Shirley Turner was a Special Education teacher at a Pennsylvania high school and had traveled on a few short-term missions with OM when those three phrases sparked fresh images of what her future might hold. She began to consider how she could serve the Lord in full-time mission.
Her sense of calling wasn’t out of the blue. When Shirley attended a Backyard Bible Club in rural Montana at the age of seven, her heart was convinced that her future would include missions. As she grew up, she prepared to follow that call by attending Bible school and then university to earn a degree in education.
At age 34, Shirley felt overwhelmed by her decision to pursue full-time missions, but the words she’d heard brought clarity about what God had designed her to do. While Shirley was praying, she briefly met a woman from South Africa named Suria. “When I heard her talk about teachers [in South Africa] and the need they had for training,” Shirley explains, “it fit the words I’d been given completely. By training teachers, I would help orphans in the field of education and bring hope to teachers, kids, families, and communities.”
When Shirley was invited to serve in Zambia, she chose to go with conviction, but the decision still presented challenges. She had to forfeit a job with a good salary and benefits, and some family members struggled to understand why she had to go to to Africa. And, of course, she faced anxieties typical to such a seismic transition.
“Though I didn’t feel quite adequate,” Shirley admits, “I could see how the Lord had poured into my life in many ways that fit the need in Zambia.”
Shirley’s mentor and Bible professor affirmed her decision by helping arrange a plan with the university that would allow Shirley to complete her master’s degree while overseas. So Shirley sold her car and most of her belongings and set off for Africa.
She joined a team of nineteen people in Johannesburg, South Africa for orientation and a three-month trek experience. Shirley confirms, “The trek was a great introduction to Africa and an amazing time of discipleship in my life.” After the trek, Shirley rode a buss for thirty-six hours to Zambia, where she was met late at night and ushered to a shared dorm room.
“The adventure was about to begin,” says Shirley, “but I was just ready to sleep!”
Today, two years later, Shirley has acclimated to cross-cultural life — she lives with limited access to water, electricity and internet, she drives on the left side of the road, and she teaches in a classroom with limited technology. But the physical adjustments are not what she finds most interesting. Shirley observed that “life and work in Zambia are much more about conversations and spending time with people than about getting a task done.” And she warns, “If time spent with people is ignored, you can be sure that whatever task is ‘accomplished’ will not be nearly as important or productive as spending time with someone would have been.”
Shirley describes the Zambian people as friendly and happy. She marvels at the faith of the Zambians with whom she serves. “The teachers that have been trained and those we are training,” she explains, “are incredibly dedicated to the Lord, the children, and to the vision of OM Zambia to bring transformation to lives and communities by making disciples.” Although they have few material advantages, Shirley notes, “They are constantly pouring out time, energy, and resources to help the children learn and grow and follow Christ.”
One teacher named Dorothy had promised to bring popcorn to the children in her classroom as a special treat. In the area of Zambia where she grew up, popcorn was always available at the market. But here, Dorothy couldn’t find popcorn anywhere, so she prayed with the children with confidence that God would provide. Later that week, a western missionary who was leaving Zambia offered Dorothy some supplies she no longer needed. Underneath pencils and notebooks and rulers, Dorothy discovered a bag of popcorn. Moments like this encourage Shirley, as she witnesses teachers growing in their trust of God and children discovering that God hears their prayers and cares about the things that matter to them.
Shirley is most satisfied in her work when she mentors and encourages teachers like Dorothy. In a culture that considers all personal matters private, she feels privileged to engage her teachers in deeper conversations. While training and observing at one school for just three days, one young teacher shared some of her struggles with Shirley and told her, “I feel like we have known each other our whole lives.” Shirley reflects, “I feel so blessed and grateful when my teachers and other Zambian friends are able to ask real questions about their lives and their walks with the Lord.” Shirley is quick to note that these encounters also inspire and encourage her.
There is nothing typical about Shirley’s days in Kabwe, Zambia. As director of the Teacher Training Centre, her time is spent on many tasks including administrative work, lesson plans, teaching, observing and training other teachers, and conducting curriculum research. On occasion, she even assists the pharmacist in a local medical clinic. The scope of her tasks is broad, but it’s evident that Shirley has been uniquely prepared to complete each one.
In some ways, Shirley’s service in Zambia resonates with her former life in the United States. As a Special Education teacher Shirley noticed the social stigmas children with special needs faced. But in Zambia, she says, “The depths of rejection of those with disabilities has been shocking.” It’s not uncommon for children with various intellectual and physical challenges to always stay inside their homes. Without access to the resources they need, families often leave a disabled child or adult alone in a solitary room most of the day.
But Shirley proudly announces that “the heart of OM Zambia is to reach out to the least reached and forgotten.”
Today OM’s Bethesda ministry teaches basic life skills to children who are blind, lame, deaf, mute, and mentally disabled. In Kabwe, it is the first school of its kind. Bethesda also raises awareness in the community about disabilities and raises funds for wheelchairs, crutches, glasses, and other necessities. Shirley felt privileged to accompany four Bethesda participants to visit the United States to attend a wheelchair camp.
When Shirley lived in the United States, she dedicated herself to the education and encouragement of young people with disabilities. When God called her to serve the forgotten in Zambia, Shirley continued to employ her education, skills, and passions that were already knit into the fiber of her being. Today she is active in Kabwe’s deaf community and often signs songs for deaf worshipers. Every day, Shirley is obedient to the three things God clearly called her to do: give hope, help orphans, and educate people.
At OM we don’t believe God simply calls people to mission; we believe he creates people for mission. People like Shirley, and people like you.
Lord, we thank You for Your heart of compassion toward the lost and forgotten. For us You sent Your only Son. We ask You, in Your great mercy, to shine Your light into the darkest corners of this world. Use us as You will, Father, to bring the beauty of new life in Christ to those who have not yet heard, that they might also believe and follow Him.
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