Relationships nurtured for more than 50 years bear fruit in Benin, West Africa.
GOSHEN, Indiana (Mennonite Mission Network) — Mennonite Mission Network's relationships with Christians in Benin began during a conversation more than a half century ago. Ministries that have transformed thousands of lives grew out of that dialogue between a West African church leader and a mission worker with Mennonite Board of Missions (MBM), a predecessor agency of Mennonite Mission Network.
While attending a church conference in 1969, Harry Henry, president of the Conseil Interconfessional Protestant du Bénin (Inter-confessional Protestant Council of Benin), and Edwin Weaver, an MBM mission worker, realized that they shared a vision: to show Jesus' love through holistic witness and church unity. Henry invited Mennonites to partner with the Council in developing this vision.
MBM workers began studying the Bible with Beninese church leaders. In 1987, after nearly two decades of Bible study, MBM sent four expatriate mission workers to Benin to walk alongside the 30 denominations that made up the Council. No one involved in this mission experiment could have guessed that in less than two years, the Berlin Wall in Germany would be dismantled. This event shook Benin's Marxist dictatorship and destroyed most of the social infrastructures, including the national educational and health systems.
In 1989, in response to the lack of affordable healthcare, the Council organized emergency healthcare in a few rented rooms in Cotonou, Benin's largest city. Within three years, this ministry grew into one of the nation's premier hospitals, Bethesda Hospital. In the following years, Bethesda initiated a globally acclaimed community health initiative, model environmental programs, and a highly successful micro-finance bank. While each of these organizations gratefully recognize their beginnings in their partnership with Mission Network, they have become independent institutions. However, Mission Network continues to partner closely with Institut Biblique du Bénin (BBI — Benin Bible Institute), the ministry that laid the foundation for all these other expressions of God's love and care.
The inter-denominational Council leaders, divided by diverse theological understandings, intersected in their response to the 1989 political crisis while studying the parable of the good Samaritan in Luke 10. Guided by Jesus' teaching of offering healing and financial aid to those in need — even to those from different ethnic groups or one's enemies — the health and development ministries were born. These ministries thrived with the strength of the unified involvement of 30 denominations.
The relationships, created by working together at common tasks, also strengthened BBI in its vision. And in 1994, the school formalized its Bible studies into a 24-course curriculum.
Today, BBI's offerings include a three-year university-level program that awards diplomas in theology and Christian counselling. Nearly 1,500 BBI graduates now lead churches and ministries in Benin and neighboring countries.
Azaël Mahuklo Houngbedji, a BBI student, also studies at the National Institute of Administration. She is a singer and children's Sunday-school teacher in her congregation.
"In order to lead people into the presence of God, it is necessary for a leader to have a certain kind of relationship, a certain intimacy with God," Houngbedji said. "My training at BBI has allowed me to dig deep within myself, so that I have this relationship with the Lord."
John William Hounkwe — a civil engineer, preacher and father — finds that BBI has helped him mature in all these roles. He has been affirmed for his honesty in his workplace, has been given increased responsibilities in his congregation, and has made Bible study a passion for his family.
"After each course, my children corner me, eager to hear what I learned!" Hounkwe said. "BBI has helped me to recognize to a greater degree my origins as a Christian. Where have I come from? Where am I going? The Lord is calling me to empty the kingdom of Satan for the benefit of the kingdom of God."
Eric Noukpliguidi, who has been the BBI accountant since 2007, was called by God to prepare to teach Christian counseling. He is studying psychology and biblical counseling. Given the urgency of training church leaders in counseling, Noukpliguidi will teach his first BBI course in June.
Yet another way the Beninese churches demonstrate their commitment to holistic ministry is through teaching integrated farming, along with biblical studies. BBI purchased land in Oumako, about an hour's drive from Cotonou. Students labor alongside trained farm workers to grow vegetables and raise poultry, rabbits and pigs.
Bonaventure Akowanou, who has been BBI's administrator for nearly two decades, said that the vision of the BBI farm is to promote small-scale, sustainable farming practices to "help pastors to be able to be financially self-supporting, through agriculture."
Felipe Preciado, who serves with Mission Network at La Casa Grande children's home, provided consultancy through twice-monthly visits, for the past year and a half. (Preciado and his wife, Diana Cruz, brought closure to a three-year ministry in Benin March 1.)
Preciado's last visit to the Oumako farm, Feb. 13, was a theoretical and practical training session with 36 BBI students. He used the contextual method of Bible reading to reflect on four agricultural examples that Jesus used to explain the kingdom of God to his friends.
"Teaching that class felt as if Jesus' parables had come to life," Preciado said. "It felt like the earth was telling me how fruitful and prosperous Benin is."
So, as in the parable of the mustard seed told in three Gospels (c.f., Matthew 13:31-32; Mark 4:30-32; Luke 13:18-19), the seeds sown in a conversation more than a half-century ago have grown into a powerful witness to God's love and Christian unity, through a partnership that spans continents.