Missionary strives to bring light to French world
TCHAADA, Benin — "Our God is stronger than the god…
HENDERSON, Tenn. — ‘Apreacher school? Here?”
The idea didn’t make a lot of sense to Bill Morgan.
The year was 1994. Morgan, then an elder of the Benton Church of Christ in Kentucky, had traveled to the slender West African nation of Benin, where a new ministry was just getting off the ground.
Morgan could only think of 10 or so converts in the entire country of 11 million souls — the birthplace of the religion known as voodoo.
So why did George Akpabli, the Ghanaian-born evangelist who had just moved to Benin with support from the Benton church, want to launch a ministry training school?
A quarter-century later, 212 men have graduated from the Benin Bible Training Center and serve in 12 nations across French-speaking Africa.
Benin now is home to about 120 Churches of Christ, many of them planted by the school’s students. About 230 more churches have been planted by students throughout Africa.
Akpabli recently traveled from his West African home to the West Tennessee campus of Freed-Hardeman University to talk about the school and its American support ministry, French African Christian Education (FACE). During a chapel presentation, Akpabli spoke to students at the university, which is associated with Churches of Christ.
After chapel, Akpabli, Morgan and other workers with the ministry from both sides of the Atlantic spoke with The Christian Chronicle about the training center’s impact and upcoming changes.
“There’s no question in my mind that God’s providence is involved in all this,” Morgan said of the ministry.
FROM FRUSTATION TO FLOURISHING
It didn’t seem that way at first.
For years, the Benton church had been trying to reach lost souls in a nation thousands of miles southeast of Benin — the French-speaking islands of Mauritius. A couple of attempts using American missionaries had produced little fruit.
The church recruited Akpabli, then working in Togo, at the suggestion of Hilton Terry, a veteran missionary to the French-speaking world. Akpabli moved to Mauritius, but cultural differences and political red tape kept the work from flourishing. (Sylvio Salomon, a Mauritian converted through the church’s early efforts, and believers including Canden and Stephanie Subarayadu have since established Churches of Christ in Mauritius.)
Akpabli convinced the Benton church’s elders not to give up on French-speaking Africa and to sponsor a new effort in Benin, a country where Akpabli had never lived. But the culture was similar to Togo, he said. His family moved to Benin’s largest city, Cotonou.
Early on, Akpabli would look for someone sitting under a shade tree, approach the person and ask, “Can we talk about God?” He would tell them where he lived — and usually got the response, “Oh, I know the place.”
“So I would say, ‘Come. My wife will cook food, and we will study the Bible,” said Akpabli, who also preached in Cotonou’s night markets.
Slowly, the new church grew, he said. “But the turning point was beginning that school.”
GOD PROVIDES, AGAIN AND AGAIN
Although Churches of Christ have experienced explosive growth in Africa’s English-speaking nations in the past century, French-speaking nations have lagged behind, Akpabli said. In Benin and Togo, many people hold to traditional beliefs, including voodoo.
To the north, former French colonies including Niger, Mali and Mauritania are predominantly Muslim. When Africans in these nations abandon the beliefs of their ancestors and become Christians, “they really put their faith on the line,” Akpabli said.
The Benin Bible Training Center provided much-needed resources for French-speaking Christians, teaching them not only Bible but also farming and other skills they could use to make a living. Few Churches of Christ in Africa, much less French-speaking Africa, can support a full-time preacher.
At times it’s been a challenge to support the financial needs of the ministry, said Ed Jones, a Benton church elder who has worked closely with Akpabli. But time and again, the Kentucky church and sister congregations have stepped up to provide. Today the school meets on an 18-acre campus with multiple classroom buildings and dormitories.
A few years ago FACE repurposed an old, yellow school bus and shipped it to Africa to serve as a Gospel Chariot, a mobile evangelism vehicle packed with supplies for gospel meetings in the villages of West Africa.
NEW ROLES, NEW CHALLENGES
After a quarter-century at the helm of the school, Akpabli is taking on a new title: director of continuing education and leadership development.
He and his wife, Joyce, will travel across Benin and throughout French-speaking Africa to mentor the school’s graduates, many of whom, he said, are “alone in difficult and challenging mission fields and have no one coming to visit them.”
The Akpablis also will work with the young Churches of Christ these graduates nurture.
Taking on the school’s directorship is Adjayi Inoussa, a Togo native who has spent the past six years under George Akpabli’s mentorship.
“I have some big shoes and responsibilities to fill,” Inoussa said, “but God will help us to succeed.”
In Benin and other parts of French-speaking Africa, animistic beliefs remain a challenge for evangelists, Inoussa said. But new generations of Africans are embracing Christianity and seeking out opportunities for higher education.
Workers with the Bible Training Center want to help them, the new director added. Supporters of the ministry in both Africa and America believe that school accreditation is the next step.
But, Morgan said, the ministry remains focuses on its primary calling — saving lost souls.
“Our goal is to have a congregation of the Lord’s church in every village in Benin,” he said, “and we’re on our way.”
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