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Leaders trained for fast-growing West African churches
September 15, 2006
Cotonou, Benin — Esther and Paulin Bossou, co-directors of the La Casa Grande children’s home, packed their bags and traveled with their infant son every four weeks to attend intensive week-end seminars at Institut Biblique du Bénin (Benin Bible Institute).
Why do people with overwhelming obligations, like caring for 25 children, add to their workload? Paulin Bossou has a quick answer.
“Whenever I leave to take a class at BBI, I never return the same person,” he said.
The Bossous and 128 others received their BBI diplomas in a four-and-a-half hour ceremony July 1 that reflected the magnificence of the Lord God Almighty. Theirs was the fourth graduating class since the institute became a systematic teaching program in 1994.
More than 1,000 friends and relatives of the graduates squeezed into standing-room-only spaces in the Red Hall of the National Convention Center in Cotonou, Benin's economic capital.
Mennonites have worked with the churches of Benin in leadership training for more than three decades promoting interdenominational cooperation among the plethora of churches that flourish along the Gulf of Guinea. Originally, oriented to the needs of African-Initiated Churches, the quality of biblical teaching now attracts evangelical, Pentecostal and mainline Protestant churches also. Students from 74 denominations have studied at BBI.
In earlier years, teaching took place in city halls and other neutral places not affiliated with any one denomination. When BBI inaugurated a systematic biblical and theological program, teams of North American and European Mennonites joined Beninese Christians in carrying sand, mixing cement and painting to construct the three-story building that houses the institute today.
Even this imposing structure didn’t suffice to contain the crowds that gathered to worship and celebrate in Benin’s most distinguished venue. Media teams jockeyed for positions as two national television networks, four newspaper journalists and a Christian radio station covered the graduation.
“Over the past 12 years, BBI has built up a reputation for good comprehensive teaching of Bible and theology,” Bruce Yoder said. “[The media coverage] is good for BBI as it grows and is recognized more widely.”
Both Mennonite Church Canada Witness and its partner Mennonite Mission Network support the ministry of Yoder and his wife, Nancy Frey, who have served the churches of West Africa since 2000. While both Frey and Yoder teach courses at BBI, Frey focuses on facilitating administration at BBI and Yoder travels as an itinerant Bible teacher to the Mennonite churches in the neighboring countries of Ghana and Nigeria.
BBI avoids training ivory-tower theologians by organizing classes for one week each month. This rhythm permits church leaders to remain in their communities while pursuing further education. A fast-paced weekend seminar designed to attract professionals who serve as lay leaders in their congregations complements the five-day course intended for pastors. The Monday-Friday sessions are translated into an African language for church leaders, many of whom have little formal schooling.
When students from different denominations study, converse and eat together on a monthly basis over a period of three years a climate of conversation and understanding replaces the spirit of rivalry that often characterizes interchurch relationships.
“On the whole, we are very proud of our students,” Frey said. “We praise God for the 500-plus students who have graduated from BBI over the past 12 years. May BBI continue to provide good biblically-based teaching for leaders so that the church in Benin might be stronger tomorrow.”
Two years ago BBI also began a more academically challenging, full-time program in which 10 students are currently enrolled.
Frey and Yoder have two school-age children. Frey is a member of St. Jacobs (Ont.) Mennonite Church. Yoder has membership at Martinsburg (Pa.) Mennonite Church. La Casa Grande, run by the Bossous, is a ministry of the Burgos (Spain) Mennonite Church.