UYO, Nigeria (Mennonite Mission Network) – Etim Akpan Usen biked 1,800 miles on his Hero one-speed through shirt-drenching heat and rain to receive his certificate from Mennonite Bible College. On Dec. 3, he joined 11 other exuberant graduates in marching across the makeshift stage at the Summit Hills Hotel complex in Uyo, the first leaders to be trained by Mennonite Church Nigeria.
Over the past two years, Usen made 18 trips from his home in Ibianga Diocese to Uyo for week-long courses in biblical studies, Anabaptist theology, preaching and English. Usen usually pedaled the 50 miles between the Inen Mennonite Church, where he ministers, and the Bible school in five hours.
“Etim fulfills his call with great sacrifice and deep spiritual commitment. His thrill to be part of this first graduating class was clearly evident,” said Stanley W. Green, executive director of Mennonite Mission Network.
As an unsalaried church worker, Usen supports his family through various part-time jobs. Though his absences, a result of his thirst for biblical knowledge, decreased his ability to provide for his wife and four children, he was undeterred, Green said.
In his commencement address, Green challenged the Mennonite Bible College graduates to deepen their walk with God and to add compassion for their people to the biblical and leadership competencies they gained through the program.
The graduation marked a historic milestone for the Mennonite church in Nigeria as well as for the individual church leaders and their families. After an unsuccessful attempt to create an Anabaptist leadership training program in the 1970s, MCN had no formal program to develop pastoral and lay leaders.
In 2003, the church invited Bruce Yoder, who lives in the neighboring country of Benin and serves as an itinerant Bible teacher in West Africa, to become the principal of Mennonite Bible College
Yoder, jointly appointed by Mennonite Mission Network and Mennonite Church Canada Witness, shares administrative and teaching responsibilities of the college with Etim Samson Akpanudo of MCN.
According to Yoder, African-Initiated Churches of the Pentecostal variety have the most influence on Nigerian Christianity. Before the founding of Mennonite Bible College, any training Mennonite pastors may have had came from these churches.
“Many Nigerian Mennonite leaders learn how to be in ministry under the mentorship of Pentecostal preachers or, in some cases, by watching TV preachers,” Yoder said. "Without a program that emphasizes Anabaptist history and ways of thinking, Mennonite Church Nigeria will become indistinguishable from the other Pentecostal groups.”
Now, however, the Mennonite Bible College gives pastors an opportunity to learn the principles of Bible study in a systematic way and to develop an Anabaptist identity.
The graduating class included members from all five dioceses of MCN. Because each diocese acts with substantial autonomy, occasional national conventions provide the only forum for Mennonite church leaders to meet each other. Yoder expects that the Mennonite Bible College will increase unity between the dioceses and strengthen the national identity of the Mennonite Church in Nigeria.
Bruce Yoder and Nancy Frey have been developing theological education in West Africa since 2000. From Cotonou – Benin’s largest city, they serve the Benin Bible Institute and other ministries that partner with more than 60 denominations. Frey primarily works with the Benin Bible Institute, while Yoder travels throughout the region. Frey and Yoder have two children. They are members of St. Jacobs (Ont.) Mennonite Church and Martinsburg (Pa.) Mennonite Church, respectively.