The Renaissance Difference Maker

by Caitlin Gipson

God calls some to be scholars and artists, others missionaries and naturalists. And on occasion, He calls someone like Skyler Russell ’13 to become all four.

During his years at APU, God opened the door to multiple transformative academic and life experiences that took Russell from downtown Los Angeles to a salmon fishing boat in Alaska, from California’s High Sierras to the hallowed halls of Oxford. The Lord then led him across the globe to his current missionary endeavor in Tanzania. “God is faithful,” said Russell. “When I follow His path, I find myself in amazing places doing amazing things.”

Russell’s international focus has roots in his childhood on the mission field. He spent his formative years in a Kenyan village among the Maasai people, lion hunters best known for their high-jumping dances. “We ministered through relationships, and my parents spent much of their time training a group of leaders, believing that Africa will ultimately be changed by Africans.”

With this as his foundation, Russell began his traditional education as a biblical studies major and global studies minor at Azusa Pacific, and with a sincere openness to nontraditional learning opportunities. He worked as a photographer for APU’s Office of University Relations, and then enrolled in the High Sierra Semester during his sophomore year. “At High Sierra, my love for adventure and appreciation for beauty was given free reign. It taught me about the value of community.”

The next summer, Russell worked on a fishing boat in Alaska. “My parents instilled in me a strong work ethic, but fishing in Alaska really put that to the test. For 120 days, I worked from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., developing the ability to push through tough situations and discovering a deep satisfaction in hard work.” The following semester, he lived and ministered in the inner city as a part of APU’s Los Angeles Term. “I was out of my element in Los Angeles and challenged both emotionally and spiritually. It sparked in me a tenacity to hold onto hope and cling to the promises of God.”

Before his senior year, his High Sierra biblical studies professor, Robert Duke, Ph.D., set him up for a summer in Israel studying biblical Hebrew in Jerusalem. That immersion experience, along with his recognized skills as a budding scholar, later helped him win a scholarship to travel to the University of Oxford to work with biblical scholars and conduct groundbreaking research on ancient texts. “I’ll never forget the excitement and anticipation as we peeled apart a mummy mask, searching for biblical fragments and straining to see if we could make out a letter here or a word there.”

Russell says the common thread through these opportunities is the overriding belief that God was, and still is, preparing him for something. “I learned to trust God during my season at APU. He only reveals it bit by bit, but I know that each of these experiences represents another valuable piece of the puzzle that God will someday reveal.”

Graduation took him back to Tanzania and Wild Hope International, the organization his parents started in 2005 in Kenya that still aims to empower native Africans for economic and spiritual recovery. “Wild Hope is about to move onto a 26-acre property to open a conference center, training ground, and retreat for African pastors. I had to go back to Tanzania to help that dream materialize. I don’t know what is after that, but God does!”

He may end up making a difference in the elite academy of America or on the veldts of Africa, as a photographer or a missionary—or perhaps, all of the above. Only God knows.

Originally published in the Spring '14 issue of APU Life. Download the PDF or view all issues.