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Winter 2009 | Volume 32, Number 1 | Alumni

Laughing With the African Saints

Alumni of the Year found joy and adventure in places where others would not go

Alumni of the Year
Leonard and Marti Ensign

When Leonard Ensign ’51 went to Central Africa as a Free Methodist medical missionary in the 1960s, the mission agency promised him six months to acculturate.

The reality was closer to three weeks.

The official surgeon of Kiyube Hospital in what was then the kingdom of Ruanda-Urundi (now divided into modern day Rwanda and Burundi) was reassigned — without a replacement. A patient arrived the next day doubled over from gastric ulcers. Milk and antacids weren’t working. He vomited blood. Len, an anesthesiologist, was forced to operate.

His wife, Marti Oaks Ensign ’52, can still see him coming down the hill to the house, a huge medical atlas under one arm. “We have to do surgery,” he announced.



A trained lab technician and mother of two young children, Marti scrubbed in. The couple prayed, something they would do over many more surgeries to come. He consulted the atlas, open on a nearby table, took a deep breath, and the four-hour procedure began.

“He’d ask for a certain clamp, and I’d say, ‘What’s that?’” Marti remembers. “He’d point to the proper instrument, and I’d hand it over.”

Hundreds of procedures followed that one, including amputations, caesarian births, and the treatment of burns suf-fered in tribal conflicts, bites from crocodiles and hippos, and injuries suffered in bicycle accidents. He once even treated a witch doctor for anemia. Len himself contracted typhus and malaria repeatedly.

“My cases would stand at the back door and cough,” says Len. “They thought it rude to knock.”

Those sometimes-harrowing days at Kiyube Station promised and delivered a life of adventure and world engagement for the Ensigns, the 2009 Seattle Pacific University Alumni of the Year.

“They have courageously gone into places where others would not go,” says Matt Whitehead ’79, superintendent for the Pacific Northwest Conference of the Free Methodist Church. “A Christ-focused entrepreneurial spirit is a significant part of their DNA.”

Alumni of the Year
National nurses assist a seated “Dr. Len.”
For Len, that meant taking on the roles of medical director and mission superintendent for eight years at Kiyube. He became a big game hunter and supplied the hospital with meat. Daughter Niki Ensign Atcheson ’80, who used to scratch her father’s nose when it itched during surgery, also helped him skin hides. She is one of today’s premier female hunting guides in North America. Son Scott Ensign ’92 is a physical therapist.

In later years, a flexible anesthesiology practice in Olympia, Washington, allowed Len to fill in for missionary doctors on furlough and to lead several multispecialty medical teams to Africa to work in Free Methodist hospitals.

Marti has traveled the globe in her own efforts to follow God’s leading, including 34 return trips to Africa. On one trip, she was caught inside Rwanda when civil war broke out and later returned with experts in post-traumatic stress syndrome to counsel missionaries fleeing the genocide and relief workers trying to cope with the horror.

She has served on the boards of Mission Aviation Fellowship and the African Children’s Choir, where she was also tour director and interpreter. She worked as director of women in medicine and dentistry for the Christian Medical and Dental Society of America. And, after taking additional theology classes at Seattle Pacific, she became an ordained minister in the Free Methodist Church in 1977, accepted an assistant church pastorate in Seattle, and served as SPU’s campus chaplain for a time.

Marti currently serves on the board of the Renovaré spiritual renewal movement. “I’ve worked with Len and Marti in innumerable ministry contexts over many years and have found them to be sterling examples of lives deeply formed in the Way of Christ,” says Richard Foster, founder of Renovaré. “Their selflessness is legendary.”

Together, the Ensigns have made several visits to AIDS hospitals in Africa. They always take with them volunteer teams of physicians and dentists to help treat people with HIV.

“They bring true love and Christian spirit to everything in which they’re involved,” says Bob McIntosh, SPU’s special assistant to the president for real estate resources. He recalls the excitement in his house as a boy, and the hair-raising stories Marti told, whenever the Ensigns came to stay with the family while on furlough. “They’ve tackled areas others wouldn’t even touch.”

Under an initiative of the president of Burundi, the Ensigns now serve on a task force charged with starting the nation’s first medical school. “Get the people healthy,” says Marti, “and we’ll have revival just because they feel well.”

As busy as their lives are, the couple manages to attend many Falcon basketball games and most Homecomings when they are stateside. And they are known for their support of SPU’s vision of world engagement.

If Marti and Len Ensign had stuck with their youthful misconceptions, however, they might never have made it to Africa. Mischievous Marti thought all women missionaries were old and wore their hair up in a tight bun. Shy Len was just as certain that all male missionaries were preachers, and he was far too reserved to attempt such a public profession.

But make it to Africa they did, to a place where Len did much of his expounding with a scalpel, and Marti acquired enough French and native dialects “to teach, preach, worship, and joke with the African saints.”


—By Clint Kelly (

Medallion Award Winners

Also to be honored at Homecoming 2009 are two alumni recipients of the Medallion Award:

DICK FREDERICK ’63, executive director of Medical Teams International, Western Washington Office

PHYLLIS SORTOR ’64, retired Free Methodist missionary who, along with late husband Jim, moved to Nigeria and started a school, introducing Christianity into strong Muslim communities.

Exclusive: Related Response Video

Marti Oaks Ensign '52 recounts getting out of Rwanda the day the genocide began.

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Department Highlights

Laughing With the African Saints
The 2009 Alumni of the Year found joy on the mission field where others dared not go.

Grace Under Fire
Letters between pen pals — one fighting a war, one on the home front — lead to a book.