He was known as southern Africa’s Billy Graham.
His name was Nicholas Bhengu, and he was an evangelist with the Assemblies of God in South Africa from the 1940s until his death in 1985.
During his ministry, tens of thousands of people attended his crusades, and thousands were converted. He started over 50 churches. Over 20,000 people attended his funeral.
And yet, Bhengu is virtually, if not completely, unknown by Christians outside of Africa.
Winnipegger Jonathan Bonk wants to change that. That’s why he started the Dictionary of African Christian Biography in 1995 while teaching at Providence University College and Seminary.
The goal of the Dictionary is to collect, preserve and make freely available the previously-unrecorded biographies of African Christian leaders like Bhengu—and the many thousands of others who were vital to the growth of the church on that continent.
“There are lots of stories of western missionaries, but not of the Africans they worked with, who did much of the work and who carried on after the missionaries went home,” says Bonk, 72, who left the province in 1997 to direct the Overseas Ministries Study Center in New Haven, Connecticut.
When he retired in 2013, he came back to Manitoba, bringing the responsibility of continuing to support and supervise the Dictionary with him.
“The stories of these key people were not being told, they had no voice,” he says, adding “they have amazing stories. I’m quite passionate about them.”
Bonk, a member of the Fort Garry Mennonite Fellowship, first got the idea for the Dictionary while serving as an aid worker in Ethiopia in the early 1970s.
“I noticed that what I had learned about Christianity in Africa didn’t match what I was seeing on the ground,” he says.
But when he searched books about the church in Africa, he couldn’t find much of anything about African Christians—but lots about western Christians who served in Africa.
He doesn’t blame the missionaries for failing to record the stories of their African colleagues; the times were different, they didn’t have the skills, and they were too busy writing about their ministries in order to raise funds from back home, he says.
But that didn’t mean he couldn’t try to rectify the situation.
Fortunately, the World Wide Web was being born around the same time he started creating the Dictionary, making is much easier to publish and share the stories.
Today the Dictionary, which is housed by the Boston University School of Theology, has grown to 3,000 entries, with about 150 new biographies added each year. Bonk estimates there is a backlog of over 500 stories waiting to be published.
In addition to Bonk, the Dictionary is supported by an advisory council of 12 people from countries in Africa. All the work is done by volunteers; it costs about $50,000 a year to keep it going, including an annual gathering of the council in Africa. The funding comes from foundations and individual donors.
“It’s not perfect,” Bonk acknowledges, noting that the “quality of work overall is varied.” But he also doesn’t want to get bogged down in “scholarly debates” about the style or methods of research.
“I just want to get the stories down,” he says, noting that “some memory is better than no memory.”
“This is the first generation work. The second generation can worry about the veracity. This is the best we can do right now.”
So far, the process “has worked pretty well,” he says, noting that he wants to publish more stories of female leaders, along with stories of musicians—“music is so integral to Christianity in Africa,” he says.
One thing Bonk wants to emphasize is that the Dictionary isn’t just for African Christians. Canadian Christians, he says, should also visit the site to read about the “raw power of the Gospel to transform hopelessness into hope in people’s lives.”
The stories, he goes on to say, will also remind Canadian Christians “we are part of something much bigger than ourselves, and that we have things to learn from Christians in other countries.”
From the April 15 Winnipeg Free Press.