Russ Pennington didn't go on his first missions trip with the most unselfish of motives, but six orphans, numerous rescued prostitutes and hundreds of others blessed by his nearly two-decade ministry in Thailand aren't likely to complain.
As an ACU student, Pennington had begun toying with the idea of becoming a missionary, inspired by guest lecturer Stanley Shipp and intrigued by a group being put together by one of his friends.
"I was still hesitant about going overseas, but I really liked the people he was putting together," Pennington said.
One of the members was his girlfriend, Tracy Brasher, and when Shipp said he wanted to take the group on a 12-country semester-long mission's tour, the college senior took the plunge.
"I was concerned if she went on this trip, she might fall in love with someone else," he said with a laugh. "I asked her to marry me on that trip, and I think both of us came home feeling like we needed to go somewhere to be involved in missions."
Pennington was honored this fall with a Distinguished Alumni Citation, presented to five alumni each year, for his 16 years of work in Thailand, a difficult mission field, he said, because of the pervasiveness of Buddhism and its intertwining with Thai culture and patriotism.
“People are really open to hearing the Gospel,” he said, “but to become a Christian, for most people, feels like they would be betraying their country.”
The Penningtons were married before Russ graduated from ACU in 1989, then spent two years training and raising support before flying to Thailand, where they took a year to learn the country’s language and culture.
As missionaries, they did a little of everything, from the traditional – planting churches – to the daring – forming a band and playing in bars to reach Thailand’s large population of prostitutes.
“We called it street church,” said Pennington, whose band worked with Christian women in the Tamar Center to approach prostitutes and help them leave their lifestyles. “The first time we did it was really intimidating.”
In one case, Pennington said, a church member struck up a conversation with a woman spending her first night in the bar. She said she was there because she needed money to put her young daughter through school.
She had a nursing degree, and the church put her in touch with a local hospital, which hired her.
“That was a real meaningful year because we saw a lot of girls come out of prostitution into the training program,” Pennington said.
The Penningtons also began the Thailand New Life Foundation to provide for the needs of Thai orphans through a local foster couple, who has raised six children and who Pennington sees ultimately providing counseling services to other couples, parents and children in the community.
With their own children reaching high-school age, Russ and Tracy Pennington moved back to the United States, relocating near Tracy’s hometown of Amarillo. Russ became a math teacher, which he said has its own missions-like qualities.
“I think being a public-school teacher is tougher than being a missionary overall,” he said. “I’ve got a whole new mission field, I guess.”
Pennington studied math at ACU and worked as a math tutor in what was then the Learning Assistance Center. Math was a struggle for him, he said, and that helped him better explain the concepts to others who struggled.
The experience made him realize he should be a teacher, though the ultimate course of his career wasn’t quite what he initially planned.
In both math and missions, ACU played an integral role, Pennington said.
“I made some of my best friends at ACU,” he said. “They had a big influence on my decision to become a missionary.”
Many were baptized during the Penningtons’ 16 years in Thailand, a testament to their perseverance in what Russ calls “a difficult mission field” – one to which he plans a return in the near future.
“It didn’t feel successful in a lot of ways because it was so difficult,” he said. “We talked to thousands of people. … I think we planted a lot of seeds, and we did see many come to faith in Christ. Looking back, I don’t regret any of it.”