I first heard of the Chad Project when Pastor John LoRusso, former BFC envoy to Tanzania, called to tell me that a team from Cedar Crest BFC, Allentown, PA, was going to investigate opportunities for pioneer evangelism in Central Africa. For two weeks in March, the team consisting of John LoRusso, Jonathan King, Alex Hartranft, and Fernando DeSouza wound its way nearly 1,900 dusty miles across Chad, getting a feel for local conditions and meeting with whatever Chadian Christians, foreign missionaries, and local government authorities they found. Their mission: to identify a place and a people where the Gospel has not been proclaimed and where God seems to have been preparing an entry. They discovered an area populated by the descendants of what is historically one of the most influential kingdoms of Africa; the Kanem-Bornu Empire.
For nearly a thousand years the Kanem-Bornu Empire flourished in territories now occupied by Chad, Libya, Cameroon, Niger, and Nigeria. Its descendants now number between 600,000 and 800,000 people. It converted to Islam in 1085 and reached its peak in the mid 1200’s. It was able to impose its will on surrounding tribes with an army of 100,000 armored horsemen. Its prosperity was built on trade in agricultural products, ivory, and slaves captured from territories to the south. Commerce was a way of life and to this day, descendants of the Empire represent 75 to 80% of all merchants, making them one of the most economically powerful groups in Chad.
The Empire was overrun by the French in 1900 in what has come to be known as the Scramble For Africa and it remained a French colony until 1960. As a result, though Chadian Arabic is the lingua franca spoken throughout the country with every tribal group having its own language, all government business is carried out in French. Because of this, most public officials tend to be outsiders, appointed to serve locally for a limited period of time. In practice, community life is in the hands of local dignitaries who hold more influence with the people than official government appointees. In their travels, Pastor LoRusso and the team came upon one town where the village elders, knowing full well that they were Christians working in partnership with the Chadian protestant church, expressed eagerness to have them send workers to bring resources and education to the local people. They were shown a Cultural Center with classrooms, office space, a volleyball court and a soccer field and were told that it would be available to them to teach sports, music, drama, healthcare, home economics… whatever they could think of. It was suggested that they could teach English in the local secondary school. None of these things of course are the primary purpose of the mission, but they would serve to build relationships and win confidence in view of introducing people to Jesus. The town is located on a principal road at a major crossroads for regional travel. Because the highway going through is paved, it is accessible throughout the year, even in the rainy season. The local language spoken is a dialect that is understood in many other towns of the area. Many things pointed to this as perhaps being the entry point that God has been preparing for the Good News.
As with every opportunity, there are obstacles to overcome. Every aspect of the lives of the people is permeated by Islam mixed with traditional African beliefs.
People turn readily to seers and marabouts for healing, charms, and protection. Though there are several Chadian Evangelical groups present, the believers are mostly government employees temporarily assigned to the area. Services are in French, making them inaccessible to people who speak only the local language. What’s more, these Christians are mostly from regions that were once enslaved by the forebears of the local people. African cultures tend to be tribal with long histories and long memories and forgiveness comes hard. On the bright side, the leadership of the local evangelical church has expressed eagerness to receive a team of fellow-believers from the outside who could come alongside to help them sort out and deal with their prejudices.
Upon returning to the States, two members of the team, Alex Hartranft and Fernando DeSouza expressed the conviction that the Lord is calling them to return to Chad and be part of a pioneering outreach to the people of that town and the surrounding area. With the endorsement of the elders of their home church, they submitted their applications to the Board of Missions and were approved and appointed as envoys of our Fellowship of Churches. The list of things they need to accomplish before deployment (including learning 3 languages – French, Arabic and the local dialect) would be daunting to anybody, but they are full of energy and determination and, most importantly, both of them believe that God has called them to this path.
In researching the history of the Kanem-Bornu Empire, I learned that there are many versions of almost any African story and it is sometimes hard to draw the line between legend, folklore, and historical fact. In all the confusion one tantalizing claim stood out: One source said that Islam, which appeared in the Kanem Empire in the 11th century, was introduced through a single person – a woman – a queen named Maï Hhawa. It was adopted and imposed by rulers who came after her but, if the story is authentic, it only took one person to start a movement that changed an Empire. Let us think of that when we pray for Chad and this project of which we and Alex and Fernando will be part.