Monday, August 23, 2010

New project in the Gambia

For about a year now we have kept a low profile, except when we needed to ask for prayer in conjunction with the various crises in the Jos area of Nigeria. Not that we have been idle here in Toronto. Actually we have kept pretty busy with major renovations to our old Toronto house (for Adrian), and rewriting and preparing a book for publication (Wendy). So, is that what we plan to continue doing? Not quite! We certainly appreciated this year for changing gears, as it were, after many years of overseas service. We wanted that period of time to reflect on our experience, and to discover prayerfully what the Lord might have in store for us to do in these years (after turning 65). So, we are ready for a new venture, and it looks like a new venture is coming our way! Indeed, we have some interesting news to share!

Early this summer we were invited to participate in the development of a Department of Christian Studies at the University of the Gambia. If you have not heard of the Gambia, we can tell you that it is not a big country.

The Gambia is situated in West Africa. It is an agricultural country, with an economy dominated by farming, fishing, and tourism. About a third of the population live below the international poverty line of US$1.25 a day.

Market scenes

As a former British colony in West Africa, the official language is English. It has a population of a few million, of which about 90% are Muslim, though it also has a long history of religious tolerance. But at the University of the Gambia (UTG), where all students are required to take some courses inreligion, only Islamic Religious Studies have been offered. For some time now, Christian students have been asking for a program in Christian Religious Studies. With the support of The Gambia Christian Council (a small board of Christians representing the major Christian bodies, to liaise with the government) they made an official proposal, which received the necessary government approval. The head of the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at UTG, Prof. Pierre Gomez, a Christian, was instrumental in motivating further discussion, to accede to the request of students. The first crucial level of discussion, within the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, took place this past May, and Prof. Gomez was confident that discussions at higher levels (finishing with university senate approval) would not be a problem.

So how did we get involved? Through one of our supporting churches in Toronto, some months ago we met Glen and Marion Taylor, professors in Old Testament at Wycliffe College, the evangelical Anglican college of the University of Toronto; they, in turn, put us in touch with Steve Hewko who, with his wife, founded the Christian Volunteer Movement (CVM), as an agency for holistic mission to the Gambia. At present Steve is a doctoral student in theology atWycliffe College, but he has been travelling to the Gambia for many years already, even teaching at the University of the Gambia in the years when the university just got started, some ten years ago.

For more information about CVM, see the website:

The University of the Gambia awarding doctorate degree

During this past year, together with Prof. Glen Taylor, Steve has been instrumental in starting an institute for training pastors, called the Gambia Theological Institute, which is intended to meet the growing need for formal theological education for the small but vibrant Christian community in this largely Muslim West-African nation. In this project Steve and Glen have also worked in close conjunction with The Gambia Christian Council, which is fully supportive of its goals. The Institute is an ecumenical institution where pastors and other Christian leaders can attend courses on a variety of subjects, and work towards a diploma in theology or divinity (which will be accredited by Wycliffe College).

Anglican church

Church women

The program meets a real need, since at present the Gambia has no formal institutions for pastoral or theological training at all. The first group of students to take the program are now within a few courses of receiving their diploma. Many of the courses have been taught by graduate students in theology at Wycliffe. It is their hope and dream that this diploma program will eventually be offered through the University of the Gambia, together with the program in Christian Studies.

The good news is that the University Senate has approved the new program in Christian Studies. It did not happen quite as soon as had been expected (in June). We heard of this approval early in August. At that time we also heard that the Vice Chancellor of the university advised postponing the program until January 2011 or perhaps even September 2011, to give the various university departments more time to submit the CVs of prospective faculty to teach in this department.

So what then, are our plans? With the blessing of the Christian Volunteer Movement we have decided to go ahead with plans to teach in The Gambia this fall, as we had originally planned. Although we will not yet be lecturing at the University, we will teach a number of courses for the Gambia Theological Institute. Adrian has been asked to some courses in systematic theology; Wendy will provide an introduction to the New Testament, and a course on St. Augustine. As well, we will offer some public lectures at the University, and offer a seminar, if Prof. Gomez is open to that. This will give us a chance to foster relationships already established with partners at the University and at the Gambia Christian Council. And we can see at first hand the need and opportunity for further teaching there.

University convocation

At the same time we hope to use the opportunity being back in West Africa to travel to Jos, to take time for personal face-to-face consultation with our graduate students. One of Adrian's students, Cosmos, has been offered a scholarship to finish his dissertation, and has plans to travel to South Africa when the money comes through. Wendy has two students, Dauda and Rebecca, whose dissertations are coming closer to the point of completion. So it really will be good to have opportunities for consultation on a more immediate basis, after working by email contact these many months.

Practically speaking, we hope to be on our way to the Gambia in late September, to give the first set of courses (one each) in October; by the end of October we hope to travel to Nigeria for two weeks, after which we return to the Gambia for another month of teaching. We hope to be back in Canada by mid-December. The question of housing is being worked out. We expect to use the house which has been rented by the Christian Volunteer Movement, the umbrella organization through which Wycliffe graduate students raise funding when they go overseas to teach at the pastor's institute. Since we are both formally retired at this time, we plan to go out in a "volunteer" capacity with Christian Studies International, which has agreed to continue as an umbrella organization for this venture, and will continue to accept funding on our behalf.



Aside from material needs for this venture, we would ask your prayers. Some wonderful doors are being opened up. This is an exciting opportunity for us, because it allows us to put into practice the experience we have gained teaching in very similar circumstances in Nigeria. For the Gambia too a rare window of opportunity has opened up for the profile of Christianity to be raised at the highest levels of education. Even with a history of religious tolerance, the profile of Christianity is currently not high, and academically it is rated as inferior to Islam. One of the big problems for the churches in the Gambia is the lack of proper theological training of its pastors. If the laity is not well educated either, one can imagine the range of beliefs, opinions, and even heresies that take hold. There is very little good Christian literature available, and no respectable academic Christian literature can be found in the university library. This scarcity of literature is indicative of the state of education in the Gambia at all levels, starting with the elementary. Many church members, including some pastors, are barely literate.

Children and classrooms

So the Theological Institute is an answer to the prayers of many in the Gambia. Recent developments at the university also mean new hope that a theological training program can eventually be incorporated into the regular university curriculum. Open to new development, The Gambia has accented university training for its people as an important step in that direction. At the university every student is required to take a course in religion. The new program will make it possible for Christian students to take courses in Christian studies, whether as a requirement, or to complete a major or minor for their degrees. And it will allow interested Muslim students to learn about Christianity from committed Christian professors. These new developments at the university have been greeted with much joy by many Gambians, as an answer to decades' long prayer for their country and the church. Please pray with us that these hopes will be realized, and that the Lord will bless our plans to participate in this new program.