Department SpotlightWhitworth Honors Alumna for Service to "Poorest of the Poor" in Tanzania and Congo
In April 2008, Whitworth University, with the unanimous approval of the board of trustees, presented to Susan Jeffreys Vinton the Whitworth University Distinguished Community Service Award. The award is given to recognize outstanding achievement in service to the world community. Susan, a 1982 alumna who double majored in political studies and French, has for many years given distinguished service to her neighbors in the African country of Tanzania and previously to people in villages in Congo. As her nominator, Theology Professor Roger Morhlang, says of Susan, "She represents a beautiful combination of sacrificial service to poor African villagers (especially those with AIDS) and concern that they come to know Christ. She has a heart of devotion for Christ and a heart of compassion for people. There's no alum I know who better expresses Whitworth's mission to honor God, follow Christ, and serve humanity."
When Susan and her husband, Steve, moved to Tanzania from Congo, they had no plans to stay. "But," Steve says, "it was growing increasingly clear to us that our plans of returning to Congo and leaving these people in Tanzania were not going to be possible. Every time we looked into the faces of those kids, we saw tens of thousands of kids just like them in villages all across that country who still had no chance to go to school."
The Vintons knew that opening a school in Tanzania meant working until they could work no more, dealing with pastors who blamed the country's approximately 1.5 million HIV/AIDS victims for their disease, handling life-and-death situations on a daily basis, dealing with the fears and superstitions of a belief system based in animism, watching people they loved – old people, babies, widows, orphans – deal with both the debilitating illness of AIDS and the aftereffects of an AIDS death in a family, and putting their minds and hearts to work every moment of every day, passing along the Good News that Jesus would be there through the darkest times, that God loves all his children, that the pastors who condemn the AIDs victims preach something other than the word of God, that there is peace, and comfort, and rest for those who are too weary to fight any longer. And now they are working, through Village Schools International, to provide secondary schools for children across Africa. Quite an earth-shaking agenda for a couple of missionary-schoolteachers!
Susan is a teacher at the high school that she and Steve have set up near their village, and she loves to teach the youngsters at her school. But teaching them means being involved in their lives in nearly every way. And while most of us would blanch at such responsibility – such endless involvement – Susan seems to thrive on it. As Steve says, "Through it all I come home listening to my wife and knowing that for all Susan loves the part of her day spent teaching the kids at the high school, it is spending time with all of the families in the village that she really loves."
In her long e-mails from Tanzania, Susan tells stories of families whose lives are hardscrabble, at best; the AIDS virus has made their existence even more tenuous. But not all the tales are sad. She writes of Saida, a little girl who, at four years old, had never walked: "When they brought her to me, I honestly thought she was going to die that morning, right there in my kitchen," Susan writes. Now, thanks to the AIDS treatment she has received, she runs and plays with the other children in her village of Malanga. To thank Susan, Saida’s grandmother walked one-and-a-half miles from her home to Susan's at the end of a long day, just to offer a small token of love and appreciation: a bag of peas from her garden. "What a great way to end the day!" Susan writes in her e-mail. "I am so blessed!"
She tells another story of bringing a man to Christ as his death from AIDS drew near. When asked about her success at winning souls, Susan writes, "I don’t have a program or a method. I simply try to love these people as Christ would. So many of you, my friends, have gotten behind me in prayer and action to help me do this. Please know that you are a blessing to these people. I feel as though I am the most blessed of all to be entrusted with this work of loving and caring for people with HIV/AIDS in our area. I have a feeling that the blessings you are pouring out to these people will continue on and on. I will keep you posted."
"Our aim," Steve says, "is to have an impact upon the lives of the poorest of the poor who live in thousands of villages across the continent, not only without schools, but also with no clinics, no access to safe water, and no hope for escaping poverty. We believe that schools open doors to transforming communities."
On their own and with Village Schools International, Susan and Steve Vinton have devoted their lives to transforming communities, to loving their neighbors as Jesus asks us to do, and to finding their blessings in the joy and health and education of others. And now, when they have done so much, they continue to look for ways to improve the lives of those upon whom they cannot turn their backs.