Bruce, Jeremiah, Deborah and I left our home in Benin on June 23, 2009, almost four years ago now. I was delighted to have the opportunity to return for a visit last week after the Benin Bible Institute (BBI) asked me to come and teach a class. I was in Benin from April 12 through April 21.
When we lived in Cotonou, Benin, Bruce and I taught regularly in the different programs of the Benin Bible Institute. BBI began as a systematic Bible training program in 1994. Since then, it has offered a three-year seminar program in Bible and Theology that attracts students from many different denominations. Most of the students are lay people who want to understand their faith better, or who feel ill-equipped for the ministries and services they offer to their local congregation. Many serve as Sunday School teachers, occasional preachers, choir members, worship leaders, Bible study leaders, or as leaders in the church in a variety of other capacities. Currently around 250 students are studying in the seminar program that offers nine monthly seminars each year.
Several years ago, once the Beninese trained faculty returned from study abroad, BBI began another program that was designed specifically for pastors and people involved in full-time ministry. This program is also offered in seminar format, but the program is more academically challenging and involves more hours. It is in this program that I taught the “History of Missions” class: thirty hours in five days to fourteen students!
Alongside teaching, I was delighted to see how things have progressed at BBI, especially in technology. I observed a Saturday seminar taught with the assistance of power point. I was astonished to find that BBI now has Wi-Fi. While my students were writing the final exam, I was able to follow events in Boston via the CBC News website. It was a firsthand experience of the strange new global world we live in.
BBI has continued to offer a viable and practical program to many Christians in Benin. Now BBI is launching an agricultural training program as well. A number of years ago, BBI purchased a farm and hoped to offer practical training to pastors and others who might live outside of urban settings. A candidate was hired to set up the program and after receiving special training has begun with crop production and livestock. Soon students will be welcomed to the site to learn about effective methods of crop production along with non-traditional livestock such as snails and rabbits (which are fairly new to the Beninese diet.)
I am grateful to God for BBI’s many years of faithful assistance to the people of Benin.
This week Pastor Bananzaro offered his reflections on FEMO’s ongoing ministry with university students here in Ouagadougou.
Bruce had a chance to sit with Pastor Bananzaro this past week and hear about the development of FEMO. Here is what he learned:
When the Evangelical Mennonite Church of Burkina Faso (EEMBF, Eglise Evangélique Mennonite de Burkina Faso) started the Mennonite Youth Hostel of Ouagadougou (FEMO, Foyer de l’Eglise Mennonite d’Ouagadougou) a number of years ago, church leaders wanted to provide housing and spiritual stability to Mennonite students new to the university and big city life. But it has become much more than that. These were the words of Calixte Bananzaro, pastor to FEMO residents and the Ouagadougou Mennonite congregation.
Besides providing a home for recently arrived Mennonite young people, FEMO has developed into a church community. Together with former students and a few families that have joined the group, hostel residents participate in a fledgling Mennonite congregation that celebrated Easter by moving into its new, permanent location from rented facilities. Thanks to support from North American partners, FEMO was able to buy a lot of it own close to the university campus. The students have moved in and the congregation is able to meet on the site, although renovations are ongoing.
The ministry of FEMO has developed in ways its founders had not foreseen in its seven years of existence. According to Bananzaro, the congregation that has sprung from the initiative provides its residents with a kind of “training ground” for spiritual leadership. In Burkinabe churches those who have a university education of any sort are called upon to provide leadership, even if they have no theological or ministry training. The Ouagadougou congregation has been a place where FEMO residents can hone leadership skills through leading worship, preaching, teaching Sunday school, filling other congregational roles, and sometimes attending local ministry training programs. Bananzaro noted that former FEMO residents have expressed gratitude for such learning opportunities after discovering that their university degrees entail leadership expectations in the church that go far beyond their professional identities.
In addition, the presence of a number of students from other denominations has meant that FEMO has provided an increased awareness of the Mennonite Church and its Anabaptist distinctives in the wider Burkinabe church community. The EEMBF is a small denomination with congregations in a limited geographical area. Pastor Bananzaro noted that non-Mennonite FEMO residents often act as “unofficial emissaries” to their home churches. Their testimony has resulted in an increased appreciation for Mennonite faith and ministry in the larger Burkinabe confessional milieu.
Perhaps the next seven years will result in even more unanticipated ministries! The new FEMO site increases the capacity from twenty-four to thirty residents. The congregation has also secured land on which a daughter congregation can be planted on the outskirts of the city. Such progress lays the base for a strong and vibrant Mennonite presence in Ouagadougou in the coming years.
On Sunday at the Mennonite Church of Ouagadougou I (Nancy) preached on “enemy love” and Jesus’ command to love one’s enemies. I then shared some stories of Mennonites and Anabaptists who have demonstrated enemy love in the past. One of the examples was Dirk Willem. For those of you who don’t know the story here is a brief synopsis:
Dirk Willem was an Anabaptist preacher who was imprisoned for his faith. He managed to escape from prison and was fleeing on foot when he was spotted and the soldiers gave chase. He came to a lightly frozen pond and – due to his small size and light weight – he crossed the pond. One of the soldiers who gave chase was not so lucky and fell through. Dirk went back and rescued his pursuer who then re-arrested him. This time Dirk was locked up more securely and did not manage to escape again. He was executed, dying a martyr’s death.
I invited the congregation to reflect on the story and give their impressions. Now if, like me, you grew up in a Mennonite church and are familiar with this story, Dirk is a hero who kept the faith at the cost of his life. To the young people in Ouagadougou, however, the story should have had a different ending! Like the crossing of the Red Sea, Dirk was saved by God who drowned his enemies. He should have kept going, praising God who fought on his behalf! Dirk failed to discern correctly what God was doing!
From my perspective, this interpretation is near blasphemy, but it makes very good sense to anyone not brought up on stories from The Martyr’s Mirror! Maybe a rose that is called something else really isn’t a rose after all!
The FEMO choir
“I am following you, Jesus, through the torn curtain” sang the choir in four parts. The choir’s contribution was just one of the many highlights of the Easter morning service at the Mennonite Church of Ouagadougou. The children sang several songs, including “Celebrate, Jesus, celebrate.” The drums kept up a steady beat and at one point continued on for ten minutes after we finished singing. The joy on the drummers’ faces matched the joy in the congregation. We were celebrating two things at once: first, the resurrection of Jesus and second, our new church home.
After seven years, the student hostel has finally moved out of rented facilities and into the church’s own building. The move took place on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Some of the students jokingly said they were on their way to Canaan. The hostel includes meeting space for the congregation so we will hold our worship services at the new site.
As usual, the congregation was a young crowd and the exuberant service was full of youthful energy. We were also pleased to see some of the builders join us for the service: the mason with his wife and the painter had been specially invited to celebrate the first service in the new building that they had worked hard to get ready in time for Easter.
Pastor Bananzaro read through the last hours of Jesus life and the story of his resurrection. He reminded us that Jesus promises to be with us always until the end of the age. He encouraged us to share this good news with the people we know who are anxious, discouraged and suffering. We have peace because we know that nothing is impossible for God.
After the sermon, Samuel, one of the children in the Sunday School prayed for the pastor. His simple prayer was a fitting end to our meditation: he prayed that God would bless the pastor and help us to listen to the pastor and to do what he told us to do.
After the service we enjoyed a potluck meal with plenty of delicious food. Some of our new neighbors from the surrounding houses joined us for the meal.