ELKHART, Indiana (Mennonite Mission Network) – Holistic ministry in Benin illustrates the beauty of Mennonite Mission Network's mission model that grows out of the intention of its name – networking. An intricate pattern of responding to human need with Jesus' love began with a 1969 conversation between a mission worker from the United States and a Beninese church leader at an international church conference held in Ivory Coast. Strands in the web include Benin Bible Institute, a hospital with branches in village locations, community health and agricultural programs, a community bank, and homes for children in two countries.
The Mennonite Church in Burgos, Spain, Comunidades Unidas Anabautistas, contributed to the weaving when a delegation came to teach a course at Benin Bible Institute. Annette and Paco Castillo, members of the Burgos delegation, felt God's call to create a home for children who had no one to care for them. After establishing La Casa Grande and seeing children flourish in its loving atmosphere, the Castillos left this ministry in the capable hands of Esther Zingbe and her husband, Paulin Bossou, a Benin Bible Institute student. The Castillos moved to Ivory Coast to begin another home. This time, they welcomed, among others, child soldiers living in the streets in the aftermath of civil war. In this endeavor, Jeunes Espoir d'Afrique (Youth – Hope of Africa), young people are given skills to build their community rather than destroy it.
Two girls, both named Marina, were nurtured in La Casa Grande's love in Benin.*
Marina Bankole arrived at La Casa Grande in 2004, the same year Melanie Hire visited as part of a delegation from Waterford Mennonite Church in Goshen, Indiana. This congregation has been in partnership with Mission Network's Benin ministries since 2003. Hire and 3-year-old Marina developed a bond that was communicated through hugs and smiles, because Marina didn't speak. Hire was participating in the worship service in which Marina uttered her first word at La Casa Grande, "Hallelujah!"
Later in 2004, Annette Castillo traveled to see her family in Man, Ivory Coast. There, she met Marina Loua, who had been abandoned by her parents. Castillo brought Loua back to Benin and, surrounded by La Casa Grande's affirming environment, Loua achieved her dream of becoming a seamstress. Seven years later, Loua returned to her hometown in Ivory Coast to help the Castillo family at Jeunes Espoir d'Afrique.
Today, Loua is part of the Jeunes Espoir d'Afrique leadership team. She mentors the girls and helps train them to become seamstresses. She is passing on the love and the skills she received in Benin to bring hope to children in the desperate circumstances she herself experienced.
"We are very proud of [Marina Loua] because we can see the fruit of love for others in her life," said Paulin Bossou. "She is a true example of giving back what she received."
Loua is preparing for an August wedding, and her future husband is planning to serve alongside her at Jeunes Espoir d'Afrique.
Marina Bankole still has language difficulties and has had to repeat fourth grade several times. When Hire, who has a passion for working with kids with disadvantages, heard the news about the blending of the two Marina stories, tears welled up in her eyes. Her tears weren't those of sadness that her beloved little friend had not become a mentor and a skilled seamstress, but instead was struggling to learn. They were tears of compassion.
"Maybe that's why Marina [Bankole] and I loved each other so much," Hire said.
*On Feb. 1, 2017, Mennonite Mission Network released a story about Marina Loua who became part of the La Casa Grande family in Benin. It has since come to our understanding that we combined the stories of two Marinas who grew up at La Casa Grande. We apologize for our error.
(This was written for The Mennonite's first rights story in the January issue and ran in the Feb. 13 MWR.)