GLAZOUE, Benin (Mennonite Mission Network) When Philippe Koba walked away from the hills of central Benin, he was following the lead of many youth drawn toward the urban scene by promises of education and opportunity. When he reversed the trend a few years later, Koba was following a different leader.
In Cotonou, the largest city in this West African nation, Koba acquired skills as a photographer. He also became a Christian and, eventually, a lay preacher in an African Initiated Church, Assemblies of Christ’s Disciples. Today, he leads a church he planted in his home village near Glazoué.
It was his studies, begun in 2003, at Institut Biblique du Bénin (Benin Bible Institute), that compelled his counter-cultural discipleship. This school grew out of two decades of Bible teaching among African Initiated Churches by workers with Mennonite Mission Network and its predecessor agencies.
“I learned that Jesus uses the present tense, not the past and not the future,” Koba said. “When he says, ‘Follow me,’ it is necessary to act immediately.”
One day Koba was captivated by a class on evangelism taught by Pade Tokun, director of a Nigerian-based mission agency that has sent out 800 African missionaries. Tokun used the Babel tower story to illustrate God’s reconciling plan of reaching out to all people in their own language and in their own culture.
“My heart started beating as I thought about my people,” Koba said. “For a long time, I'd prayed that God would send someone to announce the good news of Jesus Christ to my people, the Ida’asha people. The Lord said to me, ‘If you don’t go, who will go?’”
Koba struggled to let go of the dreams that had drawn him to Cotonou. In the end, God’s insistent call won out over the enticements of professional advancement and Koba returned to his village. There his well-groomed hands hardened with calluses from the hoe, Benin’s main agricultural implement. Squeezing in the minimum amount of fieldwork necessary for survival, Koba spent his days sharing the good news of Jesus through conversations, prayers and a film with a Christian message.
While visiting an elderly woman who had been ill for four years, Koba suggested that she burn all the magical objects acquired in her long search for healing. This would demonstrate her faith in God, Koba said. After the flames died down, Koba prayed for her and she got well.
The woman became a Christian and invited her children and grandchildren to come and hear about Jesus. This woman and her family formed part of the cell group nucleus that began meeting in Koba's home.
An Ida’asha Baptist living in Cotonou helped to finance Koba’s budding ministry. His Baptist church had a vision for evangelism in the area around Glazoué. After Koba’s benefactor described the ministry already taking place among the Ida’asha and after verifying that Koba was in good standing with the Assemblies of Christ’s Disciples, the Baptist church invited Koba to become their missionary.
In May 2006, representatives of the two denominations gathered in Koba's village to inaugurate the newly built structure housing the emerging Baptist congregation started by the Assemblies of Christ’s Disciples church planter. Koba expects to eventually be replaced by a Baptist pastor but, in the meantime, the Baptists support him financially.
In addition to tending his fields and serving as pastor, Koba continues to plant cell groups in neighboring villages. The members of three of these cell groups come to worship with the congregation near Glazoué.
Another lesson Koba learned at BBI is that God cares about people’s physical needs as well as their spiritual needs. Acting on this understanding, Koba organized a program of mutual assistance where church members take turns helping one another in their fields. The congregation also planted 1,600 yams. They hope the profits from the yam harvest will provide the basis for an income-generating cooperative.
“Philippe began his ministry among his own people because of a burning sense of call fueled by a deep love for his people. He went equipped with his BBI training and the equivalent of 40 dollars. The Lord has used Philippe and has provided for him,” said Nancy Frey of Mennonite Mission Network.
Frey serves as an administrative liaison between this agency and BBI where she also teaches.
The coals of Koba's call have not been extinguished. He hears God calling him beyond his home territory.
“I speak Ida’asha, Fon and Savé [the three main languages of the region]. The Lord has put it on my heart to evangelize the hill country all the way to the north,” Koba said.
Even while he planted fields and churches, Koba made time to travel to Cotonou each month to complete his BBI diploma which he received in 2006.
BBI began a systematic teaching program in 1994 and provides training for church leaders from more than 60 denominations. The school's curriculum developed in response to the spiritual and material needs of the West African churches and promotes interchurch cooperation. More than 600 students have graduated with diplomas or certificates in biblical studies and practical theology. Currently 240 students are enrolled in the monthly seminar program in which Koba was trained.