‘We want to show young people that look like us that you can do it.’
TUBUNGU, Swaziland — As their parents praised God under the…
TUBUNGU, Swaziland — Joy Lea Brazell came to African Christian College on a mission — to shut it down.
The school, then known as Manzini Bible College, was struggling to survive when Brazell, an American preacher, traveled to this tiny southern African kingdom to visit the campus.
“A match would probably end this place,” Brazell thought as he walked among the thatched-roof buildings, separated by walking paths — cut like tunnels through dry, shoulder-high elephant grass.
Members of Churches of Christ founded the college in 1967 as a place to train black Africans. Swaziland’s massive neighbor, South Africa, was under the system of apartheid. But by the time Brazell visited in the early 1990s, that system was crumbling. Soon, South Africans would choose an anti-apartheid revolutionary, Nelson Mandela, as their nation’s first black president.
Perhaps there was no longer a need for the small Swazi school, which couldn’t seem to retain teachers — or students. So the college’s supporting congregation, the Montgomery Boulevard Church of Christ in Albuquerque, N.M., sent Brazell to assess the work.
His task: determine whether or not the college was worth saving.
If not, close it.
After inspecting the grounds — and spending hours speaking with students, faculty and church members — Brazell returned from southern African with a message for the church’s elders:
“We can’t let this thing fail!”
“He chose the hard way,” said Herbert Mhango, a minister for the Chilenje Church of Christ in Lusaka, Zambia.
Mhango praised God for that decision as he led a devotional during the African Christian College’s recent 50-year Jubilee Celebration.
“When he came here, he saw the spirit of God at work,” Mhango said of his fellow minister. “I think the hand of God touched him. He decided that this is a school worth sacrificing for.”
Mhango, a 2002 graduate, spoke under a large tent on the 200-acre campus, now a place of concrete, metal-roofed lecture halls, dormitories, farm buildings and a brand new library — with finely manicured grass and an orchard of macadamia nut trees.
Inside the tent, the college’s faculty, alumni and trustees welcomed officials from the local police department, the kingdom’s government and Lisa Peterson, U.S. ambassador to Swaziland. Outside, bearing flags representing each of the 13 nations that have sent students to the school, African Christians swayed in the sunlight as they sang praises to God.
One by one they strutted into the tent as the crowd sang out the names of their countries. Exuberant voices trilled “ay-yi-yi-yi-yi-yi” as they planted each flag behind the podium.
The school’s graduates aren’t ministers alone. They’re preaching pig farmers in Zambia, soul-saving school teachers in Kenya and benevolence minister baristas in Uganda.
The college needed organization — and more funds — to survive, Brazell decided. Missionaries including Kurt Platt and Thayer Salisbury helped develop the curriculum, focusing on the Bible instead of doctrinal issues.
Administrators also took steps to provide students with marketable skills. As the school entered the 21st century, business-minded Christians including Ira Hill came from the U.S. to teach courses on entrepreneurship.
The college itself also needed to be self-sustaining, Brazell reasoned. He raised money for the Tree of Life project — a macadamia orchard envisioned by workers on the college’s campus including Wendy Platt.
Africa Christian College students, as they studied to be fishers of men, learned to be farmers of nuts.
A fire nearly destroyed the young orchard on Sept. 11, 2001 — the same day terrorists attacked the U.S. The students replanted and learned how to prune and nurture the trees with assistance from American Christians including Jim Marnach, a hazelnut farmer from Oregon. Hill helped to secure an agreement with HEB, a Texas-based chain of grocery stores, to sell the macadamia nuts.
Hill and his wife, June, launched efforts to get retired American Christians involved in ministry around the world. Two of their contacts, Larry and Susan Carter, answered the call.
“I had to get out a map to find Swaziland,” said Larry Carter, who ran a sporting goods store in Martin, Tenn., before he and his wife agreed to oversee the college for two years. Recently, they celebrated what Susan Carter called “the 10-year anniversary of that two-year commitment.”
In 2012, the Carters’ son, Brad, moved his family to the campus. He serves as the college’s president.
“Our vision is to be a truly African college — not totally or primarily dependent on outside funding,” Brad Carter said. Now a nonprofit, the college has added trustees from Africa — including church leaders from Swaziland, South Africa and Nigeria.
In the past half-century, graduates have filled pulpits and pews in Churches of Christ across southern Africa, said Samson Shandu, a Swazi native and former teacher at the college. Students also come from various denominations. Some are baptized during their time here.
“When it started there were so many problems,” Shandu said of the college. “But because God is great and knows what he wants, this is why it is what it is.”
After the flag ceremony, the celebrating Christians got a sermon — and a grammar lesson — from Phineas Magagula, Swaziland’s minister of education. He quoted Jesus’ words to the apostle Peter in Matthew 16:8, “upon this rock I will build my church,” and, like a teacher, deconstructed the phrase. The verb tense, he said, emphasizes the ongoing nature of evangelism.
“In other words, God called out people from different nationalities to build his own church,” Magagula said.
“So what we’re celebrating here is the Church of Christ,” he added. “I was very much fascinated when I saw different flags of different nationalities from all over Africa.”
Ethnically charged conflicts — from apartheid to the Rwandan genocide to post-election violence in Kenya — have plagued the continent. African Christian College students hope their campus can play a small role in fostering harmony.
“We come here from very, very different countries,” said Foley Meki, a first-year student from Blantyre, Malawi, “but the most amazing thing is that we are all just like a family. We don’t even see the differences.”
Magagula praised the “men of God” who founded the school for their vision. He also praised the vision of Swaziland’s first king, Sobhuza I, who, during his reign in the early 1800s “had a vision of the white man coming with a book and money,” Magagula said.
“In his wisdom, he advised Swazis to take the book and leave the money,” Magagula said. That book, the Bible, “directs each and every one of us to live as God intends us to.”
During their time at African Christian College, students aren’t allowed to ask visitors for financial support. Personal resourcefulness is one of the college’s five key outcomes, Brad Carter said, along with academic excellence, Christian character, servant leadership and global awareness.
After Magagula, alumni representative Mwenge Mufuzi addressed the crowd. The class of 2000 graduate from Zambia, who preaches for the Lotus Gardens Church of Christ in Pretoria, South Africa, quoted Hebrew 12:2 as he urged the college’s students to focus on Jesus, who endured the cross “for the joy that was set before Him.”
“When we focus on what is beyond us,” he said, “even if we might not have the financial support, we might not have what we might need to make our lives sustainable. If we can see what is beyond us we can get strength for today from looking at the future, at what God has prepared for us.”
Brazell, 75, planned to attend the Golden Jubilee but died unexpectedly in Lawrence, Kan., just days before the celebration began.
On Saturday night, a day after the flag ceremony, the African Christians gathered again in the tent to worship and hear a message from guest speaker Rick Atchley, minister for The Hills Church of Christ in Texas.
As the service concluded, they shed tears for Brazell, their longtime patron and friend, before breaking into a chorus of Yey Wena, a siSwati a cappella hymn that means “Hey You!”
The ground shook and the tent pulsated as the Christians sang, shouted, cheered and stomped, calling bhuti, sisi, mama, baba (brother, sister, mother, father): “Hey you! Why are you seated while we are praising the Lord?”
“It is amazing that today we are experiencing the unimaginable,” Herbert Mhango said. Because of Brazell — and many other dedicated believers from around the world — African Christian College continues “to change lives, to change the face of Africa.”
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