October 28, 1926 ~ October 28, 2019
Born in: Corry, PA
Resided in: Asheville, NC
Robert Arthur Foster, who served for 44 years as a missionary in Japan, tracing a path of ministry from the bustling streets of post-war Tokyo to the rugged northern island of Hokkaido, has died. He passed away Monday, Oct. 28, on his 93rd birthday.
Known for his black beard, big smile and artistic talent, Robert died peacefully with his wife, Phyllis, beside him. The two had celebrated their 70th anniversary in February 2019. A memorial service will be held for him at 2 pm on Saturday, Nov. 9, at the chapel at Givens Estates, a retirement community in Asheville, North Carolina.
Arriving in Japan as newlyweds in 1949, Robert and Phyllis (just 22 and 20 at the time) felt called to share God’s love and the gospel message with America’s erstwhile enemy, part of a wave of young missionaries who came to Japan after World War II. Robert said he was partly influenced by Gen. Douglas McArthur’s call for “a thousand missionaries” to Japan, which was under U.S. occupation until 1952.
Robert, who was not ordained and did little preaching, believed strongly that the layperson played a vital — and often undervalued — role in everyday ministry, and that God calls believers to all walks of life, from pig farmer to pastor.
We strove to be “agents of reconciliation by infiltrating society and culture, to be part of redeeming the world,” Robert wrote at age 91, reflecting on his life. “These goals are not for us alone, but a role for any Christian.”
As a missionary, Robert’s ministry was divided into three distinct chapters: publishing Christian literature, radio evangelism and teaching college students. The middle 18-year period leading the HOREMCO radio project was particularly fulfilling to Robert, who traveled around Hokkaido with an open-reel tape recorder to capture the stories of Japanese Christians. Although fluent in Japanese, Robert almost never spoke on the broadcasts, believing it was important for listeners to hear other Japanese talk about faith and daily life.
The Fosters initially went to Japan with a smaller sending agency, the Far Eastern Gospel Crusade (later SEND International), but in 1964 Robert returned to his roots and joined the United Methodist mission board, serving with it for 30 years in Japan.
Robert was a talented artist and photographer. He produced scores of oil paintings, mostly of scenes around Hokkaido and Lake Nojiri, a beloved summer refuge surrounded by stunning mountains. His artistic skills were often put to use in community stage sets, ministry artwork and family Halloween costumes.
Along the way, he and Phyllis would raise four children in Japan — two boys and two girls, born in alternating order and with alternating “M” and “L” names: Matthew, Laurel, Malcolm and Lisa.
Bob, as Phyllis called him, grew up during the Depression as a small-town American boy who had little contact with the wider world. He was born on Oct. 28, 1926, in Corry, Pennsylvania, in the northwestern part of the state. Both sets of grandparents lived in town. His mother’s side, the Andersons, had immigrated from Sweden, and the Fosters had roots in Britain.
Money was tight, and his family moved several times within Corry, always to a house where the rent was cheaper. His father, Lyle, lost his job and became a traveling tire salesman, which kept him away from the family for long periods — nearly a year at one point — which was hard on Bob, his sister Janet, and mother Verna.
Life revolved around the yellow brick Methodist Church, where Verna was active in the women’s missionary circle. Sometimes missionaries would come for dinner, and their exotic world fascinated young Bobby.
Summers brought vacations at the “Seldom Seen Gun Club,” to which Grandpa Anderson belonged, in a deserted tannery town in the hills. They stayed in a big house with overstuffed Victorian chairs, a Victrola that played 78 rpm records and no electricity. From the big porch, the family would sometimes watch the summer storms roll in.
In 1939, when Robert was nearly 13, the family moved to Ottumwa, Iowa, after his father landed a job with a hardware company. Robert spent all his high school years in Iowa, where he began tinkering with a folding Kodak “Brownie” camera, beginning his lifelong passion for photography. At Wesley Methodist Church, Robert was active in the youth group and began to feel called to Christian service.
In 1944, he enrolled at Wheaton College, west of Chicago. This opened up a “whole new world for me,” Bob said. He wanted to major in anthropology but switched to archaeology when the former department was closed. During this period, art instructor DeWitt Jayne became a mentor and lifelong friend.
At Wheaton, Phyllis remembers meeting the slightly shy Bob for the first time with some electrical cords around his neck, setting up lights for a drama performance. She was struck by his shock of black hair, angular jaw and broad smile, his creativity and resourcefulness. Robert was swept away by Phyllis, who was “outgoing and intelligent. She was beautiful,” he said. “Attractive, energetic, interested in everything!”
As they fell in love, the idea of going to Japan came gradually and mutually. With the war ending in 1945, both accelerated their studies to graduate in about three years so as leave for Japan as soon as possible.
They married at Phyllis’ home church, Judson Baptist Church, on Feb. 19, 1949, with her grandfather, Joseph Dent, officiating. For their recessional, they chose the hymn, “Unto the Hills,” based on Psalm 121, which includes the words, “Jehovah shall preserve thy going out, thy coming in,” a declaration of faith that God would watch over the many transitions they expected in life.
Four months later, they boarded the freighter “Island Mail.” After a two-week voyage across the Pacific, full of anticipation about their new life in Japan, they arrived in Yokohama on July 4, 1949. Bob remembers seeing Mt. Fuji’s conical shape through one of the ship’s portholes as they entered the harbor.
Jumping in the jeep of a missionary who had come to pick them up, they found themselves following a U.S. military parade for Independence Day. Along some roads, there were still heaps of rubble from Allied bombings, and women wore traditional mompe pants “with patches on patches,” Phyllis recalled. This was clearly a country still recovering from war.
During their first six-year term in Japan, it was a struggle to know how to best approach the Japanese people with the Christian message, and this was also reflected in intense debates within their missionary group. Robert felt strongly about being sensitive to the local culture, but it seemed others wanted to simply transplant Western church ways to Japan. Robert ended up focusing his efforts in a publishing ministry that produced devotionals and Christian literature.
In 1955, with little Matthew and Laurel in tow, Bob and Phyllis returned to the United States and spent two years living with each set of grandparents. They returned to Tokyo in 1957 as independent missionaries supported by their parents’ home churches, focusing their efforts on one particular congregation and the publishing ministry.
During their second U.S. furlough (1962-64), Robert and Phyllis joined the Methodist mission board, which offered more theological flexibility than the FEGC, their first mission agency, as well as financial stability. Bob took classes at Garrett Theological Seminary and the family lived in Evanston, Illinois, north of Chicago.
In 1964, they returned to Japan — this time to Sapporo, on the northern island of Hokkaido, where Bob took on a new role in a radio evangelism project called HOREMCO, for Hokkaido Radio Evangelism Mass Communication. The Fosters were assigned to work with and under the Kyodan Church, the largest Japanese denomination that combined several mainline American and Canadian churches.
Hokkaido felt very different than Tokyo — “more open, less traditional and an exciting place to explore — beautiful mountains and lakes, a hardy farming people and snow six months of the year,” Robert wrote later.
Moving into a larger, Western-style house, Robert and Phyllis felt they had more space and a bit more income to “start a second family,” and so in 1966, Malcolm made his appearance, followed by Lisa in 1968. Bob and Phyllis found wonderful rapport with their missionary colleagues, who ranged from Mennonite to Reformed.
A few years later, Bob successfully guided HOREMCO through two nearly simultaneous crises: New York decided to phase out financial support for the project, and the regular radio pastor resigned to become a minister in Tokyo. Robert’s solution for both was to turn to the Christians of Hokkaido — for financial support and to speak on the programs.
The family would sometimes accompany him on his trips around the beautiful island, meeting Christians from all walks of life.
Many summers were spent at scenic Lake Nojiri, in Nagano, on the main island of Honshu, a missionary summer community of 250 rustic cabins on a hill overlooking the lake. It was a place of breathtaking beauty where the sun sparkled on the water, the earth had a rich, moist smell and the trees were filled with singing cicadas.
Nojiri was the one time of year that Bob was able to devote time to painting, his artistic passion. He liked to paint outside, on site: Mt. Myoko, the lake or the thatched roofs houses that dotted the area. Robert loved the arts, including music, design and photography. He took tens of thousands of photographs with his Nikon cameras, and was so closely identified with his camera that one missionary friend joked that Bob would arrive in heaven with a camera around his neck.
He was a loving, gentle and empathetic father who encouraged each of his children to pursue their passions, whether it be music, teaching or journalism. He was hardly ever absent from the supper table and joined in the bedtime “story time” ritual with Phyllis, reading to the children from the Narnia chronicles, Tolkein hobbit books and other stories.
In the 1970s, Robert earned a masters degree from Syracuse University in television and radio communications.
During Bob’s last ten years in Japan, he taught English conversation at Hokusei Gakuen, a Christian university in Sapporo. His door was always open to students and he enjoyed opportunities when they would drop by for coffee or a chat about daily life or spiritual things. The Fosters continued to be active at Tsukisappu Church, where they sang in the choir.
In 1993, after 44 years, the Fosters’ ministry in Japan came to a close. Robert was 66, having come to Japan at age 22. Dozens of people came to see them off as they pulled out of Sapporo station.
They settled in Brevard, North Carolina, where Bob worked with an architect to design a small house on a hill with a view of the Blue Ridge Mountains that incorporated some concepts from Frank Lloyd Wright. They loved their home in the woods where they were surrounded by nature. Still, Robert felt unable to completely retire and taught English as a second language to international students for several years at nearby Brevard College.
They were active at the First United Methodist Church in Brevard, where they sang in the choir.
Bob wrote several essays during this time, including one titled “A Changed People,” about the importance of lay people in ministry. In America today, he wrote, many Christians believe the church is mainly to serve their needs and don’t see themselves as being called into ministry in their workplaces and daily lives — that’s something for the clergy and missionaries. But God wants us all to be ministers to each other, he wrote.
Robert, who was a member of the Transylvania Art Guild, also did a fair amount of painting during these years — images from travels to France, Thailand, Oregon and elsewhere.
In 2014, the Fosters moved into Givens Estates, a Methodist retirement village in Asheville, where they spent their last years.
In reflecting on his life and ministry, Robert wrote in late 2017 at age 91 that “Phyllis and I were together in this life purpose, and this was the basis for our life here and overseas…. When God calls us to eternal life, he welcomes us into his larger purposes. His life was in us, incarnated… in our living witness and actions.”
Robert is survived by his wife, Phyllis, 90, and four children Matthew, Laurel, Malcolm and Lisa, their spouses, and seven grandchildren.
Groce Funeral Home’s Lake Julian staff is assisting the family.
Memorial Service: November 9, 2019 2:00 pm
100 Wesley Drive
Asheville, NC 28803