“Where there is a will, there is a way”- especially if it is the will of God. Ron McKeon, SAMS missionary with his wife Debby since 2008, was not one to accept tragic circumstances as an excuse not to follow God’s call. As we wrap up our focus on perseverance this Advent with our SAMS theme “Keep Calm and #CarryOnAdvent,” we would be amiss not to give tribute to a minister of the Gospel who persistently gave witness on Earth to the glory of his “Lord, Savior, and Friend,” until he went home to God on September 28, 2019.
Ron speaks to Portuguese parishioners in 2006.
At the time of his passing, many of our Society were together at the New Wineskins Conference in North Carolina. During the announcements before Eucharist on Sunday morning, New Wineskins Director Jenny Noyes recapped Ron’s call to ministry powerfully while sharing the sad news of his death: “[Ron] was diagnosed with tongue cancer in 2003, and they removed his tongue and thought he couldn’t eat or talk again through the mouth. But God had called him to be a preacher, and he obeyed- not only did he learn how to eat and swallow, not only did he learn how to talk and how to be able to be heard and understood without a tongue- but He was ordained and God called him and Debby to Brazil- where he learned Portuguese.”
Filled to overflowing with God’s love by the Holy Spirit, Ron and Debby engaged in ministry in Brazil initially through short term trips, year after year. They stayed with a different church family each time so as to build genuine relationships. Ron engaged in preaching and pastoral care of clergy and laity, magnetically engaging youth with the love of God after church services. Debby trained children’s ministry teachers with Portuguese translations of the program Godly Play, empowering them to raise up other teachers. In 2015, Ron and Debby became full-time missionaries and moved to Brazil. Ron and Debby dedicated themselves to helping the Anglican churches in João Pessoa grow spiritually, numerically and missionally–especially through equipping Brazilian leaders for ministry.
Debby trains children’s ministry teachers in the Portuguese translations of Godly Play, “Na Presença do Pai.”
Ron McKeon’s life could be described as a path in the footsteps of several biblical figures. Ron’s daughter Anna reflects on his life, and the road he travelled to ordination: “I always thought he portrayed a bit of Jonah- he would switch jobs searching for the right one yet he always knew that God was calling him to go to seminary and become a priest, but he didn’t think he was the right person for the job. God was calling him to ministry and kept sending ‘whales’ until he finally said- okay, I will go into ministry. He had some Job in him too- his brother died in the World Trade Center attacks, and then a year later his mother passed away, and then four months later he got tongue cancer. But, like Job, he was never angry, he didn’t say ‘oh, forget God.’”
Far from it! The saving grace of God, as well as a second chance to serve Him on earth, joyfully propelled Ron not only to remember God, but also to share worshipfully the love of God with the people of João Pessoa, Brazil.
This time of year, Christians are likely to hear or read the Angel Gabriel’s consolation to the Virgin Mary regarding the first Advent of our Lord Jesus. “How will this be?” she asked. “Nothing is impossible with God,” the angel said. Armed with the knowledge of the Spirit’s miraculous favor upon her and her cousin Elizabeth, Mary carried our Lord, Savior, and friend in the womb, persevering in the face of social disgrace. Her betrothed, Joseph, also placed his confidence in God, caring for Mary and the Holy Child in Bethlehem and as refugees in Egypt. Ron likely heard a similar message from God- nothing is impossible with Him. Ron’s miraculous ability to taste food, to talk and be understood in spite of new speech impediments astounded doctors and medical students. It was impossible. Well, God specializes in “the impossible.”
The relational depth of Ron and Debby’s ministry was evident in the love and care they received back from the Brazilian church community, the Anglican Diocese of João Pessoa, as Ron fought an aggressive cancer. His family shared how this church community “surrounded this ‘couple of Christ’ with love, support, and assistance with the cultural uniqueness of Brazilian daily life. And so, as Ron’s days grew short, this special form of Brazilian love and support grew to immense importance for both him and Debby.” Over Ron’s last few weeks the clergy of the diocese held an around the clock prayer vigil by his bedside.
SAMS Mission Director Stewart Wicker passed on a story from Diocesan Bishop Marcio Meira of Brazil of Ron’s perseverance in spite of devastating setbacks in the weeks before his death. “It was made clear to Ron that he would not ever speak again. So when Bishop Marcio went to visit him, he was surprised to see that Ron had a guitar since he had never seen Ron play one. Ron was able to communicate to the bishop that he had just picked it up because if he was never to preach again, he would learn the guitar to praise the Lord in order to continue his ministry there.” Ron carried on the hope of the Gospel to the very end of his life- he never took his limitations as an excuse not to give witness to the greatness of God. He continues to worship God in heaven, joyfully anticipating with us the day when Christ will make all things new.
How did Ron never give up? How did he maintain hope after losing his brother, his mother, his tongue, and finally his voice? He learned that his identity was not in the fulfillment of his plans and hopes, but as a servant “hidden with Christ in God.” While giving the missionary testimony at New Wineskins Global Mission Conference 2013 (which you can view here), Ron concluded:
“The unexpected is God’s plan for my life. Only with a life hidden with Christ in God can Debby and I put all that we possess, even our very lives at risk, to serve God alongside our brothers and sisters wherever we are sent, that all may have the opportunity to hear the Gospel of peace and confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”
We are so very thankful to God for your continuing interest, prayers and financial support for our Brazil ministry. Having just completed our first full-time 3-year term on the mission field, we need to ask you to partner with us and recommit to another term of monthly support of $10, $15, $25, $50, or more by clicking this link to our SAMS Giving Page.We actually need to raise an additional $3,000 per month for our ministry to expand into other neighborhoods to inspire more leaders and equip future generations to plant communities of faith focused on rescuing children and families from child labor, sex trafficking and drugs. We are confident in Christ alone!
This letter features two testimonies, one from our Brazilian friend Valdomiro Santos, and a personal confession from Ron.
Dear Pastor Ron and Debby and your financial & prayer partners, I want to highlight the importance of Pastor Ron and Debby in our lives. From the moment we first met this couple, their willingness and joy of serving the Lord Jesus in another nation inspired us.
First, I speak of my relationship with Rev. Ronald, when I learned that I was going to be discipled by Pastor Ron, I thought, “How will it be?” I do not speak English and he is learning Portuguese and still had difficulty, I faced the challenge with great joy and today we do not need Google translator anymore, today the Portuguese spoken by Pastor Ron is excellent and this man of God has been fundamental in my life.
I will make some reports:
Support for working life: In search of work I got approval at the Fiat factory in Goiânia – Pernambuco, a neighboring state of Paraíba, but the city where the factory is located is two hours away from João Pessoa. In the first process I went through and there was a problem and I was ultimately not approved in the last process, anyway, the story is long, but I want to record the help of Pastor Ron. Without the encouragement of Pastor Ron, I would not have participated in this selection process, since I did not have a car to make the trip to the factory. He and Debby are being a boon in my life and consequently in my family’s life.
Spiritual support for illness: A difficult moment in the life of my father-in-law was his hospitalization (90 days) due to appendicitis surgery. Pastor Ron was present, praying, ministering the life of Christ on him. Gradually he has been recovering and today he is doing his normal activities.
Support for the ministry: Long ago God spoke to my heart about the ordained ministry, I was frightened, I always thought it was a thing of my head. To be at peace with my thoughts and feelings I made a silent prayer: “God if the call that you have for me is Pastoral, then confirm it through a person that I have no contact with, then Lord I will know that this call comes from You not from myself. Amen.” I, my son and my wife went to attend the service at the Anglican Church Vine that Bishop Flávio is responsible for, after the celebration the bishop invited us to go to his house and we were involved in many conversations when Pastor Ron and his wife Debby pass by the apartment and enter, reminds me of how we arrived in this pastoral call conversation plus the bishop explained the content of our dialogue, then Debby said: “since I first visited Brazil in 2006 I have been praying for your ministry.” After this confirmation of prayer, I stopped resisting God’s call to me.
Always present in our lives…. Pastoral follow-up, visits on leisure days, quality time among friends. We praise and are grateful for your lives in our lives, God multiply in your lives everything you have done for us. We love you!! With gratitude and the Love of Jesus,
When my five daughters were young and I was beginning my personal relationship with Jesus, I failed to disciple my own daughters and invite them into my growing relationship with Jesus. I left this important part of my relationship with my daughters and Christ to my wife and the church. This mistake over the years caused great stress and strain on my relationship with my daughters. I deeply regret this sin of omission. I felt remorse that I did not model the life Christ intended for me and at times I felt like a failure as a father and stuck in shame not knowing how to set things right with my daughters.
Before I lost my total tongue to cancer my children will tell you I was angry all the time. After my surgery in 2003 to remove my total tongue and lymph nodes in my neck I went through radiation and chemotherapy. It was during this time I came to realize that I had experienced not only the removal of my tongue and healed of cancer, but I also experienced a supernatural change in my personality along with a redirection in my life targets and priorities. I realized that through my personal relationship with Jesus Christ all my sins were forgiven.
Since arriving for fulltime ministry in Brazil back in October 2015, God has opened the door for me to practice Biblical discipleship; the process of making disciples for Christ who make disciples for Christ. This ministry in Brazil has changed my life and opened the door for me to disciple my own children and their husbands through the use of technology, for example the telephone, voice and video calls over the internet and cell phone text messages.Today my children will tell you I am happy all the time. However, my children are still struggling to understand this change in their Dad and my call to serve God in Brazil.
Now, every day I wake up and ask God what will He have me learn today, then I listen for God to speak in the quietness of my heart, and then take the appropriate action, as I walk and grow spiritually in my personal relationship with my Lord, Savior and friend, Jesus Christ.
Please join in our efforts by making a financial gift to grow our ministry of equipping church leadership with Biblical principles that impact their actions and life patterns; to inspire the Church in Brazil for generations to come.
With every blessing and much affection,
Ron+ & Debby
Make a secure tax-deductible financial gift on-line through our SAMS website:
This is the Third story in our Celebrating 10-Years of Ministry in Brazil. It is often said that when we look back into our past history, even back to the beginning in the Old Testament of the Bible we can better see with confidence why it is so important to trust God enthusiastically with our future. I agree and that’s why we are writing this series.
When we first heard God’s call to be missionaries in Brazil we were in the midst of our theological seminary education at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, PA. It has been more than 10-years now and we are still learning why God called us here to a community in the upper Northeast corner of Brazil. Learning to speak Portuguese was the farthest thing from our minds as we pondered this calling to Brazil.
In my opinion Portuguese is a language with far more rules for pronunciation and grammar than our native English and perhaps even a few more than the Hebrew and Greek we studied in seminary. Now that we have become permanent residents in Brazil for the past two and one half years, learning and using exclusively this beautifully sounding Romance language has become one of our top priorities.
Bringing hope to cancer patients
However even in a place where Portuguese is the national language there is a growing number of Brazilians more interested in practicing their English with us than helping and occasionally correcting our conversational Portuguese. There are many occasions when I will be conducting my end of the conversation in Portuguese while my Brazilian friend will be conducting their end of the conversation in English!
Our first “Cell Group” where the purpose was to foster a sense of belonging (I hate this photo of the back of my head…but…Debby insisted it tells a story).
As we look back at our ministry in Brazil to see what might be waiting for us in the future it is critical that we ask the question, “Where has our ministry impacted life change in Brazilian children and adults?”
This question has added significance when you factor in that our five adult daughters, son-in-laws, and eight grandchildren reside thousands of miles away on a different continent in the United States.
As we did our analysis there was one common denominator that emerged. It was not our ideas, programs, preaching or teaching that most impacted life change for the better. It was our mere presence and the building of personal relationships that provided the catalyst for change.
God invests in us with His presence. Our living God, creator of all things, made the ultimate sacrifice so that we can live in the presence of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for eternity. In return God asks only that we return to God the first fruits of our time, energy, labor and our wealth.
Debby investing time in building relationships making soup twice a month for the neighborhood.
Debby and I in reflecting on our rearing of five daughters, for example, have learned the importance of simply being present in the lives of our children was the greatest gift. The culture of this world talks about the importance of accumulating money and making investments with it for the future.
We have learned that the best return on investment occurs when one person invests their life in the life of another person. If time is a gift from God, as many say it is, then isn’t reasonable to conclude that we should return the first fruit of this gift by paying it forward by investing our life in the life of another? We submit the answer is yes!
Let me recount one of many examples of a return on investment as a result of investing our lives in the life of another. Each week our church meets in small “cell” groups to foster in each person a sense of belonging and to discuss the life application of the sermon we heard on Sunday.
Our current cell group meets in the church. During one such meeting, one of our members from the neighborhood, Amanda, a mother of four children, made reference to a sign hanging in our church that referenced the growth that takes place in cell groups and personal discipleship. Amanda then said she now feels like she and her family belong and she wants to be discipled. Turning to Debby, Amanda asked Debby to disciple her. The look of surprise and joy on Debby’s face and Amanda’s face when Debby said yes, says it all.
The Blessings of Involving the Local Community in Mission
by Debby McKeon
During several of our early return trips to Brazil we brought handmade rugs to distribute to families and churches. Here is that story:
I enjoyed my time as a member of the local Curves fitness center in Ambridge, PA,, owned by Whitney Gresham. The camaraderie, health benefits, and community involvement was very appealing. Twice a year food drives have been held to bring donations to local food donation centers.
Some years ago, a knitting class was held at Curves to teach how to make knitted yarn squares for a patchwork afghan blanket. The blankets were raffled off to raise funds for Relay for Life, a cancer fundraising event.
Then after a devastating hurricane in Haiti, a class was held at curves to learn how to make “plarn” which is yarn made from plastic grocery bags, and then crocheted into large mats. The mats were shipped to Haiti and used as sleeping mats for children orphaned by the hurricane.
Handmade small bedside plarn mats continue being made today as an ongoing project for American service men and women serving overseas. Recipients of these foot mats have written to express their gratitude for having a mat to scruff the sand off their feet before getting into their bunk.
Debby with kids on handmade story time mat
This Ambridge, PA community outreach benefitted our ministry in Brazil as well. Some of the large mats were not the specified size needed for sleeping mats, but were perfect for use in Brazil. These large colorful plarn rugs were stuffed into our suitcases and brought to Brazil. The plarn rugs were distributed to various churches and used as floor coverings in classrooms for children’s story time during Christian Education classes, and in individual homes in neighborhoods where churches had outreach ministries. Many of these homes had a combination of dirt and rough concrete floors.
This was a Compassion Ministry neighborhood in Cabedelo, Paraiba, Brazil. A Ministry founded by Bishop Marcio Meira and his wife Pastor Linda.
Then Pastor, now Diocesan Bishop, Marcio Meira and his wife, now a Pastor, Linda receiving Plarn Rugs for the families of their Compassion Ministry in Cabedelo, Paraiba, Brazil.
Currently, I now have plans here in Brazil to involve the wider local community in the teaching of how to make plarn from plastic grocery bags for a variety of items, from story mats to women’s purses. I will write more about this in future newsletters as this aspect of our mission in Brazil unfolds.
Developing Curriculum for the Spiritual Growth of Children, by Debby McKeon
I had been involved in Christian education for children for a number of years. While I was attending seminary classes I was introduced to the writings of Sofia Cavalletti and her belief of building on the capacity for faith already present in each child. The foundation of Christian education has already been initiated by God, and the teacher then provides the environment to build on faith that already exists. I believed I was to bring this curriculum to Brazil. But how was this to be accomplished? Here is that story:
Like building blocks laying the foundation for the next level, each step led to the next. First I attended a seminary level Christian Education course which led to a 3 day Christian Education seminar on a Story telling method using simple manipulatives. In 2008, I was then invited to present an overview of this curriculum during a Christian Education Seminar for the Diocese of Recife, Brazil.
Those in attendance were eager to use the story telling method in their parishes, but it was not available in Portuguese. While preparing for that first overview presentation in Brazil the husband of our host family suggested I use Google Translate first and then have it reviewed by someone who spoke both Portuguese and English well. We knew just the person; a SAMS-UK missionary in Joao Pessoa had the skill and the time to help me.
The next step began in the USA, translating the actual curriculum. With the help of two dedicated woman who knew English and Portuguese and many Saturdays, myself, Ivy Lacerda, and Debora Wortham, worked out a plan and set to work. We would prepare a 6 to 8 story curriculum that I would present in a Saturday workshop in Brazil. First the Advent/Christmas stories were presented, then the Lent/Easter stories, then Old Testament desert stories and New Testament stories, then Liturgical Action stories. It was a 2 ½ year project.
Upon arriving in Brazil for each three week mission trip the next step of preparation was the fabrication of story materials using local resources. A “Kit” was made for each workshop participant to use in their individual parish. During the workshop each participant learned the stories and how to present the materials with voice and action skills to engage the child’s imagination. Sometimes Ron would comment “I just come along to carry the luggage, Debby is the rock star”.
The Challenges: Each story needed to be rewritten to translate for a different culture, void of any Northern Hemisphere references. Time is not measured by seasons in Brazil, idioms do not translate well, and the many ways people approach daily life vary by culture and sometimes neighborhoods. There were no “Big Box” craft stores, so shopping for materials was a time consuming adventure and labor of love.
The Blessings: I learned that reading ability did not determine who could be a good story teller. The workshop participants with lower reading skills had excellent memory skills, and told the stories well from memory, not needing to glance at the printed story. Upon presenting the stories in their church, one seminar participant said, “I was delightfully amazed how the story I told with simply made manipulatives held captive the hearts and the imaginations of the children for the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”