Dr. Jim Lo may be IWU’s Dean of the Chapel, but to students, he’s better known as Umf. The nickname is short for an African word, umfundisi. “It means one who is a teacher, but it actually means more. It means one who wants to become part of someone’s life,” he explains.
Umfundisi discovered his love for teaching while in the Army, when he taught a seminar for 200-500 fellow soldiers. Although the Army later granted him a full college scholarship, he turned it down and left the Army to become a pastor. He soon enrolled at IWU because, “I realized my B.A. wasn’t enough … I had much more to learn.”
As a grad student, he recalls, “I felt that the education I was getting here, I was able to apply into ministry right away. I also had some wonderful mentors at that time.” One of those mentors was Charles Carter, who encouraged Umfundisi and his wife, Roxene, to follow God’s call to overseas ministry.
Once he earned his M.A. in Ministerial Education in 1982, Umfundisi and Roxene moved to Africa, ministering for thirteen years in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Mozambique, Swaziland, and Zambia.
The couple planted churches in Zimbabwe. But soon, “we realized that missionaries didn’t need to be doing the church planting. We needed to be training nationals to be church planters.” Umfundisi began working on leadership development and literature production, creating training materials for African pastors and churches.
Although he loved Africa, he hoped to return to IWU: “When I was here in the master’s program, one of the things I [told] the Lord was that one day I would love to teach here.” However, Umfundisi believed IWU was too racially homogenous to hire a Chinese-American professor.
He had no idea what God had in store. When he brought his teenaged sons to visit IWU, he also planned to visit his friend Dr. Keith Springer, who was out of office that day. Umfundisi left a note with the administrative assistant and prepared to leave.
However, she recognized his name and informed him that IWU had sent a letter the week before, inviting him to start an Intercultural Studies program. He had an impromptu interview with the university president and division chair that day. Because Umfundisi and Roxene had already committed to spending a year ministering in Cambodia, IWU held the position open until their return.
Umfundisi taught Intercultural Studies for 10 years and created World Impact, a program that allows students to go overseas for an extended time. “Too many students were stating that they wanted to be missionaries, but had very little cross cultural experience,” he explains. World Impact gives those students a chance to gain intercultural experience and explore God’s call in their lives.
Being a professor is Umfundisi’s “sweet spot in ministry.” He especially enjoys watching students and professors interact: “Those distinct lines of boundaries [between professors and students], we don’t necessarily have those here … I think that’s part of the beauty of this university.”
Today, Umfundisi remains in contact with students he taught ten or twenty years ago. He loves knowing he has students all over the world who will stay connected as alumni. “[Being an alum] gives you identity,” he says. “It gives you a sense of belonging … You really do feel as if you’re part of a big family.”
Written by Megan Emily. Megan is a senior English/Writing major and a member of the John Wesley Honors College. She also operates Earthworms https://megzilla99.wordpress.com/ , a blog about finding hope and security.