​The Orodara Mennonite Church worships in Burkina Faso. Photographer: Lynda Hollinger-Janzen

By Anicka Fast
Monday, June 6, 2022

A special issue of the Journal of African Christian Biography (JACB) has been published, in both English and French, in time for the Mennonite World Conference Assembly in Indonesia. It highlights the growth of the Anabaptist/Mennonite church in Africa, touches on the legacy of the mission encounter and shares the hope of renewal within the world-wide body of Christ.

In 2019, a group of Anabaptist-Mennonite historians from around the world gathered for a symposium organized by the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism in Goshen, Indiana. Unanimously, they affirmed that history connects us and helps to inform future directions of the church of Jesus Christ. However, as a global church, we have not dug deeply into the wealth of understanding that comes from reflecting on the lives of Jesus' faithful followers in Africa. A new resource takes steps to make this information widely available. 

Mennonite World Conference (MWC) member churches exist in 25 countries in Africa, and in 2018, African Mennonites and Brethren in Christ made up 36% of the 2.13 million baptized Anabaptist-Mennonites worldwide. A special issue of the Journal of African Christian Biography has been released, in both English and French, prior to the July 2022 MWC Assembly in Indonesia, and offers stories of the Anabaptist/Mennonite church, as it took shape in Africa and became a source of renewal beyond its borders. 

A special issue of the Journal of African Christian Biography was released prior the July 2022 MWC Assembly in Indonesia. Photo provided. 


At the core of this issue are seven biographies and two church histories. The Christians in these stories experienced the power of the gospel, as it entered into confrontation with other powers. They took courageous action to demonstrate the authenticity of their own conversions and boldly shared the good news with others, both far and near. 

In Burkina Faso, after Kassilé Traoré experienced Jesus' saving power in a dream, he destroyed his cherished bullet-proof shirt, donated cattle for the church's needs and publicly danced in worship, despite his advanced years. Cécile Coulibaly founded a women's choir that helped a struggling congregation take wing. Biographies from Congo include those of Floribert Matungulu, who received strength to cross a river to escape from the bombs of nearby war, though he could not swim, and Esther Mbombo wa Tshipongo, who mobilized many people for service and evangelism. 

African Mennonites from all over the continent have actively contributed to building up the people of God in their own contexts, while leaving a testimony that integrates them into the global body. 

The thread of relationships runs through the issue. Many stories touch on or directly address the legacy of the encounter between African Christians and Mennonite missionaries from the Global North, reflecting on both painful and joyful episodes from this historically formative relationship. 

For example, Anne Marie Stoner-Eby, an American Mennonite, who spent many years in East Africa, presents a layered analysis of Tanzanian Bishop Zedekiah Kisare's autobiography, which features both Kisare's painful experiences with American Mennonite missionaries during the colonial era, and his experiences of reconciliation and empowerment, as he became a leader and preacher of revival in Tanzanian and American churches. 

Paul Ouédraogo's history of the Orodara congregation of the Église évangélique mennonite du Burkina Faso (Evangelical Mennonite Church of Burkina Faso) depicts a lively multi-ethnic church that flourished, despite being painfully sidelined during a shift in a mission agency's church-planting strategy. 

Maurice Matsitsa's article, co-authored with Jean-Claude Kikweta a Mawa Wabala, emphasizes the power imbalances between Congolese Mennonite Brethren and North American missionaries and the latter's reluctance to share financial and decision-making power. Matsitsa calls for financial autonomy for Congolese Mennonite Brethren, while emphasizing the contribution of early missionary strategies for financial dependency, as well as the ongoing need for North-South partnerships. 

All these accounts reflect the sensibilities of a new generation of church historians who confront the legacies of the missionary encounters with a courage and truthfulness born from commitment to membership in the global church. These stories are meant to be read beyond academic settings. They are also designed for discussion groups, private devotions and sermons. They will promote more storytelling, more honest reckoning with painful episodes in our shared story, and a stronger sense of belonging to a global Anabaptist movement, which continues to offer a powerful witness to revival, peace, and the gospel's power on six continents.

 

 

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Anicka Fast and her husband, John Clarke, serve in Burkina Faso, through Mennonite Central Committee, with their daughters, Anne-Sophie and Maika. Fast is seconded to Mission Network for part-time ministry as a specialist in church history and missiology for French-speaking Africa.

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