Info-mission Afrique (avril 2017)
Dear Friends in the Lord,
I have been back several weeks since my recent visit to Benin, in West Africa. It took me all that time to recover from the extreme heat we experienced this year in that region, and to dig into the mountain of work that had piled up on my desk while I was gone!
This time, I had decided to spend my time in Benin alone because I wanted to build up on what had been achieved on previous trips, especially in August 2016 when the Lord greatly blessed my time with the young adults (“the youth” as they say there), young people from 16 to 30.
Because of calendar constraints, I started my visit by attending the Grace conference Échos de la Vérité holds in Benin each year. Then I used the next 2 weeks to travel around the country to visit the churches we have links with.
2017 Grace Conference for West Africa
Originally, this event concerned the students on the Preachers’ Course. This correspondence course came into being to help the leaders who wanted to grow in their familiarity with the Word of God in order to feed the people of God. However, in the past few years we have changed the format of the conference to open it to all those who love the free grace of God and to those we get in touch with during the year and who we feel would benefit from the teaching given in the two and half days of the event. This year, the conference was scheduled for mid February.
I arrived in Benin the day before and was greeted by my 2 colleagues involved in the book work, Paul NGoran (Ivory Coast) and Julien Naka (Benin/Togo). Next morning, we made our way to the conference place, about 3 hours north.
We stopped briefly in Bohicon to get the new books which had just arrived from Europe. The printer had produced them in January, but the time was very short to get them to Benin in time for the conference. On top of that, we experienced some delays to get the books. However, Hans, our very zealous warehouse manager back in France, loves the grace of God and he pulled all the stops out so that the books left the warehouse immediately. His efforts paid off because we got a phone call from the postal service to inform us that the books had arrived the morning when the conference started! God has His gifted servants in place! Several of the titles on that shipment were reprints which had not been available in Africa for several years. It was therefore crucial to have them at the conference.
The venue for the conference changed this year as the previous place became unsuitable for our purpose through an endemic lack of maintenance, which is the plague of these countries. Julien had found a large hotel just outside the small town of Glazoué (about 70 miles north of Bohicon). The place is quiet, spacious, very clean and has a very large meeting room. We quickly filled the place to capacity as we were just under 100 participants. We even had to do a bit of running around in order to accommodate everyone in the nearby hotels.
The fellowship among the participants was good and spiritual. Often, I have found that unfortunately, people tend to congregate according to where they come from, whereas there are people from many far away places whom they have no way to meet otherwise. That was the case in previous years, but these past two years was different.
There are 10 teaching sessions during the conference, plus a couple of meetings for discussion, questions and news. This year again, the teaching was good and had a practical edge to help those present to know how to live the new life in Christ. I had been allotted 3 messages (plus the sermon on Sunday morning with the Grace church in Glazoué), Paul had two and Julien one. Two preachers from Bohicon and Paulin Sogbohossou, the pastor in Cotonou, took the other sessions. The 2 Q&A sessions were very instructive and animated. I noticed this time that several younger men dared to speak up. This is significant as this is not so common in their culture.
Seeing the quality of the place, several friends commented that it was impossible for their fee to have covered the whole cost, and that therefore someone must have paid the rest (which is the case, thanks to the generosity of several friends in the West). This sounds quite normal to many people, but this realization is remarkable and new in West Africa, where people often expect things to be given to them. I can see in this a fruit of the biblical preaching they have received over the years, fostering a life transformed in practice as well as an understanding of the salvation in Christ alone.
Visit of churches & friends
Straight after the conference, Paul, Julien & I traveled to the far north of the country. We did it in stages, mainly because of the extreme heat which was very tiring. We wanted to save our energy to last the two remaining weeks. This also enabled us to visit friends and to preach in several places. Such visits and time spent with these people and churches are important. Several of these servants of God are isolated and visits are rare, and it is good for church members to have someone come from outside and preach the same message as their own shepherd.
Bembéréké – Our first stop was in this small town situated on the main road toward Niger in the north. There is a missionary hospital which used to be renowned. Several people on the staff are students in our Preachers’ Course and they had asked us to preach in the little chapel within the hospital compound. Several young trainees came also to the meeting and we had the joy of declaring the grace of God in Christ to them. It was clear that the message was new for some of them.
Banikoara – From Bembéréké, it took us a little more than 4 hours to reach our next stage. This town in the far north is predominantly muslim (which means that it is difficult to sleep after 5 am because of the chanting from the muezzin). In the past, we had to travel the last 50 miles on a dirt track which was quite a challenge in February-March, which is the time for the cotton harvest, as the large articulated trucks generate huge clouds of dust. Now, the new paved road makes the trip quite enjoyable.
Martin Odoumbourou, a former student on the Preachers’ Course, pastors a little Grace church there. We had meetings on the 2 evenings we were there, plus some sweet fellowship with Martin. He is very isolated there, though men from the Bohicon and Parakou churches visit him occasionally. In fact, Martin is a man from the south. Working for the national telephone company, he was sent to the north to manage the local office. He was very conscientious and no one else wanted the job. So he was left in Banikoara! This enabled him to plant and care for the little church that came into being. Now retired, he stays in place out of faithfulness for the Lord’s people.
Parakou – It is a large university town situated in the centre of the country and very close to the Nigerian border. Over the years, the Lord has gathered several capable young men in the local Grace church, and they share the ministry with pastor Anselme Sossou. We had a week-end retreat with the church.
Following our time there and the messages preached, the leaders have decided to set apart one of their number to devote himself two days a week to preparation for his preaching. This is a significant and very encouraging step forward which indicates a growing realization of the importance to develop the preaching of God’s Word. A meeting with the young adults was planned for the Sunday afternoon, but it had to be cancelled because it was exam time and the pressure was intense on the students.
Bohicon – Julien Naka (mister “Europresse-Benin/Togo”) is one of the leaders of the local church, together with 3 other very fine men. They take the opportunity of their number to water the surrounding area, or further afield on occasions, with the preaching of the Word. Because of our schedule, we only stopped overnight and Paul preached that evening. It was good to renew fellowship with the dear friends of many years that gather there.
The Mono region – This area in the south-west of the country is situated around the town of Dogbo and is the birthplace of voodoo. Échos de la Vérité uses the services of a local radio to broadcast the Gospel. There is a thriving Grace church in the little village of Agbédranfo, which can only be reached by a 5-mile dirt track. They had electricity last year, but this is no longer working! I preached there one night while Paul was in the neighbouring town of Klouékanmé, where the Agbédranfo church is planting a small work. Then we swapped over the next evening. There are a number of dedicated men in both places under the leadership of pastor Simon Dodo, and several are students in the Preachers’ Course. The man set apart for the ministry in Parakou (see above) is from the village.
Porto Novo – This is the administrative capital of Benin on the south-eastern part of the country, very close to Nigeria. The situation among the brethren there has been very confused for many years, with 2 factions that do not speak to each other. This has been a burden on my heart for several years, and I have tried to help, but to no avail. This time, we had managed to assemble the 2 groups for preaching one evening. Several of the men had expressed the desire to hold a discussion about their situation while I was there. I was not too keen because there had been several such meetings in the past and to no avail.
In the providence of God, I was delayed on the way and did not manage to arrive until half an hour before the main meeting was scheduled. No more time for discussion! I was led to issue the 2 groups assembled with the challenge of forgetting the past and looking to Christ alone for the future, being led by a true Gospel preacher from outside their situation. And I did feel that this was a special time for which the Lord had prepared their hearts. Since then, things have moved on, with those whose preaching is unclear being asked to stop, and steps being taken to ask a fine preacher from another church to come and lead them in the Gospel. The road will be long, obstacles numerous and much hardship because the enemy of souls does not like to see truth placed back at the centre. But these developments were unthinkable only a short while ago.
Cotonou – The economic capital of the country has 2 grace churches. The leaders had planned a week-end retreat with the 2 churches assembled. Paul preached a couple of messages, and we looked at the prophecies of Haggai for the rest of the time. This was appropriate as one of the churches is in the process of building their chapel! After many years of meeting in a small place with a low tin can roof under the boiling sun, they have now bought a piece of land and built a new place which is quite spacious. But it is crucial that this shell serves as a beacon for the truth of God!
On the Sunday afternoon, a few hours before boarding my plane, I had a long meeting with the young adults and our time together was very profitable and constructive as we set our eyes on the only One given for salvation. Many of these friends have been coming to this church for years, often following their parents. But they are not always sure whether they stand in the Lord or not. There is also a noticeable gap between the young people and the leadership of the church as is the case in many places. The Lord seems to have opened a door to the granddad that I am to help these friends dealing with this situation which no one wants. I also wanted to meet with the leaders but there was not enough time.
Various other things
Very dear & precious colleagues
It was good to have these 3 weeks with Paul from Ivory Coast. We have been working together now for about 28 years and he is a friend I appreciate a lot. He is well respected among the brethren in Benin and his ministry is much appreciated. For many years, he has been the speaker for the radio programmes «Échos de la Vérité» (Echoes of Truth). He is quite isolated in his country, most of the other preachers being much younger.
The time with Julien was precious too. He has experienced a bout of deep weariness of late, and our fellowship was a help. This year, our friend Vincent Dua, who distributes the books in Ivory Coast and is a good preacher, could not be with us unfortunately as he had to attend a couple of conferences where he would present the books.
Shipping books to Africa
After several years when we have been unable to send books to Africa for various reasons, we have been able to supply our colleagues with new books and reprints for nearly 12 months now. This has been a great encouragement to the men on the ground, and sales have increased significantly. This also means that the Gospel is reaching more people.
And I now have the prospect of being able to spend more time with African affairs as I plan to retire from the book distribution and administration at the end of June. In His providence, the Lord has provided someone to replace me and take the publishing of Europresse books into a new chapter. I will share the story about this new development in another letter soon, but I am very thankful to the Lord for opening a new door of service to me. I will still be involved in the choice of books we publish, but most of my attention will be devoted to Africa & Haiti. This probably does not mean that I will go to Africa and Haiti more often, at least at the beginning, but that I will have more time to prepare for ministry and to spend communicating with local friends.
Many thanks to all those of you who have prayed over the years for the door to open into a new era. Thank you too for your faithful support and prayers over the years in favour of a very needy yet promising field. Let us continue to bring before the Lord these areas where the fields are white and ready.