Yesterday I finished teaching a course on the History of the Church in West Africa. This is the first time I taught it for this particular program, the Baccalaureate in Theology track at IBB. In North America I think it would correspond roughly to a junior college level program. The students meet for two, six-week, intensive sessions twice a year. I met with them three hours a day for the past two weeks to get through the 30 hour course. Besides the 3 hours with me the students had 6 additional hours between two other courses they were taking at the same time. Needless to say having 9 hours of class a day for the entire session makes it a challenge for them to keep their energy level up! Yet they managed to be attentive throughout and seemed especially taken with one aspect of the course, the important role played by Africans in the establishment of Christianity in this region.
The contribution of foreign missionaries is well know among Christians in Benin, but African pastors and evangelists were perhaps the most significant force for the establishment of West African churches during the 19th and 20th centuries. Thousands of freed slaves settled in Sierra Leone where they became a thriving Christian community that provided resources, economic and personnel, for the propagation of the faith to other regions. One of those first initiatives was the establishment of churches at Badagri and Abeokuta, just across the Nigerian border about 70 kilometers east of Cotonou. Invitations from those churches to the Methodist mission eventually resulted in the establishment of their work here in the 1850s. That example was repeated in other places and with different groups. From their base in Sierra Leone Africans returned to their home areas with their new faith, and the Gospel spread farther and farther into the interior and grew deep roots in African soil. The many vibrant faith communities whose leaders make up the student body at IBB are the result of that African contribution to the missionary task in West Africa. The story is a good reminder and encouragement to Christians here and in North America as we continue to work together at the missionary task of the church.