It’s not unusual to see Dr. Samuel R. Vinton, Jr. ’55 jogging across campus—even in the middle of a cold Grand Rapids winter—or talking to students in the Commons and eating lunch with them in the cafeteria. Dr. Sam celebrates his 90th birthday this year, and while his nine decades have included multiple continents and ministries, it never really matters where Dr. Sam lives or works; his heart for people remains steadfast.
Caught, Not Taught
Samuel R. Vinton, Sr., arrived in Africa in 1928 to evangelize and start churches, but he soon saw an ever-increasing need for medical care. So he decided he needed to add medical work to his evangelistic focus. So, he first went to Paris to learn French, and then to Belgium where, sponsored by the Belgian government, he studied tropical medicine. After his internship in the Congo, he married a fellow missionary, Marie Mikula, and then went to Kama, Congo. The medical center he opened there still exists.
In March 1933, Marie knew she had an anything-but-normal journey ahead when she was pregnant with her first child. At that time, the closest hospital was nearly a two-week trek. First there was a ten-day trip through the forest in a tipoy, a hammock carried by four men. Then a five-hour train ride followed by 50 miles in a Model T to the Methodist Mission hospital in Tunda.
“I bounced for ten days in my mother,” Dr. Sam says with a laugh.
It’s the story he tells when people ask about his animated preaching style—but of course, it’s not the only trait he caught from his parents. The Vintons, committed to meeting Africans’ physical and spiritual needs, quickly became known as Baba and Mama Vi.
“When I hear my dad’s story, about his concern for people,” Dr. Sam says. “It became part of who I feel I am … they didn’t teach it; I saw it.”
The Power of Mentorship
By 16, Sam had traveled to America with his two younger brothers to spend a couple years with their grandparents. When he returned to Africa, Sam met Chris and Edna Mae Egemeier, who had joined the Vintons’ ministry in Congo to lead evangelistic and Bible teaching engagements in village churches. Chris was among those who had started Youth for Christ in Chicago, so, naturally, he took an interest in 16-year-old Sam. Over the next two years, Chris involved him in their ministry, having him lead music, give testimonies, and even preach to over 200 young men and women.
“Without me really knowing it, Chris began to mentor me,” Dr. Sam wrote in a 2014 issue of Truth Magazine. “I thank God that He privileged me to have had what I call ‘the mentor par excellence.’”
Dr. Sam credits the Egemeiers for teaching him not only the practical side of missionary work, but also the fun side—and how to build relationships in the community. Combining the things he “caught” from his parents, the skills the Egemeiers taught him, and God’s call and leading, Dr. Sam knew he was headed for ministry. At 18, he left Africa, bound for Milwaukee Bible Institute—but planning to return to the mission field. After his 1955 graduation and Grace Gospel Fellowship ordination, he married Becky Stringfellow, who he’d met at Milwaukee Bible College. The two shared a heart for missions and ministry.
“She said, ‘Well, the first time I saw you … I said, “well, maybe that’s the way I’m gonna get to Africa!”’” Dr. Sam said.
Soon after the wedding, they left for a life of missions. After a quick French language course in Belgium, they arrived in Congo, Central Africa in 1956. Right away, because he knew Swahili, Dr. Sam began teaching and directing the Kama Bible Institute and the Kama Pastors School, which he founded in 1957. During the last six years of their 21-year ministry in Congo, he was asked to lead the Swahili Bible translation committee. The Vintons raised their children, Bill and Debbie, in Congo, and survived seasons of unstable political conditions.
“We went through a couple of rebellions. Twice, our house was completely looted, and we lost everything,” Dr. Sam says. “But this is where we felt the Lord had called us.”
In 1976, the Vintons moved to America when Dr. Sam accepted a position at their alma mater—which had since moved from Milwaukee, WI, to Grand Rapids, MI, and became Grace Bible College. The timing was perfect for both Bill and Debbie to be students in his classroom, and Becky finished a B.R.E., graduating alongside Debbie. Dr. Sam taught missions and theology, all while earning an M.R.E. and an M.Div. at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, and a D.Miss. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Along with his teaching, he also served for two years as academic dean, then spent five years as president. In his tenure, Grace Bible College achieved regional accreditation and continued to grow.
“But the idea of spending my time in administration and listening to all these government reports and so forth, that really is not me,” Dr. Sam says. “I’m either teaching or doing what I did in the mission.”
So in 1990, he was invited to become the executive director of Grace Ministries International (GMI).
“Our love for missions, our experience in Africa, and my doctoral studies in missions caused us to move into that ministry with the assurance that this was where God was calling us,” Dr. Sam wrote in a 2015 blog.
After over 50 years in full-time missions, ministry, and education, Dr. Sam officially retired in 2012—only to continue teaching part-time as an adjunct, still serving as one today. GMI awarded him the status of Executive Director Emeritus in 2012, and in 2019, he became President Emeritus of Grace Christian University.
Even in the midst of the highs, Dr. Sam has seen some low moments. Becky passed away unexpectedly in 2021 after their 66-year marriage and ministry together. Through the sorrow, Dr. Sam courageously continues his ministry across the Grace campus: teaching, caring, encouraging, preaching, and, yes, jogging.
Born to courageous parents—who trekked on foot and by hammock to give birth in a foreign land—and mentored by courageous ministers, Dr. Samuel R. Vinton, Jr. is a full picture of what it means to be a courageous ambassador for Christ. And while his syllabus doesn’t explicitly detail courage and faithfulness, his life shows it, and the Grace community is catching on and honoring him for it.
“Why do I deserve this?” Dr. Sam wonders. “God’s grace. I can’t claim I deserve it.”