Russell and Phyllis Staples look back on long careers spent serving the church and educating students in South Africa, Zimbabwe and the US. In this interview, they share just a little of the wisdom gleaned over decades, reflect on the importance of cultural sensitivity, remember the devastation of apartheid, mention Neal Wilson's views on women's ordination, and consider the secret of a successful marriage.
Russell, you have served the Adventist Church as a pastor, educator and administrator your whole career. What was the most meaningful job or project you ever worked on?
I was engaged in three very different ministries. First, pastoring in Cape Town. Second, serving as principal at Solusi, the Adventist college and mission in Zimbabwe, where we sought to prepare local leaders by teaching and conducting evangelistic meetings; and developing the college. Then as a faculty member in the Seminary at Andrews University with the primary focus of encouraging and preparing prospective missionaries, and teaching a little theology.
Service in all three has been both demanding and very rewarding. It has been like three careers based on the same fundamental gospel purpose.
Do you go back to South Africa or Zimbabwe?
I used to get back to Africa quite regularly to continue providing assistance and encourage missionaries. My last trip was about eight years ago.
Phyllis, what do you feel was the most meaningful church work you ever did?
Well, I didn't do any preaching. I used to play the piano or organ at church services and evangelistic meetings, and at the church services we conducted in the City Hall in Cape Town once or twice a year.
You married in 1947, 70 years ago. Congratulations! What is the secret of a successful marriage?
Phyllis: It has been a very happy time. We hope it can keep going for quite a long time more!
70 years is a long time!
Russell: Yes, it seems to surprise people! Our anniversary is December this year. We can still get around and greatly enjoy doing things together.
Phyllis: We just love each other, and help each other.
Russell: We have provided each other mutual support. When I was studying in the mid-1950s at the Seminary in Washington DC we received no financial support from the church, and not enough to support the family while we were at Princeton Theological Seminary in the late 1960s. During these years Phyllis worked and kept us going.
Phyllis: Yes, I would just get a secretary job wherever we were.
Russell: When I was studying for my doctorate at Princeton in the late1960s, she worked as a secretary at the New Jersey Bankers Association headquarters office. Because they knew her they invited me to conduct the devotional and offer prayer at their annual retreat at a beach city. I was shocked and nearly fell over, but accepted the invitation. So we spent a delightful and very interesting weekend with members of the Association! She was the one who took me to that experience.
Phyllis, what do you love most about Russell?
I don’t know! There are so many things.
And what annoys you the most?
I shouldn’t tell you those things! I love him just as he is. We all have our faults.
Same questions to you, Russell.
She is a very gifted lady. We depend on each other, and she has been so supportive and helpful in all kinds of ways that I cannot conceive of the possibility of living without her.
Tell us about your family.
Phyllis: We have a lovely family. We have two daughters, four grandchildren, and three little great-grandsons — aren’t we lucky? Our great great grandsons — ages four, seven and just-turned-nine — come over once a week to play.
How do you split up responsibilities between you?
Russell: I care for the finances and do the heavy work caring for the garden, and mowing the lawns and so on.
Phyllis: I do the laundry, and the cooking — really we just depend on each other. If anything, we have become more dependent on each other over the years of our marriage.
We read the Bible and pray together every morning.
You both grew up and married in South Africa, is that right?
Russell: Phyllis was teaching piano at Helderberg College while I was still a college student. Our families knew each other very well.
Phyllis: My mother was an American whom my father met while he was studying dentistry at Ann Arbor. He married her and brought her back to South Africa.
When Russell came to Helderberg to study it was very fortunate for me!
What problems did apartheid create for the church?
Russell: Before apartheid it was another South Africa. Apartheid began in 1948. We were pastoring in Cape Town and the changes were terribly disturbing. The policy was “separate but equal” and the changes were devastating.
First was the Land Apportionment Act, which designated selected areas for whites, others for coloureds, and others for Africans. A beautiful area up near the mountain overlooking the city and the bay which was occupied by coloured people was then designated for whites. The inhabitants refused to move. I stood up there one day and watched the police and members of the army remove them, including two Adventist families. The devastation was indescribable.
Then there was the Mixed Marriages Act. Whites could only marry whites and coloureds fellow coloureds. I had a lovely couple in one church who were planning to marry. The darker man was registered white and his fairer fiancé coloured. The magistrate would register him coloured but not her white and this would devastate their lives. Many young people suffered greatly because of this. Ministers who performed such marriages were deprived of their marriage license and some were imprisoned. My lovely young couple just disappeared and probably just lived together illegally.
And then Africans were removed from universities for whites. My brother studying medicine at the university of Cape Town was terribly upset when his friend, a fellow African student, was removed and sent to an African institution.
And the Adventist Church struggled to keep its church schools for coloureds and Africans operating. It was felt that we gave people too deep a sense of self worth and social unity.
When I was pastoring in South Africa we used to hold large Sabbath services in the Cape Town City Hall once or twice a year. The congregation was largely white but many others attended and were welcomed. I went to hire the hall in 1954 when HMS Richards was visiting. The secretary informed me that Cape Town was losing the battle and there could now be no mixed audiences in the City Hall. She told me that it was well known that we brought the largest mixed group into the City Hall and that this would no longer be allowed. I asked her what would happen if we continued as usual. She said that the police would be there waiting and that after we started the meeting, they would step onto the platform, condemn us for breaking the law, and close the meeting. So instead of hiring the City Hall for HMS Richards we had to take him around to the churches one by one.
We left South Africa in 1954 to study at the Seminary in Washington, DC. I could have been in serious difficulty with the government about these issues had we remained there.
I suppose you were glad to leave South Africa, but it was still your home. Leaving must have felt bittersweet.
Russell: We expected to return. But the Adventist Church was changing during the time we were at the Seminary in Washington DC. Elder W. R. Beach, who was General Conference Secretary for many years, gave a speech at an Annual Council meeting suggesting that the Adventist Church ought to be doing much more to prepare local people for leadership.
I received a letter shortly thereafter calling me to go to Solusi in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. It was a shocking surprise. We accepted and were there for 10 very rewarding years. I taught for a few years, then served as principal. While there, I traveled all over Africa, including South Africa, selecting and recruiting appropriate students. On one of these visits to South Africa the police came and nearly put me in prison for eating with the group of Africans with whom I was meeting. Our years at Solusi were extremely rewarding in many ways — not only in being involved in the rapid growth of the church and preparing its leaders but also in making acquaintance with other missionary groups.
Phyllis: I worked as a secretary while in Solusi, and did a lot of entertaining. We were very fortunate to have my mother there with us; she helped to run the house and look after the children. Our daughters had been born in Cape Town.
Russell, you joined the seminary faculty at Andrews University in 1971, where you served until retirement, providing training for missionaries. How many missionaries would you say you helped to train over the years? What was the most important lesson you tried to impart to them?
Oh, hundreds. I don’t know how many. In Africa, we had met Richard Hammill who was then Associate Director of the General Conference’s Education Department, and who later became president of Andrews University. He was a very wise and thoughtful man. Many missionaries were going from America to Africa, but they were not being adequately prepared for their missionary responsibilities. He phoned me while I was at Princeton, and asked me to come to Andrews and assist in preparing those who would work in Africa, giving them an idea of local culture and worldview. This was another great shock. I had been expecting and hoping to return to Solusi.
I was very fortunate while I was at Solusi, because an anthropologist was in charge of the African township in Bulawayo. He was a professor from the University of Cape Town who was missing the classroom. Over the course of about eight years he would invite me to his office about once a quarter for an hour or two during which he gave me a course in anthropology and an understanding of the general African worldview. I had also travelled and spent some time with many of the people and missionaries in the Trans African Division.
Most missionaries had no real understanding of that worldview.
When I went to Princeton for my doctoral work in systematic theology, I wanted to study more anthropology. They hemmed and hawed, but I took the test, and ended up doing a minor in social anthropology. That prepared me to teach mission.
So the most important lesson for the missionaries we trained? At the heart of it was to give some idea of the basic worldview of the people they were going to serve and how the gospel would meet and answer that worldview and fill their lives with a new hope and direction.
And Phyllis, what did you do at Andrews?
Phyllis: I became secretary for the Education Department at Berrien Springs. They didn’t know much about Adventists, so I kind of connected them.
What skills and experience and attributes does a person need to be a good missionary? What does it take?
Russell: They need a basic understanding of the worldview, patterns of religious practice, and social structure of their host society.
In addition, the people we were training were given basic psychological tests. We wanted to make sure they were well informed, strongly motivated and psychologically balanced. We needed people who were very committed and flexible. Not everyone who attended our training institutes were accepted as missionaries.
How has the work of mission changed over the years? How is the work of training missionaries different today than it was when you began?
Russell: It has changed a great deal. For one thing, the numbers have changed so much. Now there are more Adventists in Africa than in any other continent. We now have large institutions: schools and healthcare facilities. Many people going out are not going as missionaries directly to primal societies as they were 40 years ago — now they are going to teach in the colleges or as denominational administrators.
Also, the percentage of Americans has dropped. Now we have many missionaries from Korea and Brazil and many other parts of the world.
But Adventist missionaries are doing very well. And people around the world are marvelling at the quality of the institutions we are running — colleges, schools and hospitals — and the good people we have working in them. [See a 2016 article Russell Staples wrote for Spectrum, with more information about this topic, and David Barrett’s World Christian Encyclopedia here.]
What are the major changes you have seen in the Adventist church during your lifetimes? How is it different than it was? Is there anything that encourages you? Disappoints you?
Russell: I think the special challenges we face are in the western world with the secular mind. We need to look beyond minor issues to what is now happening in theology. We need to look again at the wonders of the universe. Scientists are now telling us that this is dependent upon a divine plan and not simply upon natural evolution.
The biggest challenge we face is to encourage and keep our young people in the church. We need to work more directly with them and focus on caring for the millennials in more understanding ways.
Russell, in 1987 you wrote a paper looking at the ordination of women from a sociological perspective, which was excerpted in Ministry magazine. Are you surprised that 30 years later, this is still such a major issue for the Adventist church?
Yes, unfortunately, the church is still struggling with this.
Elder Neal Wilson and I were boys together in Bloemfontein, South Africa. His father was Union president; mine was ministerial director. Later we had several conversations about women in ministry. My information regarding the situation in the United States, which I shared with him, was drawn from conversations with Presbyterian ministers at Princeton alumni meetings. Early on many were opposed, but a little later most of them, especially pastors of large city churches in which women were generally in the majority, and in which there was an increasing number of women-directed families, said they could not manage without their female assistants. They became very positive about the ordination of women.
I also mentioned that while we had several very effective women evangelists in our African churches, there was generally a deep and serious opposition to having ordained women pastors. (See Mary Douglas's 1966 book Purity and Danger.)
Elder Wilson was positive about ordaining women. [When he was General Conference president] I tried to convince him that this was generally not acceptable in primal societies, and that perhaps we should be flexible and allow Divisions to follow the practice acceptable in their society. However, he seemed to feel that he could convince the delegates to accept women’s ordination at the next General Conference session. Perhaps his wonderful success in leading the delegates at the 1980 Dallas session to accept the 27 Fundamental Doctrines was in his mind.
But then we lost the vote in 1994. That was a tragedy. We should have gone forward in promoting the ordination of women in countries where their ministry would be a great blessing to the church, as in Britain, much of Europe and the US, and allow the church in primal and other societies to follow the most suitable practice.
I deeply regret the battle we are facing now. I think that what Elder Dan Jackson and the North American Division leaders are doing is very positive. We need to hang on, and continue to work our way through this problem that limits the effectiveness of our mission.
What advice would you offer to young Adventists today?
Russell: I would say to dedicated young people considering entering the ministry: Give diligent study to the worldview of the society of your future ministry so that you can effectively engage and inspire them with the wonders of our Lord and the deep meaning of the Advent message. The wonders of the gospel inspires our lives but we must make it fit in the society in which we are called to minister.
Just what Russell has said — he knows how to reach people.
Russell Staples is 92, and Phyllis just turned 93. They reside in the Andrews University community.
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