April 13, 1921 – October 17, 2013
Rev. Eldon Sayre, missionary to Africa for more than 30 years (1946-1976), passed away October 17, 2013, in Spring Arbor, MI. Funeral services took place at Spring Arbor FMC Chapel, Spring Arbor, MI, on October 21.
Born into a Free Methodist pastor’s home, Eldon long contemplated work in a Christian field. During Eldon’s senior year at Greenville College, he felt God’s definite call and changed much of his course work to theology, considering what a missionary or chaplain might need. Eldon then attended Biblical Seminary in New York. In addition to his seminary degree, he also earned practical experience as a protestant hospital chaplain, in youth programs and as an assistant minister.
In 1946, Eldon and his wife, Florence, left for Rhodesia, now known as Zimbabwe. They worked in education and evangelism ministries. Early in their career, letters from the Sayres tell of traveling along cattle paths, of famine followed by rising prices and of students leaving school because of lack of funds. They also tell of Eldon building church-schools in the bush and learning the Sheetswa language. By 1966, the Sayres’ communications had changed to describe numerous cars traveling on highways, government inspections of the schools and students learning English. They also shared about capable church leadership assuming administrative responsibilities.
Typically the government managed the primary school system. However, under Eldon’s direction, all the schools started by the Sayres remained under the church’s administration, which allowed them to be government funded but Christ centered. Eldon traveled the country, establishing Christian schools as close as two miles from Lundi Mission and as far away as 150 miles – wherever there were children. Knowing education was a key for these African youth, Eldon and Florence were thankful that each student enrolled in the schools meant many more young lives touched by the gospel through school prayers and Bible classes.
In addition to establishing and supervising schools, Eldon taught Bible classes in Lundi Central Training School and in the Bible school for evangelists. He was in charge of the mission station and was superintendent of the entire mission field. One of the highlights of his ministry was the privilege of ordaining the first African elders of the Rhodesian FM Church in 1964. Eldon also served on the government’s African American Advisory Board for 17 years.
Because of unrest in Zimbabwe, the Sayre family had to return to the U.S. by the end of 1976. After a year of deputation, Eldon spent the next 15 years in positions at three different Christian schools in Ohio and California. He served in a variety of roles including principal, administrator and head of one school’s science department. Even in retirement, the Sayres never lost sight of missions ministry. On a VISA Ministries trip in 1993, Eldon taught a series on Christian ethics, taken from the book of Mark, at the Malawi Bible School (Great Commission Bible School).
Eldon’s Colleagues Write
Missionary colleague Phil Capp writes, “Eldon was my mentor and guide to the wilderness of South Eastern Zimbabwe. From the beginning, Eldon had a vision for training pastors. He established a basic training program that prepared men who had a bit of education to become recognized officially as lay pastors. That program was expanded into a Bible school with a classroom and residential facilities for students.
“Eldon was a pioneer, undaunted by trackless wilderness, strange languages, new cultures and multiple diplomatic and governmental hurdles. He loved his family and he was loyally supported by his wife, Florence, and his five daughters.
“Eldon’s response to God’s call on his life was unswerving, and his response to cultural, governmental, geographical and linguistic challenges was to find a way through and beyond. The evidence of his life and ministry are that he did that – with integrity and grace.”
“Eldon Sayre was the leader of the FM Mission in Zimbabwe when I first visited there in 1972,” writes Henry Church. “Eldon asked me to preach at each evening service during the annual conference, led by Bishop Paul Ellis. I did so, and that experience changed the course of my and my family’s lives. Two years later, we were appointed as missionaries to Rhodesia and we began our work at Lundi Mission, just down the dusty road, five minutes from Sayres. Eldon and Flo were good friends to us. Eldon gave me some good pointers in the early days of my ministry there. We became good friends.
“One day we were in the Sayres’ living room having lunch with them and someone brought a message: ‘There is a snake in the bushes.’ Eldon jumped up, grabbed a .22 rifle and headed out the door with me hot on his heels. They showed him the bush. For the life of me, I could see no snake. ‘I see it,’ he said. ‘It is a vine and twig snake.’ A vine and twig snake is very thin and colored just like a branch. I finally saw it. Then Eldon shot it. A small snake less than a half-inch high and he got it dead center. In the early days Eldon was quite successful about bringing in game for food for the mission.
“To this day Eldon’s name is respected among the older churchmen of Zimbabwe with whom he worked. A few years ago, in his retirement, he visited our school in Malawi and taught for a month. He did a great job. Then we took him back ‘home’ to Zimbabwe. When his friends met him, there was such a celebration of joy.
“Thanks, Eldon, for being a good brother and friend. Join that choir in the sky singing praise to Jesus. And you, well, you belong over there in the Zimbabwe section!”