by Lisa Tramontana
Jennifer and Donald Hartung were still newlyweds when they packed their belongings, left their Baton Rouge families, and headed to Phnom Penh, Cambodia in December 2014. They were on their way to work as missionaries through their church, River Ministries International, based in Addis, La. Preaching the gospel was a shared dream, but one that started with separate callings.
Donald had chosen his path while he was attending culinary school as a teenager. He began attending church with his father and became interested in missionary work. Six years earlier, Donald’s father had participated in a missionary program and had shared stories with his son about his experiences in Asia. “I grew up hearing these stories and I had vivid images of what it had been like,” said Donald. “Once I joined the church, I knew I wanted to do the same thing.”
After completing culinary school, Donald went through a training program in southeast Asia. He visited Cambodia, learned about the culture, studied the language, and prepared for a life of mission work. He might have thought all of his big decisions were behind him, but nothing could be further from the truth.
Not long after he returned to Baton Rouge, he and Jenn started spending time together and romantic sparks began to fly. The timing certainly wasn’t ideal, but it forced the couple to think deeply about their relationship, their future and their faith.
“I knew that he was committed to the life of a missionary, so it was a struggle for me,” said Jenn, who was finishing a business degree at LSU. “I didn’t want to start a relationship that might not work out. And I didn’t want to interfere with his plans. But I had certainly never imagined myself as a missionary. I had always put them on a pedestal. I asked God, ‘Is it possible you would trust me to serve in this way?’ I just wasn’t sure if I was worthy.”
In the end, after much thought and prayer, Jenn felt that God was not only speaking to her, but calling her to a life as a missionary and as a wife and partner to Donald. “I remember the moment I realized my calling. I was walking through Free Speech Alley at LSU, feeling as light as air, in love and happy that I knew what God wanted for me.”
The wedding took place in August and four months later, Jenn and Donald flew to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city located on the Mekong River. There, they worked under the mentorship of Jeremy and Danielle Fontenot, another missionary couple (from Baton Rouge) who had been living in Cambodia for several years and had founded three “home churches” in the area. Jenn and Donald worked as instructors, teaching English and preaching the gospel in the nearby towns of Kien Svay and Preh Kampues.
In time, they began working at an orphanage in Phnom Penh, and recently started making monthly visits to a Christian school in Toul Kork, about an hour from their home. At the orphanage, Donald and other male missionaries organized a soccer team, not just to extend their relationship-building, but to provide positive male role models for the children, especially the young boys.
When they share the gospel, Jenn says, they are always careful to respect the Cambodian social and religious cultures. “The people there are very polite, but we don’t want to cause any trouble for them. We know that in their Buddhist society, many of them are mocked and mistreated when they become Christians. Of course, we always speak the truth, but we are also careful in our approach.”
The River Ministries website states that the church’s vision is to take the Good News gospel of Christ to an international audience, teaching children and adults Biblical values and planting “miracle workers” in the harvest fields of the world. The Hartungs are a living example of this vision.
“Faith isn’t easy,” said Donald. “Our nature is to give up on it, but it is something we must grow. The Bible describes faith as small as a mustard seed. If we are going to stake our lives on it, we must water it and tend to it daily in order to make it strong.”
The Hartungs came home to Baton Rouge a few days before Thanksgiving to spend time with their families and to touch base with their church. They will return to Cambodia in January. Jenn says their year in Cambodia has strengthened their commitment and desire to serve God.
“Our faith is our life, our breath, the reason for everything we do,” said Jenn. “It is not just a belief, doctrine, or knowledge that we’ve acquired. It’s the whole of us, our means and our end. Our faith has given us an eternal perspective, one that has helped us to see the true value of things further than their purpose here and now. Our lives would be drastically different had we chosen not to give our lives to faith in Jesus.”
Leaders at River Ministries International are excited about their Cambodian ministry. For anyone interested in helping to support the program or in becoming a missionary, visit the website at riverup.org or contact RMI at (225) 678-7777.