Michel Odjo Dossou, co-founder of Eglise Evangelique Universelle (Universal Evangelical Church) and longtime Mennonite Mission Network partner died in Benin, May 29.
Michel Odjo Dossou, a national church leader in Benin, was foundational to Mennonite Mission Network's ministry. Dossou, 98, died May 29, after a long illness.
Dossou was a co-founder of Eglise Evangelique Universelle (EEU, Universal Evangelical Church) and a highly esteemed leader in many national and international interdenominational institutions. Dossou lent his reputation as a dedicated follower of Jesus and an unbiased truth-teller to Mennonite Board of Missions' (MBM) ministry from the beginning of conversations about partnership in the 1970s. MBM is one of Mission Network's predecessor agencies.
In 1987, when MBM responded to the invitation of the Conseil Interconfessional Protestant du Bénin (Interconfessional Protestant Council of Benin) to send mission workers who would reside in the country, Dossou served as an advocate for and mentor to two couples. He spent nearly every Sunday that year introducing the MBM workers to the denominations that made up the council of churches.
Dossou said that he gave himself to this ministry because he saw that Mennonites had the capacity to bring churches together in studying the Bible. Through his endorsement, Dossou wanted to promote the credibility of Mennonites and offer them a chance to be heard.
"God gave you, Mennonites, powerful ways of working with all churches," Dossou said, when he was interviewed for the 3-D Gospel in Benin Missio Dei publication. "Before your arrival, we did not work together. Each church worked in its own little box. [I gave of my time] because I didn't want the churches to say, 'The White people have come to dazzle and trick us."
Rod Hollinger-Janzen, one of the first MBM workers to reside in Benin, said, "We are saddened by the passing of an exceptional servant of God, and yet, we celebrate God's gift of pastor Michel Ojdo Dossou, to the Church of Jesus Christ in Benin and beyond. A baobab [an African tree that symbolizes ancient strength and rootedness] has fallen, as Papa Dossou's influence on the life and growth of the church in Benin was great."
Daniel Goldschmidt-Nussbaumer, a French Mennonite doctor who helped the churches of Benin to establish Bethesda Hospital, also moved to Benin with his family in 1987. Goldschmidt said that Dossou was the "linchpin of the work of Bethesda, which he encouraged from the beginning."
James Krabill, who served with Mission Network for more than four decades in various capacities, said, "God alone knows the immense contribution that this pillar of faith [Dossou] has made to the advancement of the kingdom of Jesus Christ in Benin and to the theological training of generations to come." Krabill was referring to Dossou support in founding Institut Biblique du Bénin (Benin Bible Institute).
As foresighted and innovative as Dossou was, he was also deeply rooted in the culture of his ancestors. Many African churches struggle with how to welcome polygamists into the church. Many churches that are planted by Western missionaries respond to polygamy by having the man divorce all his wives, whom he married through traditional ceremonies, and marry a Christian woman, instead. This typically means that women and children are left destitute, as their husband and father leaves to marry a young woman, who is a church member. Dossou, a former polygamist himself, did not believe this practice was faithful to Jesus' teaching of love and care for all people. His first wife became his Christian wife. His three other wives and their nine children continued to live in his compound. He continued to support them and pay for the children's schooling. However, EEU has never condoned polygamy and did not ordain Dossou until his three other wives died natural deaths.
Dossou was born in 1926 in Porto-Novo, Benin, to Hodonou Anagonou and Odjo Dossou. He attended school until he was 14 years old, when he started working. In 1944, he became a tailor's apprentice and, after four years, graduated as a master tailor.
In 1966, he became the general supervisor of Cotonou, Benin's largest city. He held this managerial position until he retired in 1990. He met and counseled at least two presidents, Matthieu Kerekou (1972-1991 and 1996–2006) and Thomas Boni Yayi (2006-2016).
Dossou was a practicing Catholic of 45 years before joined what EEU members call a "syncretistic religion." In 1967, he discovered Jesus' call to a life of radical discipleship and started a house church that was unaffiliated with any denomination for three years. Then, in 1970, Association Evangelique Universelle (Universal Evangelical Association) was born, and later became EEU. The group that began with 65 members now has thousands of members across 259 congregations: 250 in Benin, eight in Nigeria and one in Togo.
Dossou's memorial service and burial were held in Glo-Lohoussa, Benin, June 17.