When Bill and Anne Sieberhagen sent their four sons to Sunday School because it seemed the “right thing to do” they had no idea that they were opening a door that would take them all into the global mission field.
Now, 35 years later all of their sons are in fulltime Christian ministry — three of them as missionaries in different parts of the world– and Bill and Anne are active mission veterans.
The boys, aged 6 to 12, all enthusiastically committed their lives to Jesus at the interdenominational Sunday school which was run in a school building in a part of Johannesburg that had no local church. When the boys urged their parents to join a new adult class at their Sunday School, Anne enrolled. But Bill, a “very comfortable” senior bank official at the time, declined.
After six months Anne went to a church service with her Sunday School teacher and accepted Jesus as her Saviour after listening to a “hell and damnation” sermon by a fiery missionary preacher. When she got home and told her husband and mother-in-law her big news they said “That’s nice”. But when her boys heard the news in the morning they were so excited that they ran to their school across the road and announced to everybody “Our mother is a Christian!”
Having a party like the angels
“By lunchtime, Christian teachers from the school had visited me and given me a Bible,” said Anne. And after supper, her two youngest sons presented her with a tray of chips, sweets, and colddrink. They said “The angels in heaven are having a party and so will we.”
Anne embraced her new faith with zest, immediately enrolling at bible school to learn more about God’s word. The boys continued to attend Sunday school and church youth groups which met in a house where they regularly heard inspiring messages from missionaries who stayed there between field assignments. The three eldest boys decided at an early age to dedicate their lives to mission. They wanted to reach Muslims who had never heard the gospel and at a young age two of the boys, Jeremy and Andrew vowed that they would one day go together to work among the most unreached people in the world. Young Jeremy began training himself by visiting a suburb where Muslims lived and knocking on doors to talk about faith. He even befriended a local imam and the two studied the Bible and the Koran together for two years.
Anne and the boys prayed continually that Bill would become a believer.
“But I was a cowboy,” said Bill. “I was very much in the world, playing golf and tennis. We had a pool, a mercedes. We had it all. I was very comfortable.”
But Bill said the direction of his life changed while he was on a bank course during which the need for personal goal setting was emphasised. Bill suddenly realised he did not want to be in the bank any more. He did not want to continue in a career in which he came home late every evening and hardly saw his children.
The Sieberhagen family moved to a small farm in the Grahamstown area where Bill ran a trading store. One day Anne said she wanted to start a bible study for men and asked Bill if he would be prepared to attend. He agreed on condition that he could choose the men and that no women joined the group.
Seeds sown through Word of God
“I chose eight of my golf buddies,” said Bill. He said the group was well led by a Methodist minister who “sowed seeds in our lives through God’s word”.
“One by one men in the group got saved. But not me,” said Bill.
Later the family moved to Port Alfred where Anne and Bill attended a bible study with an organisation caleed Friendship Bible Coffees. Bill agreed to attend a week-long outreach led by a Baptist Church Win Our World (WOW) team. He said he was deeply challenged during that week.
“But still, I didn’t crack,” he said.
But early on the Monday morning after the last evening of the mission he got up uncharacteristically early and went and sat in the lounge.
“Anne came through and she could see. She said ‘come on’ and I prayed the sinner’s prayer with her. Then she took me through to the four boys and we all cried together.”
Despite his conversion at the age of 44, seven year’s after his wife, Bill did not relate to his sons’ missionary goals. He wanted them to become businessmen and to have an accounting firm with them. The boys dutifully all got their B.Com degrees and then went into ministry.
But through the boys’ influence Bill accepted a post as local chairman of a mission organisation, South African Action for World Evangelism.
“One of my responsibilities was to run mission camps. And so, as a new Christian, with mission as the furthest thing from my mind, I went on my first camp. I was just the organiser: missionaries were talking to the young people on the camp.”
Bill said that to his great surprise he had something that felt like a “second conversion experience” as he listened to the missionaries share their testimonies.
Feeling for unreached lost
“It was the strangest thing to suddenly start feeling deeply for the unreached lost,” he said.
From that point on Bill and Anne started working for missions with fervour. They started an interdenominational mission prayer meeting in Grahamstown. Their mission support endeavours expanded over the years and one day Bill said to Anne: “You know, we are mobilising people to go on missions. What about us?”
The couple, by now in their mid-50s, went to the Love Europe mission outreach in Germany, where they connected with their sons, who by then were actively involved in pioneering work in the mission field in central Asia.
Thereafter, despite Anne’s initial misgivings, they spent two and a half blessed years on the mission ships, the Doulos and the Logos, where Bill served as personnel manager.
“We had the incredible privilege of seeing hundreds of people coming to the Lord in many different countries,” said Anne.
But Bill suffered from high blood pressure and it was difficult to manage his condition while at sea. They asked “Lord, what next?”
Through the intervention of their son, Jeremy, they accepted a call to central Asia, where Bill met an urgent need for an administrator. After three years they were “kicked out” of the country but served for another six years in another country in the region before they were “kicked out” again. Since then no western missionaries have been allowed into the region but Asian missionaries are working underground, and a significant body of local believers who were raised during an 18 year “open window period” during which their sons served there, are continuing the work — including an underground bible school.
Back from Asia
After their nine year stint in central Asia the couple “retired” to Port Elizabeth. Bill said that at 68, with high blood pressure and long-standing diabetes, the icy Asian winters were taking a toll on him. When he was examined by a doctor in PE he wanted to admit him to hospital at once and got him onto insulin.
“The Lord protected Bill on the mission field,” said Anne.
Now, in their early 70s Bill and Anne are involved in a ministry of interceding for missions. They have already been back to central Asia once on a short term mission trip. And later this year they will be joining two of their sons in an exciting local mission venture.
“Anne and I are going to be totally involved. Even if I have one foot in the grave I want to be part of it,” said Bill.
Right now their eldest son, Dean, is taking up a position as a missions professor at a US seminary after years of service in central Asia. Jeremy, their second son, is still doing pioneering mission work in Central Asia. Andrew, who got to fulfil his early childhood vow of working among unreached people in the same country as his brother, is now missions pastor at a big church in Ohio, USA. And the youngest son Timothy is pastoring a church in South Carolina, USA, and has just returned from a mission trip in India.
And it all began with unsaved parents deciding to send their boys to Sunday school. A Sunday school with a mission vision!