Perceptions About Nigeria

A recent article about Nigeria reminded me once again of how our perceptions about the world “out there” are formed. Here in Benin when I tell people that I am preparing to travel to Nigeria they often express surprise that I would do such a thing. At one time banditry and general lawlessness made travel there inadvisable. While there may still be some of that, things have changed and I feel like I can travel freely there as long as I don’t get too far off the beaten path. But the perception that it is a dangerous place to visit is still prevalent here and around the world. Note for example the advice from the US State Department and the Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada.

Looking over the headlines from international news sources one might be inclined to understand the pessimism. Some of today’s headlines were Six Killed in Tribal Mayhem, Fuel Scarcity Worsens (this in a country that is the eleventh largest producer of crude oil in the world), Tackling Nigeria’s Violent Oil Swamps (where armed gangs seeming abduct people for ransom at will), and Abducted Oil Workers Released. Yet when I travel to Nigeria I find that there is a significant amount of good news, not the least of which is embodied by Nigerian Christians as they strive to provide a sane, hospitable, incarnational presence in the midst of insecurity. A while back I wrote a Prayer Letter about this very thing which you can see here.

Another thing one hears about is the problem of religious violence in Nigeria. Unfortunately there have been instances of Christian/Muslim violence that have included killings and destruction of property. Yet even in the midst of the violence there are those who are being witnesses of the Prince of Peace. Mennonite Central Committee is working in Jos, Plateau State, to decrease religious related violence. See their article Peacemakers help to save a Nigerian city from violence. A recent piece in The Atlantic Monthly gives a feel for the complexities of Christian/Muslim dynamic in Nigeria, God’s Country. The article highlights the work of two peacemakers, Imam Muhammad Ashafa and Pastor James Wuye, who were recently keynote speakers at the Inter-Collegiate Peace Fellowship Conference at Conrad Grebel University College. Their ongoing work is an inspiration to us all.

Thank God for those working for peace in Nigeria and pray for the Mennonite Church Nigeria and all Nigerian Christians as they strive to incarnate God’s love in sometimes difficult situations.

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A Bit of History from Benin

Mennonites in Benin

As Bruce and I begin to plan for a 2009 departure from Benin (after 10 years of life in mission), I have also been looking back to the beginnings of Mennonite involvement in Benin. Many people are not aware that there are no Mennonite churches in Benin. Others do not understand how Mennonite missionaries could have been living in Benin for over 20 years (since 1987) and not have planted any Mennonite churches. If we look at the history, however, we can see how significant Mennonite involvement has been in Benin. We can also see how Mennonites have been “salt of the earth” here in Benin and how it only takes a little salt to flavor the sauce! (I hope you will pardon the expression and the obvious pride I take in the work of Mennonites.)

The initial contacts between Mennonite missionaries (working for Mennonite Board of Missions, one of the predecessor agencies of Mennonite Mission Network) and Benin began in 1969. (At that time Benin was known as Dahomey.) Edwin and Irene Weaver had left Nigeria two year earlier due to the Biafra War and were looking for other places where their unique approach to missions might be welcome. That unique approach included working with non-mission planted churches known as African Initiated Churches (AIC’s) providing biblical and leadership training to those churches, while at the same time forging links between the AIC’s and the mission-planted churches who at that time looked down their noses at AIC’s!

At a conference in Abidjan, Edwin Weaver encountered a Methodist pastor, Harry Henry, from Dahomey who embraced Weaver’s vision and invited the Weavers to visit. This visit took place later that year in November and included Marlin Miller who was then working for MBM in Paris.

This initial meeting arranged by pastor Harry between Mennonite missionaries and local AIC leaders led to a Bible seminar the following April. Thus in April, 1970, the first Bible seminar was held. There were two classes. the morning class taught by Edwin Weaver covered the first chapters of Genesis. The evening class, taught by Marlin Miller, covered the book of Mark. Approximately 7 churches participated in the classes with an attendance that fluctuated between 8 and 25 students.

The relationship continued sporadically for another year or two, but then was cut off due to political events within the country of Dahomey. The relationship was not picked up again until 1983 when the new head of MBM, Ron Yoder, joined missionaries David and Wilma Shank in Ivory Coast and traveled overland to Benin. They made contact with Pastor Harry who gathered together church leaders for a meeting. The number of denominations, especially AIC’s, had grown significantly since the 70’s. Shank and Yoder shared the original vision of a place where AIC’s and missionary-planted churches could gather and study the Bible together. The church leaders were enthusiastic in months after this initial meeting.

For several years (from 1983-1989) Dr. Shank came every year to teach a Bible seminar. The church leaders, however, were not satisfied and requested someone on the ground to provide a more systematic training program. The request included not only Bible teachers, but also workers who could help develop programs in health and agriculture. The church leaders in Benin invited the Mennonite mission to provide resource people who would work alongside them without planting Mennonite churches. The Mennonite missionaries would be at the service of all the churches without being seen as competition.

BBI During Seminar Week

When there are lots of motorbikes in front of BBI you know that it must be seminar week.

Work Still to be Done

As I look back over this history, I see that the Benin Bible Institute has grown out of these early beginnings. Today we have a systematic Bible training program for pastors and lay people to know the word of God better. We have also initiated projects in health (the Bethesda Health Center, Development in 4 Dimensions, Organization for Balanced Development in the Hills region of Benin) and Micro finance. In many ways we have satisfied the initial request of the church leaders.

There is one piece missing, unfortunately, as Papa Dossou, an elderly pastor who was part of the initial group who invited MBM in 1983, never ceases to remind me. While we have had many missionaries participate in many aspects of development in Benin, we have not as yet initiated agricultural programs. My prayer is that as Bruce and I leave Benin knowing that the health and Bible programs are in good hands, God will raise up workers to come and help develop agricultural programs in Benin. Please join me in that prayer. Who knows what God will do next?

Prayer Items

  1. Pray for new workers in Benin who would have a vision for working in the area of agricultural development.
  2. Pray for a new initiative as BBI moves out of Cotonou to teach seminars in Parakou, a town 400 km north of Cotonou. Pray that God would bless this effort and that it would bear much fruit.
  3. Pray for Bonaventure Akowanou, Administrator of BBI, and Nancy as they travel to Montreal and Waterloo county for church contacts in the month of April. Pray for fruitful sharing about the work in Benin and for good health for the travelers.