The Missionary Writing on the Wall
At the age of 24, Joe R. Knapp began dating 22-year-old Emily Mehaffey when both regularly engaged in the party scene in Boise, Idaho. At the time, Joe had never really heard the gospel. Emily, unbeknownst to Joe, lived in a rebellious phase that contradicted her Assemblies of God upbringing.
Emily talked Joe into taking a snowmobiling vacation to see her parents, who lived in a mountain cabin in Idaho near the Salmon River. In the car about an hour away from their destination, Emily dropped a bombshell: her father, Larry, made a living as a pastor; her mother, Betsy, could be called religious; and Joe shouldn’t swear or expect to sleep in the same room as Emily.
Despite Emily’s warning not to discuss spiritual matters, Joe quickly raised the subject with Emily’s parents.
“I fancied myself as someone with a scientific mind,” recalls Knapp, 40. “For three days, they shared the gospel and patiently answered all my questions from a perspective I had never considered.”
On the way back home, after dropping Emily off, Knapp tried communicating with the Lord for the first time: God, if You’re real, show me and I’ll follow You.
“The Holy Spirit came into that car and I had a powerful encounter with God,” Knapp remembers. “I had to pull over because I was shaking and crying.”
Seven months later, Joe and Emily wed.
Joe already had embarked on a network engineer career. By age 29, he received a promotion as director of information technology for the city of Sandy, Oregon, with the city itself providing internet service to local residents. The Knapps began attending Sandy Assembly of God. Joe played guitar on the worship team and got more involved in church life, to the point where he switched to four 10-hour workdays in order to devote Friday to ministry matters.
The church’s youth pastor quit the night before Knapp began volunteering once a week at church. Then-pastor Jeremy Siebert (now an Assemblies of God world missionary to Norway) offered Knapp the position.
For the next five years, Knapp worked bivocationally. He participated in a yearlong AG Oregon Ministry Network young leaders initiative, which culminated with an 8-day foreign mission trip in 2017. Knapp had been scheduled to visit Brazil, but a Zika Virus epidemic in the South American country forced a last-minute switch to Ecuador.
When he went, Knapp had no inclinations of becoming a missionary, certainly not to Latin America. He anticipated continuing with his IT career with the City of Sandy, which had gained recognition for implementing a revolutionary fiber optic network. Knapp had been invited to speak at multiple IT conferences, including one at the White House.
But on his Ecuadorian trip, Knapp listened to missionary after missionary reciting stories about their calling. The discussion aroused latent biases he learned during his upbringing in Oregon against Mexican migrant workers.
“On that mission trip, the Lord began pulling prejudices out of my heart,” Knapp says. “The Lord showed me how beautiful He had made these Hispanic people.”
Knapp sought God further and felt directed to Psalm 37:3: Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.
“I asked the Lord if He was calling my wife and me to be missionaries and He clearly said yes,” Knapp remembers. Joe broke the news to Emily in a phone call to Oregon.
“Yes, I know,” Emily replied. “When are we leaving?” Emily had felt similar promptings from the Lord in her daily devotions.
The next day, Knapp traveled from the capital Quito to Cuenca, a scenic city in the highlands. Joe immediately texted Emily that he sensed God calling them to Cuenca. This occurred even before Knapp toured the facilities of Unsión TV, a ministry founded by AG world missionary Bill McDonald in 2003. Knapp immediately saw the potential of expanding the television network.
Meanwhile, Emily thought Joe may have been proceeding a bit too fast.
“I don’t want to rush into anything,” Emily texted back. “I wish God would give us writing-on-the-wall clarity.”
The following day, McDonald took Knapp to a museum in Cuenca where Panama hats are manufactured. A mural on a wall at the museum had the word SANDY in bright red letters. Joe immediately snapped a picture on his phone and messaged his wife.
“You mean writing on the wall like this?” Joe texted.
As McDonald saw Knapp off on a bus the following day, as a goodwill gesture he took off his Unsión jacket and gave it to Knapp. Knapp believed it to be a confirming sign of the need to move with the couple’s three children: Katie, now 13; Anna, 11; and Isaac, 9.
MOVE TO ECUADOR
In August 2020, the Knapps became AG world missionaries to Ecuador. Joe is co-manager of the television station with missionary Thom E. Davis. Davis, former media pastor at Griffin First Assembly in Georgia, is currently itinerating for what he expects will be his last 4-year missionary term before retiring.
Although a Christian TV station available to a region of around 700,000 viewers, the bulk of Unsión’s programming isn’t overtly religious.
“The programs are secular, but infused with biblical values and principles,” Knapp says. “We’re trying to reach people who don’t know Christ.” The station also operates Unsión Plus, which offers ministry outreach such as free phone counseling and addiction recovery classes. In all, Unsión has 27 full-time employees and 20 freelance contractors.
After its launch, Unsión TV quickly became the most-watched station in Cuenca, airing 24 hours a day on cable and satellite. The family-friendly programming is supported by commercials as well as individual donations. Recently, Unsión began reaching other countries through social networks and launched a 24-hour-a-day livestream on its app and website.
“Emily and Joe are an absolute godsend to Unsión Television,” says McDonald. “It requires unique leadership because of the need to know about both communication and ministry.”
McDonald, 68, retired as an AG world missionary in 2019 after 33 years in Ecuador. A heart condition of McDonald’s wife, Connie, in Cuenca — elevation 8,400 feet — prompted a return to the States. He says the TV operation needed someone such as the uniquely trained Knapp to step in to assist Davis.
“Every ministry’s success eventually hinges on transition,” says McDonald, who now is lead pastor of Anchors Church in Oneonta, Alabama. “If I’ve ever seen a miraculous call to missionary ministry, Joe and Emily are it. They have the training and tools needed to lead Unsión after Thom retires.”
Although Emily minored in Spanish in college, Joe knew none of the language. He still takes weekly classes through AGWM’s language school in Costa Rica.
“It’s been a humbling experience,” Knapp says. “Technology and ministry both came naturally, but learning another language is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”