary part of his work.

Dad arranged for us to do a musical program in prison one Christmas. The place was not heated. I kept my gloves and jacket on while waiting in the wings, otherwise my fingers would not have functioned on the guitar. But the prisoners wore only thin uniforms. When we came on stage, the prisoners averted their eyes, because the system is designed to beat them down. They were allowed to look up once we started singing.

Dad, thank you for these experiences. They continue to shape who I am, and how I am trying to live out my life as a missionary here. It’s funny that while so many try hard to convert Japanese people to Christianity, you deliberately avoided doing so — and baptized so many. I still have a lot to learn from you. Thank you, thank you. Rest in peace.

Jon Reid

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As an American missionary kid who grew up in Japan, I'm a child of two cultures, while not fully belonging to either. This gives me a sightly different view of the world.

9 responses to Ivan Dornon 1928-2008

  1. A touching tribute and a lasting legacy — I’m so sorry for your & Kay’s loss Jon. May we all live out the lessons you learned from him!

  2. Thanks for sharing that tribute. What a wonderful man – and you are just the person to carry on his legacy.

  3. I try, Helen. Sometimes I feel I try too hard, sometimes not enough.

  4. Beverly (Cunningham) Washichek June 25, 2008 at 7:58 am

    I just came across this site as I was surfing Facebook. May he rest in peace, after a life spent to glorify his Lord. I remember him as my sailing instructor, and having dinner in your cabin on my night before I left for college – an emotional time and his and your Mom’s open arms were a great comfort.

  5. Ivan was my Uncle. I remember sitting in a car with him and some cousins at a family gathering when he told us he was going to Japan and wouldn’t be back for 7 years. I have known he spent his life there. I have only seen him a few times during that time and twice since he retired. Yet I have known little of what he did other than work with college students in Sendai. Thanks for the thoughts.

  6. Jon, I came across your note on Dad during my recent trips to your blog one another to review comment updates. I really enjoyed your thoughts you echoed well much of my own and have lived it even closer than I ever did.
    The funny thing about finding this is that it was a sub link to another blog. A ‘if you like this you might also like this other one too’
    Well the one it was under showed some cats and there below was Dad. Of course Dad intrigued me more than cats (hey Cheetah don’t take it personal, stop that, give me my arm back), so I’m glad I had the chance to read your blog on Dad.
    It’s been a year now. I guess that is why Debbie made the trip to see Mom. I’m glad our wives also went.
    See you around. -Chuck

  7. Chuck, that’s neat that you randomly came across this a year later. I hadn’t put 2+2 together either about the trip. Let’s lift a drink to the Old Man, shall we? (Of course he’s not old anymore.)

  8. George Mitchell June 16, 2011 at 10:46 am

    I have tried to use this system to contact you, Jon, but so far the captcha does not approve my typing of it. I am hoping to send you a request regarding this post you made about him soon after his death. I am writing an In Memoriam statement regarding his life and career for the 55th reunion of the Yale Divinity School class of 1956, of which we both were members.
    George Mitchell
    Denton, Texas