We Don’t Have Forever

A Letter from Dustin and Sherri Ellington, serving in Zambia

February 2019

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Dear Friends,

Do you live your life as though you will be here forever? Yesterday, we attended the funeral service of a dear colleague and friend who died Saturday morning at the age of 51. The homily, given by another dear colleague, Dr. D.T. Banda, reminded us and the many other Christians and pastors in attendance of a key message: We shouldn’t conduct ministry as though we have forever. Only God is forever. We are subject to time.
Learning of the death of Rev. Gerald Phiri, our whole community has been reminded of this truth in a shocking way. Rev. Phiri was a pastor in the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian and assistant coordinator of the Booth Centre, a program of Justo Mwale University devoted to training “evangelists” (volunteer lay ministers) for ministry and to training ministers, whether volunteer or full-time, in how to sustain their ministries through side work in agriculture, tailoring, electricity, and other fields.

Rev. Gerald Phiri, like so many of the most capable leaders in the African church, carried more than just one job. On top of the above two formal jobs, and to being a devoted husband and father of three daughters, Rev. Phiri also assumed many other responsibilities. While pastoring his large church with several church-plant locations, plus teaching at the Booth Centre, Rev. Phiri also served as the Deputy General Secretary of the CCAP Zambia for 8 years; was previously the coordinator of the CCAP’s HIV/AIDS outreach department; and was a mentor to many, including supporting the “community school” housed at his church, which serves just over 500 orphans and vulnerable children who otherwise likely would not have been able to afford school.

Not least, as far as we are concerned, has been his support over the years of the Young Adult Volunteer program in Zambia, which I (Sherri) coordinate. For the first few years of the program, he was the CCAP-side coordinator of YAV Zambia and therefore my close colleague. He and his family hosted a YAV in their home in 2014-2015, the first year of YAV Zambia. Even this year, he has played an important role in the program and in the YAVs’ lives: We worshiped at Rev. Phiri’s church on the YAVs’ first Sunday in Zambia, and a four-day chunk of YAV orientation involved the YAVs being hosted by a family who are members of a village “prayer house” of Rev. Phiri’s congregation, 90 km outside of Lusaka. Reverend Phiri also accompanied the YAVs and me in October on our 11+ hour drive (each way) to the Eastern Province of Zambia and into villages there; he told stories and shared cultural perspectives on our drive and during our meals; and he helped me orient host parents for their year-long adventure of becoming parents to young Americans, talking straight to them out of his own experience and his ability to be a cultural bridge-person. Beyond all of this, ever since my first conversation with him in 2010 or 2011, he has been one of the most fascinating people for me to talk to on our drives around Lusaka or across Zambia, and a key cultural interpreter and friend to me. I wish I had written down his stories.

Around 4,000 people attended Rev. Phiri’s funeral this week, including Miguel, the YAV who is currently helping teach at the community school hosted by Rev. Phiri’s congregation, and including Sophia and Emily, the other two YAVs, who caught rides — long rides — from Eastern Province. In the first moments of the funeral service, Emily turned to Sophia and said it was worth all of the headache of their previous day’s journey to be in that room, at that time, for that reason: to honor Rev. Phiri’s life. It felt that significant, even holy.

A beautiful moment for me took place when Sophia, Emily, Miguel and I huddled together under one umbrella at the graveside service, with two Tumbuka language hymnals shared between us. Tumbuka is the language of Sophia’s village and host family, and one of the two main languages of the CCAP church. Since Zambia has 72 languages plus the official language of English, not many foreigners learn any of the vernacular languages very well, and even fewer know Tumbuka. Sophia is not nearly fluent but, as part of her church and choir in Egichikeni village, happened to know one of the songs with a lovely but complicated tune. As she sang it quietly but confidently in that graveyard here in the capital city, people in our part of the cemetery literally turned around to see where that sweet soprano voice was coming from. And when they saw it coming from a young “muzungu” (white) woman with a traditional chitenge fabric wrapped around her waist and legs, they were amazed and visibly touched.

That precious graveside moment was one small picture of the fruit of the YAV program’s existence in Zambia. Deep cross-cultural connection through the church manifests God’s work in bringing people together across barriers of language, race, and socioeconomic difference. And YAV, in turn, is just one of many ministries that Rev. Gerald Phiri’s life helped usher into existence or furthered through his faithful service.

Reverend Phiri’s life and ministry on earth did not go on forever. His was, in fact, cut painfully short. It is painful to all of us who loved him, far beyond the thousands who arranged their schedules, or even managed to travel on short notice across Zambia and Malawi and Zimbabwe, to be physically present. We — and you — also do not know how long or how short our ministries as Christians, and our own lives, will be. But, as our community here in Lusaka was told at Rev. Phiri’s funeral service, we do know our lives and our ministries on earth will not go on forever. I am thankful that Rev. Phiri lived in such a way that his various ministries will continue to bear fruit for many years to come — fruit in his family; fruit in the life of his congregation; fruit in the life of his broader church; fruit in the lives of his theological students and in the lives of those they now minister to; fruit in the students at his church’s community school; fruit in the lives of American YAVs who have served in Zambia; and far beyond.

Please pray with us for continued fruit-bearing through our ministry here in Zambia and through the ministries of our amazing partners here. Reverend Phiri — himself a Justo Mwale graduate, by the way — was deeply special to us, but many others are special as well, and also very gifted, and very committed, and very engaged for the sake of Christ’s kingdom. We also appreciate prayers of protection on our health and the health of others with whom we work closely. Thank you for your support — through prayer, finances, and care — which helps us to be here working alongside such people.

And please take a little time to be inspired today by our friend and colleague’s life, and also by the homily our other friend and colleague preached: We should not conduct our life and ministry as though we have forever.

With love in Christ,
Sherri and Dustin Ellington


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