April 30, 1922– July 24, 2014
Pioneer missionary Tillman Houser passed away July 24. A memorial service was held on August 7 at Warm Beach Free Methodist Church, Warm Beach, WA.
Rev. Tillman Houser, and his wife, Gwen, served as missionaries to Africa for 35 years. The Housers arrived in Rhodesia, now known as Zimbabwe, in May 1948.
Tillman and Gwen concentrated on developing African leadership. For many years, Tillman served as conference superintendent and managed up to 30 primary schools over a 100 by 100 mile square area. He served a short time as Lundi Bible School’s principal and teacher. He was also active in building construction and edited and published translations of the FMC standard of faith and practice in two languages. Tillman founded and built the Dumisa Mission in a malaria-infested area hundreds of miles from city centers. He was also instrumental in many church plants in urban areas. In addition, Tillman and Gwen spent 15 months in South Africa.
For more than twenty-five years, the Housers served in rural areas. Part of that time they lived in a Volkswagen van, converted into a camper, and traveled deep into bush country, visiting and encouraging village churches and their leaders. They frequently encountered elephants, kudu and lions. But their real objective was not big game, but friendship with the village people of the area.
In 1973 Tillman and Gwen were appointed by the conference to work in the sprawling, industrial city of Harare (then Salisbury). Thousands of young Africans who had migrated from “the bush” to seek work lived in the fast-growing suburbs of this capital city. The Housers were assigned to seek out those who had previously been associated with Free Methodist schools, hospital and churches and offer them spiritual help and counseling. Many preaching points and a church were established.
When Tillman and Gwen left Zimbabwe in August of 1975 for furlough, the several-years-old revolutionary conflict was beginning to spread and intensify. The following spring, guerillas began to filter into the areas where Free Methodist schools and churches were located.
In October 1976, Tillman and Gwen returned to Zimbabwe and resettled in the comparative safety of Harare. The Housers continued with the city ministry they had begun in 1973, offering Theological Education by Extension (TEE) courses and Bible studies. They served as liaisons between the church, the mission and the government. Whenever possible they traveled to outlying areas to confer with church leaders, to pray and weep with the Christians. Thirty years of missionary service in the country had earned them the confidence and love of the people.
On April 18, 1980, Tillman and Gwen were present to witness the celebration of Independence Day and the official end of the armed conflict. When people began to move back to their homes, Tillman helped direct relief aid for the reconstruction of houses and planting of crops. By this time the Housers were living in Chiredzi.
The Housers retired from missionary service in 1981 but were able to travel to Zimbabwe in 1990 for a six month VISA trip. Tillman taught in the Lundi Bible School for two months while there. Tillman later published his life story, “Let Me Tell You … A Memoir,” which describes incidents that formed his character and life service as a missionary. During his missionary service, Tillman had learned three distinct African languages. Throughout his retirement he worked on projects related to his passion of helping people pronounce African words and names correctly.
Tillman’s Colleagues Write
Colleague Henry Church relates memories of working with Tillman. “Tillman was interested in chronicling the history of the church and its ministries in Zimbabwe. He wrote a book detailing the early events and the transitions through the years. He interviewed hundreds of people to be sure his information was accurate.
“Tillman took forever to get anywhere because he had to stop and greet everyone along the road and inquire about them and their family in true African form. If you were to venture into the bush in southeast Zimbabwe and ask people along the road … they ALL knew Mufundisi Houser!
“He lived in one of the most remote mission stations in Free Methodism at Dumisa. It was a great place for him to learn Shangaan because NO ONE spoke English. He built up a viable mission station alone, in the bush. He lived at Lundi. He lived in Harare and organized small groups from Shangaan people who had moved from the bush to the city. He lived at Greenville, South Africa, for a while and there served as a short term mission superintendent.
“Tillman was a man of the people. He loved them, and they loved him back. As he came to America from time to time, folks here were thrilled by his stories. He built mud huts on camp grounds and generally did a lot to create interest in missions and involvement by the people back home. His name is known across the denomination, especially among the slightly older generation.”