​Augustin Ahoga and Théodore Houngbedji, former members of the Benin Bible Institute board, bless Cindy Voth, lead pastor at Waterford Mennonite Church, during a visit in which a 20-year partnership was renewed. Photographer: Bonaventure Akowanou

By Cindy Voth
Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Cindy Voth and a delegation from Waterford Mennonite Church traveled to Benin Bible Institute to renew their 20-year partnership. In a sermon that she preached on Jan. 28, Voth likened the partnership to the story of people, who are blind, arguing about what an elephant is like and, then, deciding to pool their experiences, "as they walked each other home."

For 20 years, Waterford Mennonite Church (WMC) in Goshen, Indiana has had a vibrant and lifegiving partnership with Benin Bible Institute (BBI) in Cotonou, Benin, West Africa. All the partners and participants engage with this relationship because we worship God as revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Our connection to God, as witnessed in our shared life together in Goshen, becomes the bedrock of why we would even consider forming partnerships and friendships with complete strangers on the other side of the world.

BBI and WMC acknowledge the significance of communal worship as a guiding faith formational practice at the heart of our community life. It is a beautiful foundation for our 20-year partnership!

Prior to my visit to BBI in November, I pondered a lot of questions, such as, "What is the purpose of this partnership?" and "What do we gain and what do we have to give in the partnership?" I carried those questions with me across 30 hours of plane rides, 16 hours of layovers and almost two weeks of engagement with our partners in Benin. I came to realize that it is critical that we participate in partnerships, because through them we begin to see the fullness of who God is and who we are called to be as followers of Jesus.

An Indian folk tale describes six people who were born blind. Since they could not see the world for themselves, they had to imagine many of its wonders. They listened carefully to the stories told by travelers to learn what they could about life. They heard that elephants trample forests, carry huge burdens and trumpet loudly. But they also heard that the ruler's daughter rode an elephant when she traveled in her father's kingdom.

The six people argued day and night about elephants. "An elephant must be a powerful giant," claimed the first person, referring to stories about elephants clearing forests and building roads.

"No, you are wrong," argued the second person. "An elephant is graceful and gentle because the princess rides on its back."

The next three people continued imagining the elephant as a powerful spear that could pierce human hearts, a sort of magic carpet that transported the princess and "nothing more than a large cow, you know how people exaggerate."

The sixth person finally weighed in with, "I don't believe elephants exist at all. I think we are the victims of a cruel joke."

Finally, the neighbors grew tired of all the arguments, and they arranged for the six to visit the palace of the ruler to learn the truth about elephants. As the hands of the people who couldn't see were placed on the elephant; the first person, who was feeling the elephant's side, declared, "I was right that elephants are big and powerful. They are like a solid stone wall."

The person feeling the trunk announced that elephants are more like snakes. The one, whose hand was on the tusk, confirmed that, indeed, elephants are deadly weapons and the person feeling the leg felt justified in thinking that elephants are extremely large cows. The advocate for elephants as magic carpets was also assured by feeling the ear.

The skeptic tugged the elephant's coarse tail, and scoffed, "Why, this is nothing more than a piece of old rope. Dangerous, indeed!"

The six people ramped up their arguments, "Wall!" "Snake!" "Spear!" "Cow!" "Carpet!" "Rope!" until the ruler came to mediate. "Each person touched only one part. Put all your observations together, and you will see the truth."

The six people decided to take the ruler's counsel and pool their experiences of the elephant. It gave them much food for thought on their journey home.

I think this folk tale beautifully describes WMC's need for our partnership with BBI. We are touching only a part of the elephant. I would say that the elephant is our understanding of who God is and who we are called to be as followers of Jesus. I love that the people who were arguing decided to try to learn the truth by putting all the parts of the elephant together on their journey home. Our faith journey can be described as walking with each other toward our heavenly home.

We often fall prey to declaring with great confidence that we have it all figured out and, therefore, everyone should be more like us in their theology and practice. On the other hand, we may see the vitality of other's faith and worship and be tempted to believe that they have it right, and we should be more like them in our theology and practice. Instead, I think the truth is somewhere in the middle, that together we have a fuller glimpse of God and what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

I want to share some of my reflections on how we engage the elephant and how I observed our Beninese siblings engaging the elephant. A disclaimer is that I have been touching the Mennonite side of the elephant now for 25 years and the American Christianity side for 42 years. I have peered over to the Beninese side of the elephant from a distance for the 11 years that I have been at WMC. And now, I have had an up close and personal view for a two-week period.  

During my time in Benin, and since returning home, I have been thinking a lot about our image of God:

  • How do we describe who God is and what God does?
  • What is the language we use to articulate the power and presence of God?
  • As we reach out and touch our limited engagement with God, what do we experience?
  • How do our Beninese siblings engage the above questions?

One evening, toward the end of my visit to Benin, I was thinking that the Beninese God is a wild God. They describe God as powerful, fierce, majestic, and worthy of worship. I was challenged by this vibrant and untamed image of God that is different than my experience of God, as a companion, who walks with us each day as a guide and source of strength. At WMC, we talk a lot about God as Creator, the one who calls us to peacemaking and action for justice.

At first, I thought, "The Beninese must have it right." But then, I realized that together we see a fuller picture of God. We need to hear and understand more of the Beninese image of God, and they need to hear and understand more of our image of God.

The BBI-WMC partnership invites us to a posture of curiosity and learning. As both partners continue in our spiritual formation journeys, we need each other. Like the Apostle Paul said to the believers in Corinth in this morning's text from 2 Corinthians 5:11-21, we are reconciled to God, transformed into a new creation, and therefore we are compelled by God's love to see, interact, and embrace the world around us in new and intentional ways as we journey home together.

Thanks be to God for our partnership, for our Beninese siblings, and for the gift of sharing and learning together. Together, we have a fuller understanding of who God is and who we are called to be as followers of Jesus in 2024.

 

 

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https://www.mennonitemission.net/blog/5037/Mission-partnerships-help-each-participant-to-experience-more-of-God

​Cindy Voth is the lead pastor at Waterford Mennonite Church in Goshen, Indiana.

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