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"Let African Christians be Christian Africans"
Byang Kato (1936-1975) has been called the Founding Father of African Evangelical Theology.
The year is 1974 and the place a broken-down hospital being remodeled into mission agency offices in Jos, Nigeria. Four men gather in a dusty worksite surrounded by plastic tarps shaping the "office" of Byang Kato, a young African with capable bearing and laugh creases at the corners of his eyes. In tones more typical of casual conversation among friends than a business meeting, three SIM missionaries give reports to their African boss. Then the conversation turns global. Someone asks, "Byang, what do you hope long-range for Africa, for the future of Christianity here?"
"African Christianity is being consumed by a dreadful disease," he says. "We must find a cure for our theological anemia." Quickly, as if unleashed, Kato outlines a plan.
In the next hour, Kato spelled out four tools that he believed would support steady, responsible development of genuine Christianity across Africa:
- We need evangelical African scholars writing and publishing African theology.
- We need graduate schools in theology so that our best students do not leave the continent in order to learn: one school in French-speaking Africa in the west and another in English-speaking Africa in the east.
- We need a journal. African scholars of theology will seek a place to publish their ideas and read the responses of their evangelical peers across the continent.
- We need an accrediting agency to set standards of theological education and monitor the progress of schools in order to maintain those standards. Scholars throughout the world will want to know what African-educated theologians think about Jesus.
The four men spent the next hour or so strategizing how Kato, in his new position as General Secretary of the continent-wide Association of Evangelicals in Africa and Madagascar (he was the first African to hold that position), could bring that vision about. Then the meeting ended, and each man went back to his own sphere of work. Unknown to any of them, Dr. Byang Kato had less than two years to live.
Byang Kato was born on June 23, 1936, to Henri and Zawi of the Jaba tribe in Sabzuara near Kwoi in central Nigeria. Henri, a tribal fetish priest, looked forward to his son succeeding him in that honored position. To that end, shortly after Byang's birth Henri dedicated his son to the juju priesthood. As spiritual preparation during childhood, Byang experienced bloody sacrifices, exorcisms, curses, and trial by poison. He learned to fear evil spirits and understand dire prophetic predictions.
But Byang also had contact with his region's other local religion: Christianity. In a mission school he heard the story of Noah and the ark and a God who wanted to save his people. At the age of 12, Byang stood up in front of the class and asked Jesus Christ to come into his heart. Later that year he was baptized as a Christian—along with 300 others. His life suddenly got much harder.
Byang's father, disappointed in his son's public rejection of a life-position already chosen and assigned to him, refused to pay school fees ($1.50 a year) and instead assigned his son to a harsh regime of farm work. He deprived him of food and clothing and sometimes resorted to physical punishment. Byang lost about a year of school. Representatives of the local Christian church visited his father and pleaded with him to allow Byang to continue his education. Eventually, the school, Byang, and his father came to a grudging agreement: Byang would work the farm in the morning, go to school in the afternoon, and then (after classes) work a part-time job provided by the school in order to pay for his fees, books, and clothing. Even so, he was still sometimes short of food. But he became an ardent steward of time and a master of study.
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