A Letter from Dustin and Sherri Ellington, serving in Zambia
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Having one foot in Africa, and another in Pasadena has been a complicated way to trek through this season of the coronavirus pandemic. So far, the pandemic has hit the U.S. much harder than Zambia. Yet we always have at least one eye on the Zambian news and much empathy in prayer for Zambia, our friends there, and the continent of Africa.
Difficult as it is to straddle two continents, we also count it a privilege. Our hearts are in two places, broadening our perspective. Some issues are universal, some are distinct, but we see people’s increased desperation for God’s care for their lives and livelihoods; eyes and ears more piqued by the realities of inequality, and growing flexibility and creativity in ministry.
A particularly invigorating experience has been Dustin and his students learning how to remotely teach and learn from 10,000 miles apart. While the U.S. has been awakened to the “digital divide,” this “digital divide” is even more glaring in Zambia.
Due to COVID-19, Dustin’s students at Justo Mwale University were, for the most part, sent home to their provinces and countries. When, in early May, they began to reconvene digitally, it was hard to find everyone! Some scattered students were off the grid, due to lack of funds, lack of cell tower signal, or lack of electricity. In African culture, though, no one should be left behind. The group should move as a group. So students made valiant efforts to get in touch with one another: asking someone from a different class who was in the same country as a “missing” student to track them down and alert them to buy some data or find a way to borrow a smartphone. It worked! By the time class started, everyone knew it was starting.
Then came the next piece of the digital divide. For many, internet access can be prohibitively expensive. Justo Mwale did a good job of acquiring an online learning platform and teaching the professors how to use it. But would it work for the students?
Adapting to the situation together has been interesting. Dustin quickly learned it was much easier and less expensive for his students to receive teachings over WhatsApp than other platforms. He now gives low-tech lectures, homework, comments, and even quizzes over social media. For each Greek lesson, Dustin writes what he would have written on the classroom whiteboard on a piece of paper, photographs it, and sends it ahead to the Greek class group chat on WhatsApp. Then he hits the button to voice-record himself, explaining the diagrams, words, and sentences. When he lifts his finger, the voice message (lecture) instantly sends to Africa. Students can then listen to the explanation while analyzing the photos of Greek words and diagrams Dustin already sent. It really works!
Ministering through WhatsApp has also gone well for Dustin and his students in their “spiritual companionship” group. Before bed on Wednesday nights in California, Dustin shares a passage of scripture and asks open questions. On Thursday mornings in Zambia and nearby countries, students share clips of worship songs, meditations on the Bible passage, prayer requests, and even prayers, as they normally would in person.
Students have gotten a kick out of the time zone differences. At first, they would excitedly begin their WhatsApp messages with words like, “Good morning, Prof … or should I say, good evening?” since many of them, despite studying at Justo Mwale with classmates and even lecturers from other countries, were for the first time in their lives communicating in real-time with someone physically located in a vastly different time zone. A 9-hour time difference can be mind-boggling!
We have been very impressed with the effort these Justo Mwale students in Zambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and South Africa have made to ensure their education is not interrupted. We also admire the effort they have made to help their classmates in far-flung villages and cities of the region have the connectivity they need to succeed.
Thank you for your support in prayer, gifts, and care, which enables us to be in relationship with people such as these, as we continue serving through Presbyterian World Mission. We invite you to give toward our sending and support with the following link: https://www.presbyterianmission.org/donate/E200478/.
Some prayer requests:
• May God continue to show mercy to people in Zambia and surrounding countries. We fear a grievous situation should COVID-19 arrive in Zambia with intensity.
• Thanksgiving for our sons’ graduations, Christopher from high school in Zambia (virtually) and Clayton from Stanford (also virtually). Pray for God to guide their next steps. In September, Chris is slated to begin at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, while Clayton has received a Fulbright award to do malaria/mosquito-borne disease research at the Institut Pasteur in Paris.
• That God will guide our time in America. Dustin teaches through the end of July. On August 1, we were already scheduled to begin a year of Interpretation Assignment, based in Pasadena, meant to be mostly study leave with also some sharing in churches.
• That we and other white Christians in America will have the courage to keep opening our ears to the voices of our siblings of color, listening deeply with our hearts and minds.
Blessings to each of you,
Sherri and Dustin Ellington
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