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Pioneer missionary Davis Saunders, 80, dies

WALTERBORO, S.C. (BP)–Davis Saunders, a pioneer in Southern Baptist missions work in East Africa and retired regional vice president for Africa at the International Mission Board, died April 2. He was 80.

For nearly 40 years, Saunders dedicated his passion for overseas missions to Africa, both on and off the mission field. During that time, Southern Baptist work grew from 152 missionaries in three African countries to nearly 1,000 missionaries in 33 countries. Since Saunders retired in 1990, the number has gradually increased to around 1,200 throughout Africa and the North Africa and Middle East regions.

John Mills, a longtime friend and colleague, described Saunders as a dedicated, hard-working man with a dry wit; a knack for speaking Swahili and making friends; and a heart for spreading the Gospel throughout Africa.

“He was a very hands-on fellow who pushed hard; he wanted to see things happen,” Mills said. “It was that kind of dedication to the work that he got done.”

Saunders and Mills first met in 1951 on an ocean freighter sailing for Nigeria. Saunders and his wife, Mary, had just been appointed as missionaries, and the Millses were returning to the mission field for their second term. During eight weeks of traveling –- including an unexpected detour to Angola -– Mills shared nearly everything he knew about Africa with Saunders. In that time, the two became close friends.

“It was an awful trip; we had a substitute captain and a dirty ship,” Mills recalled. “[But] those eight weeks really cemented our friendship for life.”

During the next 22 years, the Saunderses were missionaries in three countries: Nigeria, Kenya and Tanzania. In 1956, they were one of three couples to pioneer Southern Baptist work in East Africa by becoming the first to move to Kenya.

They started an outreach center in Nairobi and became charter members of one of the first Baptist churches organized in the country. In 1964, the couple transferred to Tanzania where Saunders became principal of the Baptist Theological Seminary.

By the late 1960s, the work throughout Africa mushroomed, and Saunders became the mission board’s first field representative for the board’s Eastern and Southern Africa administrative region. In that position, he worked with all of the missionaries in that part of the continent.

In 1973, Saunders moved off the field and became area director for the board’s Eastern and Southern Africa region. Mills soon joined him in Richmond as area director of West Africa. In the years that followed, the two developed a tight partnership, while facilitating missions growth throughout Africa.

“I almost wore a path from my office to his,” Mills said. “If I was his orientation director to mission service, he was mine as area director … It was that kind of relationship across those years.”

In 1987, Saunders became regional vice president for Africa and served in that position until he retired three years later.

After retiring, Saunders resettled in his hometown of Walterboro, S.C. He served at several churches as an interim pastor and taught classes at Charleston Southern University in Charleston, S.C.

He is survived by his wife, of Walterboro; a son, John Saunders of Charleston, S.C.; three daughters, Lee Obenshain and Nina Saunders-Ellison, both of Walterboro, and Danner Neal of Edisto Beach, S.C.

An April 8 celebration service will be held at First Baptist Church in Walterboro. The family will receive friends from noon until 2 p.m. at the church before the service.

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  • Shawn Hendricks