In the early 1970s, James and Jeanette Krabill were invited by the Harrist Church in Ivory Coast to engage in Bible studies with young ministry candidates. Both the Krabill family and the students were profoundly shaped by this encounter.
Twenty years after our family moved back to the United States, Jeanette, my wife, and I traveled to Ivory Coast, where we had lived and worked for nearly two decades. On this trip, I was blessed in a way I could have never imagined.
Returning to the Dida region this past summer was an intensely emotional experience. My heart filled with joy, even as tears filled my eyes. We united with long-time family friends and delighted in their children, while hearing the news of some colleagues and ministry partners who had died in our absence.
Ivory Coast is home to one of the most remarkable evangelistic efforts in mission history. Half a century after the grassroots movement led by William Wadé Harris from Liberia, the Harrist Church leaders asked Mennonites to partner with them. They requested Mennonites to walk under African leadership to strengthen the capacity of the Harrist Church as it faced the challenges of a new era.
We listened to local church leaders identify their hopes and priorities for the church. As friendship and trust developed with Harrist leadership among the Dida people (one of 12 ethnic groups making up the national movement), we were told that informal village Bible studies with young ministry candidates would be most helpful in strengthening the church’s capacity. Rather than building a school, we were counseled to make ourselves available for itinerant Bible classes in villages, meeting for day-long sessions on a weekly basis to allow farmer-preachers the opportunity to both tend their fields and receive a regular diet of studying God’s word.
To facilitate this initiative, our family was invited to move to the village of Yocoboué, a central location for traveling to teaching points. Over the next six years, we shared in village life and church activities and held Bible conversations with emerging leaders from more than 40 villages.
Matthew Krabill, Harrist Preacher Alphonse Kobli Beugré, and James Krabill on their way to Bible study in the village of Mené. Beugré was James’ Harrist mentor. Photographer: Robert Maust
This experience opened our eyes to new biblical perspectives as much or more than anything we were able to share. Following an intense discussion in one of the Bible classes concerning the devastating effects of witchcraft in the village, I committed myself to rereading the Bible through less Western eyes and asking how this sacred text might be understood through the experiences of African believers. That process was—and continues to be—a transformative discipline in my life.
Since our family’s return to the United States in 1996, we have had minimal communication with Dida Harrist leaders about the impact of the Bible study program. What a joy it was to discover in every village visited this summer that former students had been promoted to leadership positions and were filling pulpits and pastoral functions! In most villages, a new initiative has been launched: Sunday afternoon Bible studies for the children—something we were never asked to do and that the current Bible-trained leaders are much better equipped to carry out than we could have ever done.
Head Preacher Jacob N’Guessan, Matthew, James, Jeanette, Mary Laura, and Elisabeth Krabill and Preacher Faustin Ndoli celebrate Mary Laura’s baby dedication in the traditional Dida manner in the village of Tata. Photographer: Rod Hollinger-Janzen
On Aug. 1, I found myself in a position I could have never dreamed of, seated at the front of the Harrist congregation in Yocoboué surrounded by a throng of children. Their Sunday school curriculum lay on the floor in front of me. Harrist Preacher Cyprien N’Guessan, one of my former students, was offering a prayer of gratitude for the opportunity we had had to study the Bible together more than three decades before. He also blessed me and the children and the texts that would be used to learn about God’s word and ways. Then I was asked to speak as part of the Sunday morning worship service—something I had never been invited to do before.
I spoke out of the fullness of my heart, of gratitude for God’s faithfulness in starting with a simple Bible study program that has gifted this generation of church leaders, and is preparing the children to pick up the responsibility when their turn comes to carry on the message.