By Scott Tompkins —
Robert “Borneo Bob” Williams and his wife Rena began their missionary career in Indonesia (then known as the Dutch East Indies) in 1939. Over the next six decades he established schools, clinics, a small boat ministry and a seminary that has trained and sent out hundreds of native Indonesian pastors, teachers and evangelists.
His life story was chronicled in the book, A Promise Kept – the 70-year Ministry of Borneo’s Jungle Evangelist.
Williams first came to faith at an Aimee Semple McPherson crusade in his native Denver. He and Rena married in 1930 and attended LIFE Bible College in Los Angeles, where he was introduced to Dr. Robert Jaffray, one of the most influential leaders in Asian missions for the Christian & Missionary Alliance.
Dr. Jaffray challenged the Williams to join him in taking the gospel to places in Asia where it had not yet been preached. Instead Williams moved to Arizona where he pastored small churches and worked as a cowboy and part-time sheriff. But he said the Lord kept after him. “One day I slipped out of my saddle, knelt in a sandy creek bed, and prayed, ‘Lord, if you really want to use me, I will go anywhere you send me… Let it be to people who have not yet heard the gospel.’”
As missionaries of a newly formed ministry called Go-Ye Fellowship (now Global Grace Fellowship), the Williams set out with their daughter Starr and son Robert Lee for Asia with just $12 and God’s promise from Isaiah 58:11: “The Lord shall guide thee continually…”
In 1939, they attended Dr. Jaffray’s language school in the Indies, then established their first mission station in West Borneo, working in partnership with the CMA. Williams regularly walked or paddled deep into the jungles to share Christ with the native Malay and Dayak peoples. As he planted churches among the Dayak tribes, he routinely faced dangers from poisonous snakes, crocodiles, malaria and powerful witch doctors.
The Williams family barely escaped with their lives during the Japanese invasion of Borneo in 1942. But once home in America, he continued to sound the call for missions. In 1943, Williams and his friends Paul Fleming and Cecil Dye signed the founding document of New Tribes Mission (NTM), envisioning the launch of 5,000 missionaries into unreached areas.
After the war, Bob continued to support NTM (now Ethnos360), but returned with his family to Borneo and the primitive Dayak tribes he had come to love so much. Each year he pushed deeper and deeper into the jungles, bringing with him young Dayak pastors that he had discipled. In the coming years, he also purchased several gospel boats to pick up people living along the Kapuas River and take them to the churches, clinics and schools that he started.
“Borneo Bob” baptized thousands of Dayak, Malay and Chinese believers that he personally led to Christ in villages he visited. He was affectionately called Opa (Dutch for grandfather) as his fame spread throughout the region. One of his greatest joys was the establishment of the Seminaria Theologica Kalimantan (STK) in Pontianak, West Kalimantan (Borneo), which he established with the help of Indonesian leader Ronny Welong.
In the 1980s and ‘90s, Indonesia began severely restricting western missionaries, but by then Bob Williams’ ministries were already under the leadership of native workers. In 1988 he moved to Fresno, California, so he and Rena could get medical care and they could be nearer their daughter Starr and other family.
Though he was retired, Bob Williams served as a visitation pastor at Northwest Church in Fresno, led Bible studies, and prompted the formation of Asian Partners Inc. to help support STK. In his 80s and 90s he continued to lead missions teams into Borneo. His last visit was at the age of 96.
In 2009 he reflected, “I still marvel at God’s blessing in giving me a 70-year career in Borneo. Not many live to such an age in a place with so much disease and danger. Surely the Lord kept his promise to guide me continually.”
Williams passed to his reward July 29, 2009 in Fresno, California, at the age of 98.
He and Rena were married for 67 years. She died in 1998. – ASSIST News