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Along the Zambezi, a ‘modern-day Livingstone’

ZAMBIA (BP) — Elephants, antelope, hippos, crocodiles, buffalo and the occasional lion are among missionary Kenny Vines’ travel mates as he moves about his ministry in the African nation of Zambia.

On multiple occasions while on his way to a village for Bible study, he has been cut off by a herd of elephants and had to travel another path. At other times during days of extended ministry, lions calling, hyenas laughing, elephants trumpeting and hippos bellowing were the soundtrack to his nights as he lay in his tent.

Not without reason has Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, referred to the SWBTS alumnus, as “a modern-day Livingstone.”

“Tucked away in the most remote regions of Zambia, Kenny Vines and his family come close to reproducing the earliest experience of missions in Africa,” Patterson said, recalling the ministry of David Livingstone, a 19th-century explorer and missionary.

“Living far from stores or provisions, his wife [Lesley] cares for the family and, as a doctor, works with those in need of medical assistance,” Patterson said. “Kenny teaches the Bible, leads men to Christ and is frequently called when there is a lion, buffalo or elephant threatening people and they need a man with nerves of steel to face the challenge. Life for Kenny Vines and his family is more breathtaking than any novel that could be penned.”

The Vineses have ministered along the Zambezi River in southern Africa since 2009. As with all missionary-evangelists, all of their efforts for community involvement anticipate open doors to provide everyone on their mission field the opportunity to both hear and respond to the message of Christ, and they have a “systematic plan” to do so through direct outreach and spiritual multiplication.

Vines attributes much of his ministerial potential and impact to the education he received at Southwestern, where he completed his master of divinity in 2003 and later enrolled in the Ph.D. program in world Christian studies.

“While I had a good base from growing up through my parents and my church, Southwestern really helped me to cement a lot of those connections in my mind, my spirit, and my life.”

This impact would be realized more fully after Vines arrived on the field.

“Because of the amount of reading, Scripture memory and ministry practice that was required of me as a student, I am now able to travel from village to village with only my Bible and am able to handle the spiritual- and knowledge-based battles that come from African traditional religions and other denominations like Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventists. I am confident with my words and actions now because of my time at Southwestern.”

Deployed to Zambia roughly seven years ago, Vines and his wife Lesley eagerly prayed that God would open doors to spread His Word. Not long after they arrived, their prayer was answered for what would become the first of many times.

While still in the language-learning phase of their deployment, Vines traveled to Luangwa, the village in which they would ultimately be stationed, to explore the location and oversee the preparation of their home. When returning to the language school, Vines stopped to pick up two people who were flagging his vehicle for a ride. As it turned out, these two people were the wife of and aide to the chief of that area.

“Later, when we moved to Luangwa, we went to see the chief and introduce ourselves to him,” Vines recounted. “That divine appointment with his wife and aide helped to pave the road to a great relationship with the chief. In our area, you need the chief’s blessing for all that you do, and because of how the Lord worked in the beginning, our ministry has been able to move and function in this area with no hindrance.”

One of the Vineses’ primary avenues for ministry is community projects such as digging water wells, assisting in building projects and performing any other tasks that a village might not be able to do alone. Such undertakings allow the Vineses to “get [their] feet in the door” and, hopefully, begin Bible studies in villages with no church or missionary work.

“[Doing these projects] allows us to show the love of Christ through actions, as James describes [in Scripture], while at the same time giving us the ability to evangelize and teach a weekly Bible study in those villages,” Vines said. “Community projects and community involvement are a great way to open doors of opportunity as well as model faith and works.”

Another ministry avenue unique to Vines’ Zambian mission field is assisting the Wildlife Department, serving as a volunteer the past three years. He often goes out at night to confront “problem animals.” More than an opportunity for adrenaline-fueled adventure, these night calls open doors for spiritual conversation.

“When we head out on a call, we will oftentimes sit in the village around the fire for hours while we wait on the problem,” Vines said. “This gives me an insight into the village and culture that I cannot get via books or even an interpreter.

“Something happens when the sun goes down and you are sitting around the fire,” he continued. “People begin to open up in ways that I would never be privy to. In and through my relationship with the Wildlife Department, I have been able to peer into this culture, and God has given me so many new tools to use in sharing the Gospel now that I didn’t have before.”

Other ministries in which the Vineses are involved include teaching in a local Bible school, volunteering at the village clinic, coaching basketball at a nearby high school and one-on-one mentorship with aspiring church leaders. And in a weekly 30-minute radio program, Vines polls the community for questions (topics ranging from “Abaddon to Zion”) and answers them from the Bible.

“This is a great form of broad seed-sowing since there is only one radio station in our area,” Vines said. “This means that for 30 minutes each Sunday evening, the Gospel is being shared to everyone who turns on the radio.”

In the midst of these efforts, one of the most rewarding aspects of the Vineses’ work is witnessing the maturation process of those to whom they minister. One characteristic of this process is the adoption of a similar, if not stronger, zeal for evangelism.

“It is rewarding to see those whom you have trained show up at your gate and ask for more Gospel tracts,” Vines said. “Then, as you say, ‘Sure,’ you are racing through your mind, trying to remember how you forgot that we were supposed to go out visiting today, when he says, ‘No, we aren’t going out’ — that this is something he organized on his own. [It is rewarding] to see those whom you have mentored out doing the very thing, on their own, you have spent so much time teaching.”

Such evangelistic zeal and spiritual multiplication are important, Vines said, because of the context in which they serve. Though having a figurative open-range zoo in one’s own backyard may initially seem exciting, the location has more than its share of danger from predators and disease. As such, bringing the life-giving message of the Gospel to this area is an urgent necessity.

Just as David Livingstone’s pioneer ministry beckoned others to follow in his evangelistic footsteps, so Vines encourages fellow believers to join him in spreading the Gospel along the Zambezi River. “There is an urgency to the call of sharing the Gospel amongst these people,” he said, “but we can’t do it alone.”

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  • Alex Sibley