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A letter from Dustin Ellington on home assignment from Zambia

June 2014

Dear Friends,

In recent days our family has been talking about what it will be like to return to Zambia. We leave the U.S.A. on July 25, so it’s just around the corner!

We look forward to returning to our house and yard on the Justo Mwale campus in Zambia. Above, a flower develops into a bunch of bananas. Below, a common waxbill (bird) munches on a termite during rainy season.

• We’re excited to see our house again and all the trees and colorful birds around it.
Christopher, our youngest, is eager to get back to the yard so he can build things in it, like a new zip line.
• We’re especially looking forward to seeing friends, yet wonder what it will be like now that some people have moved on—students have graduated; others will soon, and foreign friends have left.
• Clayton and Chris are excited to be part of their youth group.
• Clayton thinks a lot about taking what he’s learned from his Louisville cross-country and track teams to start a running club with Zambians in our neighborhood.
• Sherri is curious to see how God might lead her to minister through studying Scripture with various groups of women; she kept having more and deeper opportunities to do so before we left.  
• I especially look forward to the routines of serving alongside my colleagues and being involved with my students, day in and day out, in their learning and growth.

I could say a lot about different things I’m eager for, including how thought-provoking yet entertaining the Justo Mwale staff is. But I’d like to share in particular about something called the “Practical Preaching” group.

Students pause and reflect on how they will respond to a fellow student’s sermon.

Every academic term at Justo Mwale other professors and I each facilitate a preaching practicum in which a group of 8 to 10 students meet every week for one of them to preach. After the sermon, the rest of the students offer responses and comments.    

I’m excited to get back to Practical Preaching partly because of ways I’ve seen students grow. One special aspect is getting to stick with the same group over several academic terms, so there’s time to see progress. When we first began, the class seemed rather like an initiation rite where older students made first-year students sweat. But as we worked on group dynamics class members increasingly tried to keep their comments to what might genuinely serve the preacher.

Individual students are developing, too. One went from preaching that everyone who isn’t actively following Jesus is actually a Satan worshiper, to being a model of thoughtful biblical preaching for new students. I watched another student transform from using one tone only—a fairly aggressive shout—to becoming comfortable with her particular voice and personality so she can speak to people’s hearts with warmth.  

Dustin with some members of his Practical Preaching class.

I’ve had to penalize a couple of students for preaching someone else’s sermons. (It turns out there are some good sermons on the Internet!) After finding the sermon sources, I met with the students to let them know I believed they had what it takes to learn the skills of understanding the Bible for themselves and preparing solid sermons on their own. One responded, “Do you really think I could learn to do that myself?” He needed someone to believe in him, and he left expressing gratitude. Over and over I’ve seen students go from trying to sound and look like some other preacher they admire to getting a handle on who they are and what gifts they bring as preachers. It’s a particular joy to see students who arrive as extremely tentative preachers become at home in the pulpit as they give biblical messages that reach their listeners’ hearts.

In addition to all this, I’m excited to get back to this group because of what it does for me. As I see students develop, it increases my faith that God isn’t finished with me, and that God isn’t finished with the church. Practical Preaching time is also a highlight each week for my own education about the African church and African ways of thinking. One can learn a lot about people by how a passage of Scripture strikes them, and from seeing how they respond to a sermon. I mostly listen (I always get my chance to talk later when I meet with the preacher to give individual feedback). It’s in these times that I observe firsthand some secrets of the African church’s vitality, including Africans’ experience of Jesus Christ as the source of abundant life, and the gospel as truly good news. Justo Mwale students also trust that every part of Scripture connects us with God and leads to the life God has for us, so the whole Bible matters to them. And they have no doubt that good preaching guides and transforms lives.

I also find that through the preaching group I come to know the stories of my students’ lives and faith. I sense that as I learn their stories I’m able to connect with them more deeply and contribute more to them, both in the rest of the classes I teach and through conversations as I live among them on our campus.

An African Yellow White-eye poses outside our living room window in Zambia.

I feel grateful that, even though my family has had a good year in the U.S.A., each one of us has reasons to look forward to getting back to Zambia. The things that make life good—relationship with God and with the people around us, the beautiful world we live in, the chance to learn and grow and contribute—we can experience in Zambia. And we also get to contribute to the church in ways we can’t quite do here in the U.S.A. The church in Southern and Central Africa is so young and has grown so quickly that training leaders there is an amazing opportunity. 

Sherri and I are sincerely grateful for the ways so many of you help to make all of this possible through your prayers, encouragement, and gifts. As we head out in late July, we invite you to consider supporting us in our next four-year term of service by gifts toward our ministry through Presbyterian World Mission. We still need more financial support, so we welcome and invite new donors to partner with us, as God may lead. To give now, click here.

Finally, let me underline the point that we long for your prayers as we return to Zambia. We would appreciate prayer for God’s protection on our family in every possible way. Please pray for us to manage the initial transition well, and that we will have all the wisdom and strength we need. We appreciate prayers that Jesus will go before us and prepare the way for us to be fruitful. Our students and colleagues need your prayers as well.

Yours in Christ,
Dustin and Sherri Ellington

The 2014 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 141
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