COTONOU, Benin — Twenty years ago, George Akpabli, a native…
Bill Morgan, a retired brigadier general for the U.S. Air Force, and Ed Jones, a retired educator and basketball coach, could not have imagined how God would bind their lives to a tiny, key-shaped country on the other side of the world.
When the two men were appointed as elders of the Benton Church of Christ in Kentucky, Morgan was assigned the responsibilities of foreign missions. Jones was in charge of building and grounds. The church had been sending a small amount of funds to help with a work in Mauritius, a small island country off the coast of Madagascar. After reading an article by J.C. Choate about the need for a missionary to the country of Mauritius, Morgan was determined to find one for them.
George Akpabli, a respected minister and native of the West African nation of Ghana, was working in neighboring Togo and was recommended by Hilton Terry, a veteran missionary to the French-speaking world. for the work in Mauritius. Akpabli, who was fluent in several languages, was delighted with the opportunity. But cultural differences and political red tape kept the work from flourishing.
Undaunted, Akpabli suggested Benin, a small, French-speaking country of about 11 million people sandwiched between Togo and Nigeria. The elders of the Benton church agreed, and Akpabli began a mission work there.
The next year, 1994, Morgan asked Jones to help him oversee the work. Morgan remembers visiting George and his wife and two children in a little concrete block home in Benin — which also served as the place where the church met. Morgan said that Akpabli impressed him an effective leader to whom people naturally gravitated, a man of vision. Akpabli described his dream of starting a school where he could teach the gospel message to men, convert them and train them to become Gospel preachers who would start new congregations.
Morgan and Jones took his dream to the Benton church’s elders, who agreed to support the work. Soon Akpabli had 18 students, a Bible and a chalkboard in a small, rented building, dubbed the Benin Bible Training Center. Akpabli developed a thorough, three-year Bible curriculum which he made available online. By the time the first preachers graduated, the training center had many new applications. Graduates started new congregations with little or no outside support. Churches often began under a shade tree in a small village and grew large enough to build their own buildings, not dependent on American support and not having American values and traditions forced upon them.
With success came the need for a larger, permanent facility and more funds. Additional U.S. congregations became supporters of the work, including the North Heights Church of Christ in Batesville, Ark. In 2001, funds were raised to buy 18 acres outside the hub city of Cotonou, Bemnin. But Akpabli had bigger dreams. He submitted professionally drawn plans for buildings required for the expanding program. The $640,000 price tag was daunting, but Akpabli believed that if they could raise $100,000, they could build enough facilities to begin. The African Christians were determined not to fall into debt from the building project.
Pledges were made, but funds came in at a slow rate. Jones recalled one evening at the Benton church, when Morgan and his wife, Irene, called him into a classroom. They told Jones that they believed that this could become one of the greatest mission efforts the church had ever experienced. “We will match dollar for dollar all the money you raise, up to $320,000.” they told Jones, who said he “felt like shouting loud enough for George to hear me in Africa!”
By 2003, the buildings were constructed, and the Benin Bible Training Center (BTC) was ready to flourish.
In 2007, French African Christian Education (FACE) was founded to support the Bible Training Center and its graduate preachers. It is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization with a board, constitution and bylaws. My husband, Dr. Milton Sewell, serves on the FACE board of directors, and we were privileged to visit Benin in 2008. We were impressed with BTC and have been involved in the work since then.
As needs were discovered, other accommodations were added to the Benin campus, including married student dormitories to keep families intact during the three-year course of study. Bible classes for the wives of BTC students are available to help them be a vital part of their husbands’ ministries. Kindergarten was started for the children of students and is supplied with Bible lessons beautifully illustrated and written in French by Tori and Micah England. To help families be self-supporting, vocational training in sewing, hairdressing, and computer repair is given, along with opportunities to learn farming techniques like gardening and raising hogs and chickens.
Since that humble start in one concrete building, BTC has trained 233 preachers who graduated and started more than 350 congregations of the church of Christ, with some 15,000 Christians, not only in Benin, but in more than a dozen French-speaking African countries.
Richard England, recently retired professor of Freed-Hardeman University, serves as the Executive Director of FACE He and his wife, Barbara, are committed to serving this effort.
George Akpabli, after more than 25 years of service as the Director of BTC, is now in the process of training his successor, Inoussa Adjayi. George and his wife Joyce are serving in an outreach mission among the graduates of BTC in other countries in West Africa.
Morgan believes that the secret to the success of an effort such as this relies on two imperatives: allow native Africans to teach Africans, not imposing our American culture on the people; and find good people to financially support the teaching effort.
Concerning the success of the Bible Training Center, Morgan observed, “This has exceeded my expectation beyond any comprehension.”
Jones added, “Why did I doubt that God could do this?”
Morgan, Jones and Akpabli believe that this work in Benin has been the most rewarding experience of their lives.
Barbara England has aptly observed that the shape of the country of Benin resembled a key. Indeed, the location of the Bible Training Center in Benin may well be a key to evangelizing the French-speaking countries of Africa.
Only God can know.
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