February Prayer Letter

By-Laws

Small communities are like families: everyone knows the rules – although sometimes they have to be spelled out – and problems are ironed out as they arise by face to face encounters.  When communities grow, however, it becomes important to change from an informal to a formal structure with written understandings and a set procedure for dealing with issues when they arise. It is no longer possible to settle problems face to face or to make every decision by group discussion.  The community delegates authority and entrusts smaller decisions to that authority.  Only major decisions are settled in a group-wide meeting.

The Mennonite Church of Ouagadougou is moving into the phase of a more structured community life. In December the church council met to begin writing by-laws for the congregation.  The by-laws stipulate who can be a member, the procedure for electing the council members and the length of term, and so forth. When the by-laws are written and approved by the council, the congregation will hold an assembly to study and adopt the by-laws.

Along with the church by-laws, the student hostel (FEMO) is also beginning the process of creating written guidelines. When the hostel began, there were less than ten students in residence.  As preparations are being made to move into permanent housing that can hold up to thirty students, it is necessary to provide some continuity and structure to that living environment as well. Sometime  the students remember the purpose that the hostel serves, but inthe bustle of university life it is easy to loose sight of the original vision. One of the roles of a written document is to ensure that the students understand and stay engaged with the vision of FEMO.

It has been a good experience to work on these projects with other members of the congregation. In particular, it has been exciting to see students who have studied law serve the church with their gifts. Once again, we marvel at the wealth of talent in the young adults who makeup the congregation.

Work on the new FEMO site continues

Work on the new FEMO site continues

Building

The property that the congregation purchased to house the student hostel and the church meeting-place is under construction. Since January, much has changed. The bricklayer is building a large meeting room and an additional bedroom. The next task will be to build soIMG_3269me additional bathrooms. We hope that the students will be able to move into their new location in March.

Please pray with us:

  1. Thank God for good food to eat. Many people wonder whether we miss certain foods from home. In our case, most of our daily foods are available here. Furthermore, there are many delights which we enjoy, such as fresh strawberries in February! A vendor comes to our door with fresh fruits and vegetables (including broccoli whichwas not ava ilable in Cotonou). A woman down the street bakes us fresh whole-wheat bread each week. We have found a Widow’s Co-op that makes great peanut butter (the 100% p eanuts kind!). We are grateful for our daily bread.
  2. Thank God for health. Nancy caught a nasty bout of something just after finishing the 1 for 50 training and has spent a week feeling rundown. With the right medicines, however, she is beginning to get back on her feet. Deborah was also ill with a bad cold/sore throat and then pink eye. She too is now better. Continue to pray for good health for all of us.
  3. Pray for the FEMO students and their studies. One of the biggest challenges they face is the lack of adequate infrastructure. They are often taught in large classrooms holding over 1000 students; the small number of professors cannot possibly know their students by name. Often the students are left to muddle through on their own. When an injustice occurs, the students have almost no recourse. Pray that the students can succeed in this unfriendly environment. Pray too for reform at all levels of education in Burkina Faso. An uneducated population is ill-equipped to help the nation develop and progress.
  4. Pray for the school where Jeremiah and Deborah attend, the International School of Ouagadougou. As is often the case with international schools, there will be a high turnover of staff as many are leaving at the end of this academic year. Pray for the hiring process which is going on right now. Pray for teachers (both here and in North America) who care about their students and who can make a positive difference in the lives of their students.
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Year-end Post

Merry Christmas and many blessings for the New Year from Burkina Faso! We trust that you have had a meaningful and refreshing holiday season and are alive with the hope of new possibilities in the coming year. We find ourselves at the end of a very eventful year in which we made a major move from Brookline, MA to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. As we take some time to slow down and reflect on these past months of “settling-in,” we are thankful for your thoughts and prayers and God’s provision. Our house feels like home now, and we are happy to have developed somewhat of a routine: Jeremiah and Deborah in their school and extra-curricular activities and Bruce and Nancy in ministry engagements, especially with the FEMO (Foyer de l’Église Mennonite in Ouagadougou), the Mennonite Church’s student hostel and congregation here in Ouagadougou.

Our first Christmas in Ouagadougou was a combination of regular family traditions along with some new twists. The regular traditions included children’s stockings and a tree with lights and tinsel. We also had our usual Christmas treat: ice cream cake! This tradition dates back to the early years in Benin when we spent Christmas with our colleagues, Christine and Phil Lindell-Detweiler. They left us the recipe and we have eaten this dessert every year at Christmas time no matter where we happen to be!

This year we also spent the morning of Dec. 25th with FEMO. The children of the congregation shared a Christmas skit, Pastor Bananzaro’s sermon encouraged us to share the gift of Jesus with others, the students gave a report on their recent evangelistic visits in the surrounding neighborhoods, and we spent time in prayer and song. Afterwards we shared the noon meal together.

 

Partnership Council Meeting

In these past months we found ourselves increasingly involved in church activities. In November Bruce participated in the Burkina Faso Partnership Council (PC) meetings. The PC brings together the various Mennonite agencies that work in partnership with the Mennonite Church of Burkina Faso.  There are a number of different agencies: AIMM (Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission), Mennonite church Canada Witness, Mennonite Mission Network (from Mennonite Church USA), the French Mennonite Mission committee, Evangelical Mennonite Church of Canada, and the Mennonite Brethren Mission.  Once a year the PC meets to coordinate the various mission efforts in the country. During this year’s meeting church leaders shared their new three-year plan that includes church planting, evangelization efforts via existing congregations, an HIV/AIDS educational program, and leadership training. It is an ambitious and exciting vision of the church’s ministry in the next years!

Nigeria TripWater Factory

From December 12 to 20 Bruce traveled to Nigeria to participate in the Mennonite Church Nigeria’s annual convention. It was an opportunity for him to reconnect with the church after our three-year hiatus in North America. He was encouraged by the progress there. The church completed a number of building projects at the national headquarters and at local congregation sites and new, energetic leaders have been integrated into the church structures. Mennonite Church Nigeria is a very charismatic church, so Bruce enjoyed four days and nights of energetic praise and worship with old friends and new acquaintances.

Job Description

After settling into our house this fall, our next task was to work with FEMO and the National Church to develop a formal job description. This process was a first for the church and us and has taken some time. The conversation began at the end of the Partnership Council meeting where a preliminary job description was entrusted to FEMO for further editing. The church committee took some time to look at the different items on the list and then gave it back to Nancy and Bruce for final editing.  The final draft is now being studied and will be presented for adoption at the next church committee meeting in early January.

The job description does not contain any surprises. It lays out the various ministries in which we will engage at the local and at the national level along with some accountability structures so that it is clear how we will work. Our local involvement will include oversight of FEMO and various initiatives with the students, as well as involvement in the ongoing congregational initiatives. On the national level, we will also be available as resources for theological and biblical education. The job description allows for similar involvements beyond Burkina Faso, particularly in Benin and Nigeria. As well, Bruce will work on finishing his dissertation and Nancy will do some teaching at the International School of Ouagadougou. She will begin in January by teaching an SAT English prep class. (Applicants to colleges in the USA are required to submit SAT scores; the SAT focuses mainly on English and Math skills.)

 

FEMO Land Purchase

In December FEMO purchased a property with a building that will serve as a student residence as well as provide a meeting space for the congregation. The building is large enough to house the 24 students who are currently residing in the rented facilities, but some work will need to be done before they can move in. The bathrooms and showers which are roughed in will need to be finished. This is an exciting step towards making FEMO a permanent ministry. We look forward to seeing the ministry develop in its new location in the coming year.

 

Prayer

      Join us in prayer about the following:

  • Thank God for the new FEMO facilities. Having its own land will provide stability for this ministry and provide consistent, ongoing ministry opportunities among the students. Pray that the needed reparations to the building will be possible in a timely and economical manner.
  • Thank God for Bruce’s safe travel to and from Nigeria and for the energetic and committed members of Mennonite Church Nigeria. The Nigerian context is one of economic and social inequality and periodic violence between ethnic and religious groups. Pray that the church can be a witness to Christ’s love in such a challenging environment.
  • Pray for guidance and energy for Nancy as she takes on some teaching responsibilities at the Ouagadougou International School where Jeremiah and Deborah are enrolled.
  • In this season during which we celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace, pray for peace in Africa. Recent violence in Nigeria, the Central Africa Republic, and the Democratic Republic of Congo reminds us that the gospel is especially relevant in our age. Pray also for our neighboring country, Mali, where rebels are still in control of the North of the country. The international community is considering military intervention, a proposition that, while it seems to make sense in the short-term, will add significantly to the amount of arms in the region and risks increasing violence for some time to come.

Bruce’s Project

In September 2009, we moved to the Boston area so Bruce could begin his ThD studies at the Boston University’s School of Theology. When we left three years later (last July) he was officially ABD (All But Dissertation). After two years of course work and a year of comprehensive exams with two language requirements thrown in for good measure, all that is left is to write his dissertation.

While we were living in the USA, whenever he could manage it, Bruce headed out to Goshen IN where he went through the Mennonite Church USA archives looking for useful material. He spent weeks scanning letters and other documents into his computer so that he would have access to them when he was ready to start writing. Now he spends all his spare time working with those documents, reading and classifying. Bruce works at a standing desk that he had made according to his specifications (so his back won’t hurt from lots of sitting). We hope that it doesn’t take too long to finish this stage of research and writing!

The topic for this project is the work of Mennonite missionaries in South East Nigeria, especially Ed and Irene Weaver, beginning in the late 1950’s and the Christian movements with which they interacted. He will write about the forces which shaped the missionaries’ approach to their ministry as well as those which shaped the religious identity and expectations of Nigerian Christians.

Bruce began working in Nigeria in 2001 on a part-time basis while we were living in Cotonou, Benin. His interaction with the Mennonite Church of Nigeria motivated the desire to better understand the church there and how the Mennonite Board of Mission and later Mennonite Mission Network’s approach in West Africa was shaped by the relationships between missionaries and local Nigerian Christians of that time .

Graduation

A few weeks ago I attended graduation ceremonies at Good News Theological College and Seminary. Good News is Ghanaian seminary that trains leaders  from African Independent Churches in West Africa.  You can see more about them here.

Among the 16 graduates were two from the Ghana Mennonite Church (GMC).  One was Emelia Amexo, the first woman leader from GMC to graduate with a theological degree.  She was supported in her three years  of study by a grant from Mennonite Women USA.  Emelia is a young woman with much energy and is always willing to lend a hand.  In fact she received one the the Principal’s Awards for her “volunteerism” during her time  at Good News.

Emelia receiving her diploma

Emelia receiving her diploma

Receiving the Principal's Award with members of the Nkwanta Mennonite Church

Receiving the Principal's Award with members of the Nkwanta Mennonite Church

Below see excerpts from a letter I received from Emelia last week.  She’s been quite busy as you can see.

Dear Pastor Bruce,

I greet you in the name of Jesus Christ who said “As the father sent me, so I send you” as the great commission.

Glory and honour be to God for the wonderful things he is doing in the life of the church especially the Northern Ghana Mennonite Church this year.

I left for Christmas in 2008 to Nkwanta to see the church and my family. I met them in good health and they have just finished with Christmas convention which was so successful, many souls won for Christ.

The church leaders and some few members in total we were twenty people. Some people were from Brewaniase including the Prophet. We took a car from Nkwanta to Kabiti and boarded an engine boat to the village, just as Jonah was on his missionary journey to Nineveh. We were not afraid of capsizing the boat or loosing our lives because Bible says “If you loose your life because of Christ you will gain it back” We saw the eternity of humanity as very important as Jesus said in John 3:36 “He who believe in the son has eternal life”

During the new year, we went on mission trips to so many places in the District. Two places we went to were Mafikope and Kitari (Kabiti area). The church is at Mafikope already but we went there for revival. We revived the church to be on fire for the Lord always. I had the chance to preach the salvation message and souls were won for Christ before we left the town for the whole one week that we stayed there. Three people were baptized and added to the faith. Some await baptism

We also went to Kitari where we had a big crusade and souls were won for Christ. We had 30 people at Kitari who we have used to start the church and the chief also gave the church a land to put up a chapel on it.


Zangbeto

“We’re going where!” our driver asked, as I was explaining our destination on Sunday.  “They shoot at people in that village,” he went on.  We were on our way to Zanzoun, a village known throughout the south of Benin for its lawlessness.  We were going to visit a church that was made up of former thieves and hoodlums.  They have abandoned their life of thieving and fraud in order to follow the narrow road, in order to walk in the way of Christ.

How did this church come to be there?  And how did these brothers and sisters in Christ come to know Jesus?  It all begins with an act of love.

church-visit-zanzoun-002

Theophane at the Zanzoun congregation

The village of Zanzoun is know for two things: the predominant role of the “Zangbeto” and the frequent practice of fraudulently selling land.  The Zangbeto institution began many years ago to provide protection of property at night.  They maintained law and order.  If anyone was caught committing a crime, he had to pay a fine.  If he didn’t pay, he would be punished by the Zangbeto.  Over the years, these night watchmen have become the very thieves they were supposed to stop.  They became a force in the community that no one dared to challenge.  The Zangbeto come out in their grass costumes sort of like huge grass skirts that cover them from head to foot, sometimes with horns at the top.  Nowadays, they can even come out in the daytime.  They are accompanied by musicians tapping on their rhythm instruments and followed by laughing, curious children who keep a prudent distance.

In the village of Zanzoun, a group of people has perfected the art of selling land that doesn’t belong to them.  They will bring in an unsuspecting buyer, show him the land, take him to a fake office where he will be given a fake deed to the land in exchange for his very real money.  By the time he figures out that he has bought a useless piece of paper, he can no longer find the people who sold it to him.

One day, some of the key figures of this group went to see some people in a another town, Porto-Novo.  Porto-Novians had come to Zanzoun to share the gospel through an evangelisation effort.  The effort had not been very successful.  Now the people from Zanzoun went to see the evangelists in order to sell them some land.  The chief spokesperson for the group from Zanzoun explained that his father was seriously ill and in the hospital.  He needed to sell some land to pay for his father’s medical bills.  Did the Christian brothers want to buy land?  The Christians  from Porto-Novo responded that they did not want to buy any land.  “However,” they continued, “if you can show us where your father is staying we will go and pray for him.  Then if there are any prescriptions, we would be happy to buy his medications.  We will also help to pay his hospital fees.”

Now, of course, there was no ill father in the hospital, nor were there any hospital bills waiting to be paid.  But the spokesperson from the group was overwhelmed.  How could these brothers offer to pay for his father’s medical bills without getting anything in return?  Perhaps there was something to this gospel message after all.  He was prepared to listen this time.  He decided after listening to their message to give his life to Christ.

After he made the decision for Christ, however, there was a backlash.  The other members of the village were not at all in favor of losing one of their chief actors in their land fraud schemes.  Not only that, but the young man was also a Zangbeto.  He was the brain behind many of their activities.  He could not leave them without a fight.  Even his own father turned against him.  At one point, after he was no longer part of their activities, the gang accused him of land fraud and he went to jail for a number of months.  None of these forms of persecution made him turn his back.  He had decided to follow Jesus.

On Sunday morning, I joined in the small church’s worship.  As I was preaching from Psalm 73 about how people follow after the wicked, a Zangbeto came down the path that passes in front of the church.  Some of the children ran out of the church to watch and follow after the straw-clad figure and his entourage.  “There,” I said, “people follow after the wicked in ignorance, not knowing what lies ahead.”  But for me it is a good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge, to tell of all his works.  Everyone smiled; they knew what I was talking about.

Village children upon our arrival

Village children upon our arrival

Anabaptists and Christmas

First the Anabaptists.  Last week at this time I was traveling back from Ghana where I met with a group of pastors who are participating in a distance education course on Anabaptist History and Theology.  In Ghana we also relate to the Good News Theological College and Seminary and normally would refer people there for theological education needs.  In this case Ghana Mennonite Church pastors asked for additional guided instruction on Anabaptist history and hence this initiative.  As Mennonite missionaries we believe we have something unique to offer on the subject!

This particular course is offered through the PSDE program of AMBS and looks at a number of the 16th century Anabaptist leaders,  some of their writings and other reflections on what it means to be Mennonite today.  It is meant to be a self-directed study though I correct the homework assignments and provide input and encouragement along the way.  When I  met with the group of 7 pastors this time we talked about Conrad Grebel and discussed how applying Jesus’ teaching in Matt 18:15-17 is or isn’t possible in Ghana today.  There were differences of opinion in the group, but all  agreed that the biggest impediment to practicing discipline in the church is the large number of churches people have to choose from.  Instead of accepting discipline people are more apt to simply leave for another church!

Christmas was special this year because Grandma Frey made the long trip from Waterloo, Ontario to be with us over the holidays.  Jeremiah and Deborah are thrilled to have her here.  Christmas morning brought the usual gift giving activities, though it seemed that there were more gifts under the tree than in other years.  Jeremiah was thrilled to get a new Calvin and Hobbes book and Deborah has been playing with her new Poly Pockets paraphernalia since Christmas morning.

Stepping Between Cultures

On April 29, Bonaventure Akowanou, administrator of the Benin Bible Institute, and I (Nancy) left Toronto at a chilly 6 degrees (42 F) and landed in Cotonou at 9:30 the following evening where it was a balmy 29 degrees (88 F). Traveling between Benin and North America, one is aware of constant contrasts. Aside from the hot/cold divide, there are so many differences between the two places. The longer I live in Benin, the more I find myself feeling out of sync in North America.
The differences really hit me again on this last trip to Canada during the month of April! Perhaps traveling with an African colleague made those differences more apparent. Or perhaps spending a few days in Montreal before landing in my own backyard, Waterloo County, highlighted aspects of Canadian life that I had previously ignored. Whatever the reason, I felt a heavy ache as I noted the incredible neediness of Canadians. Yes, you read that word correctly! Yet my last few days in Ontario filled me with hope.
Now of course I realize that in many ways Benin is the needy place: people in Benin suffer from lack of adequate health care, educational opportunities, sufficient income, and so on. So of course, Benin is a very needy place. In spite of those obvious challenges, however, the Beninese by and large seem to be a very hopeful people, filled with optimism, and strongly attached to life. They appear to have resources to face the challenges of life, resources that we North Americans do not understand. That is why when people from North America visit Benin they are often most struck by the joy and happiness of the people they meet. This joy becomes especially pronounced in the exuberant forms of worship that are characteristic of Beninese churches. We wonder how they can be so happy in spite of what we would consider great suffering.
It strikes me that in contrast many North Americans are unhappy. Perhaps before I go any further I should carefully state that I am not sitting in judgment here. I am not suggesting that the Beninese are perfect (for they are far from that) or that I prefer living in Benin to living in North America because I can’t say I prefer one place to the other. My remarks are meant to show that there are problems in North America that need to be addressed and that perhaps the strengths of the Beninese can help us to address that suffering.
Some of our greatest needs cannot be met by material resources: the need to belong, to be loved, to feel hope, to feel secure. These needs are met in the Beninese context by their communal and spiritual resources. When we try to meet these needs with only material and physical resources, we fail. Our best efforts at eating right and getting exercise do not keep us from falling ill. Our attempts to create community where none existed before are often unable to provide solid connections with others. Our attempts to make meaning out of our existence, if left only to what we can achieve in this world by our own efforts, often leave us feeling hopeless and dissatisfied.
A long time ago, I read an African myth (I think possibly from Uganda). I forget some of the details, but I will try to relay the underlying lesson it contained. The myth in question explained that when the world was created, the Creator made the rain and the sun, the earth and a human being. Inside the human being, the Creator placed a heart. After finishing the work of creation, the Creator went away. The rest of creation carried on, happy in simply being, but the human being’s heart went crying in search of the Creator. Ever since, humans have been on a quest to satisfy their heart’s true desire. As someone, (St Augustine maybe?) put it, “our hearts are restless until we rest in you.” Or as St Paul wrote, “[God is the one] in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17: 28, but actually Paul was quoting a Greek poet!)
This need to be at peace with our Creator is at the heart of our search for all the rest: love, security, meaning, truth, etc. When this need remains unfulfilled, we try to fill it with all sorts of other things. Yet none of these other things can satisfy our deep longing for oneness with God. So we live broken lives with emptiness at our core. We live lives of constant getting that never seems satisfied. I was struck by how many people in North America are searching for something more: a quest for a genuine spirituality and a real community. Yet I was also struck by how many people are looking everywhere except the Christian faith.
Christianity teaches that Christ has reconciled us to God, 2 Cor 5:18, we can live in peaceful communion with God – and Christ has reconciled us with one another (Eph 2:14) – so that we can live peacefully together. Yet this teaching has not been faithfully lived out and in some cases the church has been more interested in preserving itself and its traditions than in living out the good news. So in North America, where the message has become worn-out, people are ready to look for God every where BUT in the church. In Africa, where the old forms of spirituality are breaking down in the face of modernism, Christianity seems to bring helpful answers to their spiritual questions. This makes it very exciting to work at Bible teaching here. In West Africa, people ardently desire to know what the biblical text says. But when I return to Canada, I find another language is needed.
I was delighted, therefore, to attend the MCEC sessions at the end of April. (MCEC is the eastern district of the Mennonite Church of Canada, covering the provinces of Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick.) MCEC has planned for 8 new church plants, some already begun, others about to begin, all of them finding new ways of being God’s people. These attempts at using a new language and of finding new forms for sharing the good news are very encouraging to me. I am not ready to do away with church as I have known it, nor are many other people who still find the church a good place to meet God. (Church being the people of God or the community of faith and not the building in which they meet!) However, I am so glad that there are people stepping out of the familiar ways of doing things in order to encounter people who need to hear about God’s love in a new language. I went away from those meetings with the heaviness gone and a renewed hope.
It is hard to reduce my thoughts and feelings to a page and a half. It is difficult to put into words what came as waves of impressions as often very different encounters shaped my thinking. I do not presume to have summed it all up adequately, but I share it in the hopes that others may be inspired to pursue their reflections on what it means to be human and how to live lives of wholeness.