|The Blessing and the Enigma|
|Written by John Brand|
John Brand met with Dr Tokunboh Adeyemo, former General Secretary of the Association of Evangelicals in Africa (AEA), and now Executive Director of the Centre for Biblical Transformation. They talked about the impact of the gospel in Africa, Aids, poverty and the role of the African Church in the world during this century. Here's John's account of their time together.
In a quiet street in a suburb of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, I enter an office at the Centre for the Biblical Transformation. The man I am to meet, I have been told, is of royal birth. Dr Tokumboh Adeyemo's bearing, his distinguished, greying hair and his voice, strong and full of passion - especially when speaking about God's work in Africa all confirm the impression.
We need leaders who do not focus on greed but see themselves as servants of the people. If we could use properly the wealth with which God has endowed this continent, Africa would be a super-power.
I have long been intrigued by the title of one of his many books, Is Africa Cursed?* and so ask him first how others had reacted to the title. He laughs. "The title was intended to be provocative and has roused plenty of opposition, because people assumed that I was saying that it is cursed. But I did not say that. I said that even though it has the symptoms of being cursed, Africa is the most blessed of all of the inhabited continents of the world, because all that is needed to be a great nation in terms of material and mineral wealth and energy, we have in excess in Africa."
Not once referring to any papers or an encyclopaedia, he goes on to spell out some statistics, pointing out that you could fit all of Europe, China, USA, India, Argentina and New Zealand into Africa - and still have land left over. But, while the population of all those countries is close to 3 billion, Africa has just a quarter of that figure - 750 million. "Africa's problem isn't land."
Neither does he feel that Africa's problems are a lack of water or energy. "We have rivers like the Nile, along which civilisations once grew, together with fresh water lakes like Lake Victoria. Look at solar energy: research shows that the Sahara desert, if tapped, could generate enough for all the electrical domestic appliances used throughout Africa - and we have four other deserts! Look at our forests, like the rain forests in Congo. Look at the mineral wealth:
We have three-quarters of the world's gold, we have uranium, copper and diamonds, and three of the ten oil-producing nations which make up OPEC are African."
But Dr Adeyemo is not slow to identify where he feels the problems lie, using an example from his native country. "Nigeria produces two million barrels of petroleum every day, but when you go there, the welcome you get is a black-out and queues of cars waiting for fuel. What's wrong? If Africa is not cursed, what is the problem? It can be summarised in one word: 'leadership' - inept leadership, corrupt leadership, selfish leadership. We need leaders who do not focus on greed, but see themselves as servants of the people. If we could use properly the wealth with which God has endowed this continent, Africa would be a super-power!"
This brings us neatly on to the subject of the Commission for Africa and its call for good governance. Knowing that not all Africans have welcomed what they see as interference from one of the old colonial powers, I was eager to hear what Dr Adeyemo thought of the Commission's report. But his opening comments surprised me. "When a man is sinking, he grabs any rescue device which is thrown, and Africa is sinking. If God uses Tony Blair and the G8 to rescue us, we will praise the Lord. As a result, I would say to Tony Blair, "Well done. At least somebody is thinking of Africa." But this apparent support of the Commission and G8 is not unqualified. "What the commission left out, and what worries me, is that Tony Blair and his advisors are putting all of these things, and the huge amount of money they are promising, into the hands of politicians. They should consult the faith-based organisations, such as the churches and mosques, because when the politicians have come and gone, these are still there and they are closer - and more accountable to the people."
This is home territory for the man who until recently was the General Secretary of the Association of Evangelicals in Africa, but who also speaks out of his experience working with one of the UN committees looking into the challenge of Aids.
"I think that through its ecumenical umbrella, the Church should push for involvement. We have a proverb, "With one hand you cannot put the roof on your hut - you need both hands." The Church needs the secular society, and vice versa, and the government needs both." He gets up and moves towards the bookcase which lines one wall of the office. On the top shelf are rows of box files, all alphabetically indexed. He reaches for one and pulls it down. Inside are several plastic wallets. Again each is clearly labelled. He selects one and removes from it several sheets of paper stapled together, which he hands to me. It is a copy of one of the many articles he has written for numerous journals across the world. As I skim its contents, he makes a note on an index card that he has just removed one copy. I assume that it will be someone's job to make sure that it is replaced.
"The biggest challenge facing the Church is moving from 'relevance' to 'significance'. As I travel around, I see the Church becoming relevant and scratching where the people are itching - providing homes for the homeless welcoming, loving them. In the 80s, we pointed an accusing finger at people with AIDS until our own Church leaders were dying with it. By becoming significant I mean that we reposition ourselves so that whether in the constitution, or the elections, or security, society needs our voice.
"Daniel is a good model for all Christian leaders: the believer in Yahweh who, in a foreign land served continuously for 65 years under four regimes, yet without corruption. That is the type of transformed leaders we must teach people to vote for."
Dr Adeyemo has travelled across most of Africa, visiting 50 of the 56 nations of the continent, some of them many times, meeting many of these countries' leaders. He seems to be the man who might be able to answer two questions that have troubled me for many years. Why is it that the greatest prevalence of Aids in Africa is often where there is the greatest Christian presence? And, why is it that many of the most evangelised countries are also the most corrupt?
This anomaly has not escaped his attention. "I give my response with tears in my heart. Churches are bursting, but where is the effect of this on the ground? I have called it, 'Africa's enigma'. I salute the early missionaries who came to us, but often the gospel did not get beyond skin deep because it did not transform our traditional world view."
He suggests that there are three levels of change which the gospel can bring. The first is superficial, a mental assent which makes you seem spiritual on the outside, but brings no change inside. The second is shallow conversion, which recognises Jesus as Saviour but only half as Lord: you obey Jesus when it is convenient. He explains. "In the African Tradition, relationship with others is all-important, so a person is more concerned with the shame of being caught doing wrong than with guilt before God." The third level is radical transformation. "This is the level we need."
To explain the question of the rampant spread of HIV/Aids, the corruption among church-going leaders, or the 1994 genocide between the Tutsis and the Hutus - in a nation that claimed to be 84% Christian Dr Adeyemo wonders about the lifestyles and morality of Christians who do such things. His normally irrepressible joy is clouded for a moment: "Christians by name only! We need to re-evangelise. We need to teach the Word." The joy returns. "Jesus has to be Lord!"
We return to the subject of the early missionaries as I ask him about the role that the church in the West should be playing in Africa. As ever, his comments are gracious, "God used you to blaze ways through the jungles to bring the gospel to us at the expense of your lives. You have seen the Church come of age, but do not abandon it now. We still need you. My theology does not speak of a white Church, a black Church, a western Church or an African Church. There must be constructive partnerships. I really jumped for joy when I saw what the Anglican bishops coming from Africa and Asia did during the debate on homosexuality. That is the type of corrective role one member of the Church should be playing for another. I think the West has a role like that for us, as we have for them.
"The Church in the West has had many years of experience. You need to pass it on to Africa. We have been emphasising evangelism, but the Church in Africa needs reformation and the road to that is the teaching ministry in institutions and in our churches. Evangelism is common and you see people who have been saved for many years but have not grown spiritually. We need strong teaching."
The Centre for Biblical Transformation has as its goal, "The total transformation of Africa within two generations". The Centre aims at transforming professionals and those in public life who are looking for their influence to spread to wider society. This is evident as he continues, "In the West you have Christian scientists, Christian developers, Christian agriculturalists, Christian business entrepreneurs who can teach the people micro finance. We need people like that to come here because 'iron sharpens iron'. When African professionals see these Westerners who are not compromising their faith, they can have them as role models."
When it comes to the West and aid, he is not in favour of handouts. "It is better to give us the means to take care of ourselves. For example, in this new Centre for Biblical Transformation I would not go to America, Europe or anywhere to raise money to pay for seminars. I am challenging my people to raise that themselves; if this is benefiting you, you or your churches have got to pay for it. But when I look at building this Centre for example, we have a fifteen-acre property and I need capital. For that I would be ready to look to the West." But has experience dampened his optimism? He feels that the West is not interested in helping with infrastructure. "They tell me, 'We don't want to give money for concrete, only to feed the hungry.'"
I have one more topic I want to cover with him. Having just spent the previous two weeks sitting in long meetings looking, among other things, in microscopic detail into the wording of Aim's Constitution, the past couple of hours had been stimulating and a great encouragement. I am eager to hear his thoughts on the contribution that the Church in Africa would make to the spread of the gospel throughout the world during the 21st Century.
This too is obviously something to which he has given considerable thought. He has four simple points and what he describes strikes me as a gentle rebuke and a challenge to the Church in the West.
"Firstly, Africa may still be poor, but when it comes to faith that pleases God, we are very rich and have a lot to contribute. Whatever denomination you look at, you will find churches that are lively and dynamic. That we must contribute to the West. While your people may be debating whether Jesus is alive or not, the Church here demonstrates that he is; and they believe in preserving the purity of the Word. Our theologians in Africa do not doubt the inspiration of the Bible, nor the deity of Christ.
"Secondly, we are already sending African missionaries to the West. I have been telling our people who go there not to confine their churches to Africans who are living there. Do they see themselves as missionaries to Greater London, for example?" He then told of successful churches in Brussels and Kiev, pastored by Africans.
"Thirdly, the West can learn from us a simplicity of Christian life style. I see a lot of affluence in the West that borders on materialism. As my friend, Ron Sider, asked in his book, "Can we live simply so that others can simply live?"
"Finally, we can offer a sense of community, where the Church is seen as caring and bringing unity in the community. Our traditionally extended family network helps in this."
He smiles as he admits that this is not totally absent in the West. Recalling his time as a member of a small fellowship while a student in Aberdeen, he adds, "It was a little church with a real sense of community. I never felt lonely."
As our conversation comes to an end, and I pack away my microphone and recorder, I feel overjoyed to have been in conversation with such a man as Dr Adeyemo and, at the end of a tiring but thoroughly stimulating day, I pray that God may raise up more men and women like him, not only in Africa, but throughout the world.
FOOTNOTE: * The idea that Africa is cursed comes from an interpretation of Genesis 9:45 where Noah curses his son, Ham. Africans are said to descend from Ham and so therefore share in the curse. This interpretation was used by South African theologians as one of the justifications for Apartheid.