A letter from Christi Boyd serving in Central Africa, based in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
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The serenity and meekness with which Rebecca Bara speaks about her ministry instills respect. With a master’s degree in theology and a track record of institutional development, her capacity to lead was recognized by the Evangelical Church of Niger (EERN). After a year of substituting for absent professors, the church offered her the position of Director at the Aguié Bible School. It is one of EERN’s three institutes for theological formation that organizes a two-year program of pastoral studies for evangelists who have received their diploma at the Bible School of Dogon Gao or Guéchémé, served subsequently for at least three years in the field, and want to continue at a more advanced level following their call to the ordained ministry. Those sent to rural areas without an established church are usually called evangelists, the others pastors, but the terms are interchangeable. When talking about evangelizing, a holistic connotation is commonly implied.
As a highly qualified female theologian directing an institute that prepares candidates for ordination, Rebecca is in a rather unique situation, because the denomination itself doesn’t consecrate women to the ministry. “I can’t explain this,” she says, “but I do see it as coming from the Lord.” She had been a secondary school teacher when she accompanied her late husband to the Central African Republic for a degree program at the Bangui Evangelical Graduate School of Theology. It was he who had understood her potential and encouraged her to study alongside him. After finishing her graduate studies, she created and led a school for pastors’ wives who do not qualify for entry in the advanced theological program but need classes of their own while their husbands are in school.
Literacy plays an important role in the evangelistic efforts of the Church, Rebecca explains. For new Christians to be able to read the Bible, literacy courses are organized at Evangelism Centers in conjunction with Biblical teachings. This is why the Aguié Bible School has also a two-year beginning-level course for basic literacy, Bible knowledge, and Christian living for those who are new to the Christian faith. The course provides a stepping-stone for aspiring evangelists who don’t yet qualify for the entry level for the pastoral training programs in Dogon Gao or Guéchémé. Women who accompany their husbands to Aguié for their advanced training but don’t have all qualifications to enter the program themselves are offered courses at an intermediate level.
Even if both spouses have finished the full track of Theological Formation, it’s not easy for the wife, Rebecca says. “They have followed the same classes. He will be called as the village evangelist, but she won’t be appointed as such. She serves alongside her husband to reach out to village women, who are constrained to their homes due to cultural norms. Here in Niger it isn’t acceptable for a man to approach another man’s wife. For an evangelist’s wife to do outreach to women, on the other hand, is easier. With time, she will find more to do, like starting literacy classes to help the village women or teaching them life skills. But to say that there are women evangelists in Niger… It is happening on a voluntary basis.”
Nevertheless, the involvement of evangelists’ wives is of vital importance for the transformation of rural communities. “A male evangelist can’t involve the women. With a pastoral couple, everyone in the village will give of themselves and work together—men, women and children. As is written in Ecclesiastes 4: Two is better than one. With what is happening in the church now, women realize that they can do more than staying at home and watching the children. They see women contributing to the church, because they too have their talents to share. That can help perfect the church. We do already see change, yes. Women are now studying in Bible schools. This is encouraging, because churches themselves are sending these women with their recommendations. The day will come, when we can find women pastors here in Niger.”
After our conversation, I get a tour of the campus, followed by a discussion with students in the chapel. Abou is the first who stands up to share. “When I came to the school, I couldn’t even write my name. Now I can read the Bible and that way do evangelism work.” She is eager to team up with her husband and pass on the knowledge and life skills she gained in Aguié through their outreach ministry. “Our non-Christian sisters have a lot of difficulties. I will show them the light that I am and model how I relate to my husband, how we live as a family, in harmony, in peace and in joy.” It didn’t use to be like that, she explains. “My husband went about his way, and I mine, separately. That was different.”
Abou is aware of the many challenges she will face as an evangelist’s wife in rural areas. While she will look for opportunities to sit down with women, talk about their households and help sort out family issues, she says, she will also seek ways to help them earn an income, for example through hairdressing, knitting or sewing. Without sufficient means of her own, though, she wonders, “How can a pastor help others in need if his own family is in need? The pastor’s wife needs some activities to provide for the basic necessities and improve their life.”
The hardship of rural evangelist families to make ends meet and feed their children is taken to heart by EERN’s women. Aware of the lack of resources for rural communities to sustain their evangelists’ families, the EERN Women’s Association sees it as its particular mission to supplement the incomes of those serving in rural areas. During the Association’s annual national convention, explains Coordinator Salomé Tsahirou, the regional representatives hold a grand collection consisting of offerings saved up by local women’s groups throughout the preceding year. They can be financial or in-kind offerings such as soap, kitchen utensils, school supplies, clothes, etc. At the convention these gifts are handed over to wives of pastors and evangelists, who are identified ahead of time.
The Association also organizes a rotating group savings-and-loans scheme, which helps entrepreneurial women at the regional level undertake income-generating activities that help increase their support of local pastors’ families. Small businesses include food processing such as extracting peanut oil and baking donuts, or manufacturing soap, detergent or jewelry. In the Maradi Region, where water wells allow for irrigation, the women farm kitchen gardens to produce fruits and vegetables for sale at nearby markets. The Association further launched a pilot goat-rearing project in Tawa, with the idea of eventually providing each evangelist’s wife with a goat that would procreate and earn her an income. Last but not least, the Association pays the full salary of one of EERN’s evangelists serving in the particularly small and poor congregation of Diffa.
Like Rebecca, Salome is hopeful for a change in EERN’s position to welcome women into the ministry. “My mother did her training together with my father. She had much better grades than he did. My father has since been ordained as pastor, but she…” Salome shakes her head. “Looking at the international level, it is not a sin to have a women pastors. It is being done, so why not in our Church?”
Thank you for your prayers on behalf of the Church in Niger. If you aren’t already doing so, please consider supporting our shared Presbyterian mission efforts.
The 2015 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 146, 147
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