The General Assembly of AEAM, held in Limuru, Kenya, February 1-8, 1973, brought together 162 delegates from 27 African countries plus observers from India, USA, Great Britain, and Germany. By this time, nine national evangelical fellowships in Africa had been formed, of which eight were represented at the Limuru Assembly (Breman 1996; Maillefer 2009; “Mini-Report” 1973). There was a strong emphasis on Christian Education throughout the meetings. The Assembly formed a Christian Education Commission, naming Roger E. Coon as its Coordinator. The Theological Commission created by this Assembly strongly supported programs of Theological Education by Extension (TEE) that had been functioning for several years under the leadership of Fred Holland in Anglophone Africa and Dr. Paul White in Francophone Africa: “TEE, through its study books, would enable a pastor to stay at home, continue his ministry while furthering his theological education” (Maillefer 2009).
The highlight of the Assembly was the election of Byang Kato as AEAM’s General Secretary, replacing the first General Secretary, Kenneth Downing. Kato spoke on the subject of “Theological Trends in Africa Today” (Perception 1974). He warned of the danger of Christo-paganism, syncretism, and universalism creeping into African churches because of poorly educated leadership. He also said that Africa’s greatest need was the training of nationals, not the sending of more missionaries. As Executive Director of AEAM’s Theological Commission, Kato led the members of the Commission to launch the seminary project. No one knew then that more than four years would elapse before FATEB began admitting students in Bangui, and over ten years would pass before NEGST, the Anglophone school, would open its doors to students in Nairobi.
The most detailed account of the four years and eight months between the end of the AEAM General Assembly, February 1973, and the beginning of classes in Bangui in October 1977 is written in the Memoirs of Eric Maillefer, Administrative Secretary of AEAM. He reported that the first major question concerning the Francophone seminary project was location. Ivory Coast, Chad, or Central African Republic seemed best suited for the new school. Church leaders in Ivory Coast were hopeful that the seminary would be founded in Abidjan. But when Alastair Kennedy, who had served as translator for much of the General Assembly in Limuru, approached the Minister of Education in Ivory Coast, he found little interest on the part of the Minister to assist with the AEAM school proposal. In 1972, a year earlier, the Methodists had requested land from the Minister of Construction and Town Planning in order to found a theological seminary. However, the request of the Methodists had been denied. Regarding the application of the AEAM for a theological school in the Ivory Coast, Kennedy received the same negative reply (10.26.73 Kennedy letter to Robinson).
When Kato left the General Assembly in Kenya, he took time to travel to the other two Francophone countries under consideration, Chad and the Central African Republic. He did not yet know whether Kennedy would be successful in Ivory Coast, and though he was anxious to return to Texas to complete his doctoral studies, he felt the importance of visiting Chad and CAR as soon as possible (Maillefer 2009). He found Chad to be experiencing an African “authenticity” campaign with a strong emphasis on initiation rites. The government campaign there was much more anti-Christian than a parallel movement occurring in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) at that time. Discovering the persecution of Christians and the radical Islamic influence of its political leaders, Kato concluded that Chad would be an unwelcome place to found the new school.
A location somewhere in central Africa seemed desirable, though the travel of students and their families to Bangui would be costly and inconvenient because of its distance from two of Africa’s main economic centers, Abidjan and Nairobi. Kato stopped in the CAR after his visit to Chad to talk about the school with local church leaders. Don Hocking, whom he had met at the General Assembly, was a Grace Brethren missionary working in CAR’s capital, Bangui. Isaac Zokoué, CAR’s leading evangelical leader, who had not been able to attend the General Assembly, also made Bangui his primary residence, though he was traveling extensively at the time. Don Hocking, with Kato’s encouragement, took initiative to explore with the government the possibility of locating the Francophone school in Bangui.
Hocking wrote to AEAM’s Francophone Secretary for Higher Education that he had taken a letter to the Minister of Education and to the Director of National Teaching to request permission to found a theological seminary in Bangui. The response was immediate and positive. The national University of Bangui had been founded only four years earlier, in 1969, and developing university-level educational opportunities was a government priority. A key question for Hocking was whether the President of the country would not only approve the founding of an Evangelical seminary in Bangui but might also offer land to AEAM for its construction (6.10.73 Hocking letter to Robinson).
In November 1973, Hocking wrote again saying he had not yet made an official request to the government for land because he wasn’t sure how serious Kato was about locating the seminary in Bangui. Later, in early January, 1974, Hocking wrote to Kato saying that, even without a formal request for property, the Minister of Public Works, on behalf of the government, was offering several hectares of land for the seminary near the national University. The Minister also requested that Kato come to Bangui for a meeting with the President of CAR that he would arrange for late February. However, it would be necessary for Kato to arrive with building plans to be presented to the Minister of Education in order to receive a property grant. Hocking wrote, “This is unbelievable and we are really rejoicing” (11.26.73 Hocking letter to Robinson; 1.7.74 Hocking letter to Kato).
Though the progress toward obtaining land for construction was good news, Isaac Zokoué was concerned about whether the President would grant land to a foreign organization like AEAM. An evangelical association of churches was in the process of formation at this time, though not yet officially founded. After discussing this concern, Zokoué and Hocking decided to ask Kato to agree that, if property were granted, it could be given to the emerging CAR evangelical association of churches, provided that the association would agree, in turn, to give the property to AEAM to build the school in whatever way its leaders saw fit (1.7.74 Hocking letter to Kato).
With this in mind, Kato came to Bangui in February, 1974, for the meeting with CAR’s former Army General and current national President, Jean-Bedel Bokassa. Kato, Hocking, several local pastors, and Isaac Zokoué were present at this audience. Zokoué translated for the group. He explained to President Bokassa that the proposed seminary would be sponsored locally by the new Association of Evangelical Churches (AEEC) and that land would be needed (Robinson 2006). Bokassa had been prepared for this request by his ministers and expressed his desire to have the seminary in CAR. Eric Maillefer reported: “Bokassa offered seven acres near the National University, with full access to its library and allowing cultural and academic relations, while giving our school complete autonomy of government and administration, granting of our own degrees” (Maillefer 2009). On February 27, 1974, Bokassa signed a decree ordering that the parcel of land be granted for the construction of the graduate school of theology. It amounted to 3 hectares of land (7.4 acres) and was bordered by two of Bangui’s most traveled thoroughfares. The decree stipulated that the school would be open to students from all African countries and from the nearby islands of Madagascar and Mauritius (CAR government, 2.27.74; AEAM Press Release, March 20, 1974).
Earlier in the week of Kato’s visit to Bangui he had met with church leaders and had talked with various local groups. In a meeting with 85 local high school and university students, Kato spoke about the new seminary project. Upon hearing him describe a future university-level theological institution in Bangui, “The group prayed for the project,” Kato later wrote. “Before they left the room, one of them suggested, ‘Let’s give feet to our prayers.’ From their limited resources an amount of about $10 was collected and handed to me in a moving ceremony.” Kato reported that he had never seen a group of students in Africa take such immediate action after the presentation of a possible theological school on the African continent. He noted that this was the first recorded gift of funds to the school that was eventually founded in CAR. It came from a group of high school and university students in Bangui (Grace Brethren, March 1974).
For the leaders of this Francophone school project to find themselves owning a choice property site in Bangui only one year after the idea of a graduate theological school had been proposed at the AEAM General Assembly in Limuru seemed almost miraculous. Formal approval by the AEAM Executive Committee came a few months later during the Congress on World Evangelization held in Lausanne, Switzerland, July 16-25, 1974. At that time, the Executive Committee of AEAM met to discuss the success of the initiative in CAR, listened to Kato’s report on his audience with President Bokassa, and after careful consideration of the proposal and its alternatives, decided to formally approve Bokassa’s offer and to build the first seminary in Bangui. Isaac Zokoué wrote to President Bokassa to inform him of the decision (Breman 1996). Three years later, AEAM’s Third General Assembly ratified this decision during its business session in Bouaké, Ivory Coast, July 28 to August 3, 1977.
Once the Executive Committee’s decision had been made in the summer of 1974 to locate the Francophone seminary in Bangui, the Theological Commission charged several individuals to carry out the preparatory work needed to open the school. Dr. Paul White, a missionary with the West Indies Mission (later known as Worldteam), was assigned to find financing for the project, to recruit professors, and to create a rough outline of the curriculum. Although he had been involved with the West Indies Mission, he had then been in the Francophone African region for a long time. Central African leader Rev. Isaac Zokoué, who later earned two doctorates in France, was to work with Grace Brethren missionary, Don Hocking, as head of an Action Committee to carry out building activities and to coordinate with the C.A.R. Government in launching the seminary (Breman 1996).
Although AEAM now had property in Bangui, it was still a long journey to the creation of a functioning educational institution. The people committed to converting the vision of this school into reality were severely tested over the three years that followed. First of all, the land granted to the school was inhabited by several African families living in dwellings of mud walls and tin roofs. The government insisted that they leave the property to live elsewhere, but AEAM would need to pay for their relocation. Then, once the inhabitants had left the property, the government required that the project leaders begin building the new school within three months. How could planning for the use of space, completion of architectural drawings, obtaining permissions to build, and raising financing all be completed in such a short time? Failure to comply risked difficulty with the municipal authorities. In addition, there remained the question of how these African pastors and foreign missionaries, who knew little about doing such projects, could accomplish all this in the Central African Republic (8.31.74 Daidanso, Zokoué, and Hocking letter to Robinson, White, Tienou and Kato).
The project leaders realized that someone with professional training and experience would be needed to lay out a sensible plan for use of the terrain and to draw up building plans before construction could begin. Don Hocking suggested Jack Dangers, an Evangelical Free Church missionary, as someone who might consider assisting the project. Dangers had spent 20 years in northwestern DRC constructing hospital buildings and schools for Free Church Mission there. AEAM’s administrative secretary, Eric Maillefer, knew Dangers well from his years of service in the DRC working under the same Mission. Maillefer agreed that the Action Committee in Bangui could not find a better person for the job needed in Bangui than Jack Dangers.
Robinson was back in the United States after three years in northeastern DRC and met with Dangers in late July 1974. Dangers’s furlough was coming to an end, and Robinson asked Dangers to consider going to Bangui for a few months that fall to do the initial planning needed for the seminary. Dangers responded that, if he could get the approval of his Mission board and his family, he would be willing to go to CAR for two months. AEAM would need to pay his flight costs and provide the funds needed in Bangui to get the work done. Robinson wrote to Dangers’s Mission board director requesting approval for him to undertake this project, told Dangers to plan definitely on going, and informed Kato of his actions. He asked Kato to telegram him only if he did not agree with this plan (8.5.74 Robinson letter to Kato).
On September 23rd, Dangers wrote to say that the Evangelical Free Church Mission had given him permission to go to Bangui for an “undetermined period of time.” He and his wife planned to arrive in Bangui on October 22, 1974 (9.23.74 Dangers letter to Robinson). Kato approved the Action Committee’s budget for Dangers’s work (10.24.74 Kato letter to Hocking). Within the first week after his arrival, the positive impact of Dangers’s experience was felt in the project (October 1974 Dangers letter to Robinson). By the end of December, financial estimates were completed for 3 professors’ houses, 5 married students’ duplexes, 3 furnished classrooms, and a dormitory, dining hall, and kitchen for 6 single men. With costs for a storage shed, tools, pick-up truck, and building plans, plus compensation for families that had to vacate the land, a total estimate of $105,500 was made for this initial phase (Kato, 12.31.74 Rough Estimates of Initial costs at Bangui).
Dangers returned to the United States after the beginning of 1975 with his planning work complete and having made a strategic contribution to the construction. His Mission had already indicated that he would not remain to do the building (10.22.74 Dillon letter to Kato; February 1975 Zokoué letter to White). Mr. Al Balzer, a missionary builder with the Grace Brethren in Bangui, agreed to supervise the first phase of the construction beginning in April 1975 (February 1975 Zokoué letter to White). The departure of the last residents on the property occurred in early January, and enough money had been raised to begin building 3 months later when Al Balzer became available.
Until this time, the seminary did not have an official name. This did not seem to be a major issue in early 1975. In a letter that Paul White sent to the Francophone members of the AEAM Theological Commission, he devoted two sentences to the name of the seminary. White reported that Isaac Zokoué had proposed that the school be called “La Faculté de Théologie Evangélique de Bangui.” The acronym “FATEB,” by which the school is known today, was not mentioned in the letter. White endorsed the proposal and added that the French name could be translated into English as the Evangelical Seminary of Bangui and used in the school’s publicity and correspondence (3.8.75 White letter to Kato and the Theological Commission). At the same time, another English name for the school was being proposed: That month Kato was in the United States, and during a discussion with Robinson concerning the seminary’s name in English, the “Bangui Evangelical School of Theology” (BEST) was suggested. BEST is the English acronym that stuck.
With Al Balzer scheduled to get construction under way in April, the Action Committee decided to plan for a public cornerstone laying on May 4, 1975. Local television and Radio Bangui agreed to provide media coverage. Electricity and water lines had been connected. Stationery was being printed for newsletters. The President of AEAM, Samuel Odunaike of Nigeria, agreed to come as the special speaker. In addition, a week of evangelistic meetings was scheduled. By now, estimates of the cost of all the buildings needed for FATEB were running around a half million dollars. Publicly laying the cornerstone would not only provide visibility and good will in the capital city but also attract the interest of prospective donors (4.14.75 Hocking letter to Robinson).
On May 4th, over a thousand people gathered for the ceremony. Six choirs from Bangui churches sang. Mr. Jean Jacques Nimézéambi explained in French why Bangui was chosen for the seminary, and Brethren Pastor Pounoukoussara spoke in the local language, Sango. TV and Radio recorded and later broadcast the event as each member of the Action Committee laid a stone in the foundation of the first building. AEAM President Odunaike presided over the ceremony, and various individuals and churches contributed financially. FATEB had made an excellent beginning in the eyes of the citizens of Bangui (Afroscope 1975).
Lack of adequate funding for building the school remained a tremendous obstacle. From mid-1974 to mid-1975, enough money was raised to make a good start. But by the end of August 1975, most of the funds had been spent. Hocking wrote, “We are in financial trouble. I only have a few thousand francs left (no, I didn’t say dollars). In fact I think we only have about $400.00 or so left. Al [Balzer] still has…$10,000.00 but that will go in a hurry. Inflation is killing us. Plus there were a lot of hidden costs that were not figured into the budget.” Hocking went on to give details (8.31.75 Hocking letter to Robinson). Milton Baker, at the Conservative Baptist Mission headquarters, asked a colleague to produce 20,000 copies of a promotional brochure for the school (10.6.75 Baker letter to Robinson and the heads of EFMA and IFMA). Students at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School raised $5,000. The two large mission associations in the United States, EFMA and IFMA, assisted by informing their Francophone missionaries. In 1974-75, approximately $60,000 was received (10.14.75 Hocking letter to John Zielasko).
The Theological Commission of AEAM met in Bangui July 7-10, 1975 with the local Action Committee. Isaac Zokoué was present for this important meeting, though in April he had returned to his residence in Abidjan where he was serving as the traveling Secretary for French Africa’s InterVarsity groups (GBU – Groupes Bibliques Universitaires). Don Hocking had replaced him as head of the Action Committee while Paul White maintained overall responsibility for the seminary project in Bangui (October 1975 newsletter from White to his TEE mailing list; 10.20.75 White letter asking recipients to serve on the FATEB General Assembly). Dr. John Winston, President of the Evangelical Seminary at Vaux-sur-Seine in France, attended these July meetings in Bangui. Most evangelical French-speaking Africans who wanted university-level theological training had been attending Vaux, and John Winston was supportive of the Francophone seminary project in CAR. This was his first visit to Africa; it proved to be instructive for him. He also gave the Theological Commission wise counsel on how to move ahead (4.25.75 and 6.5.75 White letters to Theological Commission; 7.22.75 letter to Robinson (Kato photo). The meeting did not solve the financial crisis, but it injected optimism and realism into the minds of the project leaders.
The group that gathered for 4 days in Bangui was composed of 8 Africans and 3 Americans. The form of FATEB as an educational institution, not just buildings on a campus, began taking definite shape during that meeting. A draft constitution and by-laws for the school were written. Professors’ salaries, student tuition levels, financial aid, admission requirements, and length of the academic program were discussed, and proposals were made. Except for the AEAM Executive Committee, AEAM’s Theological Commission would remain FATEB’s highest authority. Under the Theological Commission, two additional governance structures for FATEB were proposed. First, a FATEB General Assembly with wide representation throughout Francophone Africa was designed and the names of 39 people were suggested, mostly from African countries. Second, below the General Assembly, a Board of Governors of 7 members, mostly locals, was proposed that would provide direct oversight and to which the Dean [administrative head] would be accountable. FATEB’s General Assembly would meet once every 3 or 4 years in conjunction with the AEAM General Assembly. The members of the Board of Governors would be members of the General Assembly as well but would meet in Bangui at least once a year, or more frequently if necessary. The Board of Governors held its first meeting 6 months later, from December 29, 1975 to January 1, 1976. Campus development issues were discussed with builder, Al Balzer; strategies for student recruitment and plans for the completion of funding for the school were agreed upon. (7.7-10.75 Minutes).
In September, Paul White met with Byang Kato in London to discuss progress. The target date for opening the school was 1976, just a year away, but White was already considering a delay until 1977 so that preparations for buildings, library, curriculum, and professors could be more firmly in place. In the London meeting, Kato said that he was asking that White be named Dean of the school (9.17.75 White letter to Robinson). With this support from Kato, and with assurance that the authority for work on the project continued to rest with AEAM’s Theological Commission, White began planning his future with a clearer sense of direction.
The complexity of managing a project of this nature was substantial. In October 1975, a list of questions still to be resolved was drawn up. These were the issues that required solutions if the school was to become a credible, durable educational institution. The members of the Action Committee, the Theological Commission, and especially White and Hocking, had to wrestle with these problems in order to launch the school. The July had put propositions on the table, but decisions needed to be made. These included legal issues: ownership of the seminary, constitution, government agreements, and documentation. Financial questions both for capital investment and for operations were challenging. Administration of the school required a board of governors, bylaws, and personnel decisions. The academic concerns included instructional personnel appointments, institutional objectives, program, curriculum, degrees, accreditation, and standards. Student affairs involved how to recruit students, provide student financial aid, and assist with placement after graduation. Theological commitments of the seminary touched on questions of cooperation with other groups and their doctrinal distinctives. Public relations and promotion of FATEB offered challenges. Developing a library and various learning resources was critical. Engaging students in practical fieldwork required local opportunities to be identified. All these questions constituted a mountain of tasks for a tiny group of people to carry out in addition to ongoing construction oversight (10.6.75 Baker letter to Kato).
Leaders of Christian organizations that worked in French Africa raised critical questions about the seminary project, including Hocking’s own Grace Brethren Mission director, John Zielasko. He wanted to know who was in charge of the seminary. Was it a stand-alone institution, or was it under the authority of some other organizational entity? A meeting of the Executive Committee of AEAM had taken place during the late summer of 1975 in Lagos, Nigeria. By then the constitution of the seminary had been drafted, and a statute was added stating unequivocally that the operation of the seminary was “under the jurisdiction of A.E.A.M.” Its authority over FATEB, over its General Assembly and its Board of Governors, would be exercised through the AEAM Theological Commission (10.14.75 Hocking letter to Zielasko).
From November 21 to 26, 1975, AEAM held a Theological Conference in Nairobi that brought together both the Francophone and Anglophone sections of AEAM’s Theological Commission, representatives of 13 African theological schools, and several European observers. In addition to the presentation of theological papers and discussions of current theological issues, the Theological Commission met to talk about the future of the graduate schools in both Anglophone and Francophone Africa. The most significant issue for FATEB was the decision to postpone the opening of the school in Bangui from the fall of 1976 to the fall of 1977. The main reasons for this were that White could not arrive in time to make final preparations for the school opening, that Hocking who was slated to teach would go on furlough in the fall of 1976, and that the library needed to acquire more books and periodicals before classes began. This delay would also give additional time to complete necessary funding and construction (11.21-26.1975 AEAM Theological Conference).
In January 1976, White wrote a report to the mission organizations working in Francophone Africa. It was the most comprehensive account of progress to date, the result of three years of work by many individuals and organizations. White reported on the November Executive Committee’s adoption of a constitution and by-laws, the ratification of FATEB’s governance structure with a General Assembly of 40 approved members, and a Board of Governors with 7 confirmed members. In its first meeting, the Governing Board made the following decisions: 1) The opening of FATEB would be scheduled for October, 1977; 2) With the adoption of a curriculum and university-level entrance requirements, FATEB would offer a 5-year program of study leading to the equivalent of a Master of Divinity degree; 3) Dr. White would move with his family to Bangui in September, 1976 to prepare for the school’s opening a year later; 4) Tuition, room, board, and meals would cost $1,000 for single students and $1,300 for married students; 5) FATEB would become a high-level theological research center to provide solid biblical answers to Africa’s specific problems, thus strengthening the Church in Francophone Africa; 6) FATEB would aim to be a living and vital part of the Church’s activity, engaged in the daily reality of the Church’s life, refusing to become a theological Ivory Tower (1.23.76 White letter to “Missions having work in franco-phone Africa”). White also reported 25 written requests from prospective students about studying at the school. In addition, $75,000 had been received for the seminary project. To open the school in the fall of 1977, another $125,000 would be necessary.
Though most of this was good news, one issue created immense pain for those associated with AEAM and with the seminary project. Just a month after the November Theological Conference, on December 19, 1975, at age 39, Dr. Byang Kato tragically lost his life on the shores of the Kenyan coast near Mombasa. Kato had served as AEAM’s General Secretary for almost 3 years. As head of its Theological Commission, he had spearheaded the effort to found the graduate school of theology in Bangui while assisting the Anglophones with their seminary project as well. He had become the personal friend of those most closely associated with these projects.
Kato was taking a break with his family on the spectacular east African shore bordering the Indian Ocean. At midday, three days after their arrival, Kato’s two boys left the beach and headed back to their cottage, leaving Kato alone on the shore. Kato failed to join the boys for lunch. When the family went looking for him, he had disappeared. A day later, his body was found on the beach where they had been swimming.The cause of his death still remains a mystery. Kato’s death shocked the evangelical world, not just in Africa but around the globe. Bruce J. Nicholls wrote, “Byang was a twentieth century prophet, somewhat in the school of an earlier African, Tertullian, for while he identified with black Africa in its cry for liberation against unjust oppression, he was fearless in his denunciation of all liberal theology and philosophy that deviated from the authority of the Bible as the Word of God” (Breman 1996).
Descriptions of Kato’s life over his tenure of almost 3 years as General Secretary of AEAM are recorded in the Memoirs of his Administrative Secretary, Eric Maillefer (Maillefer 2009; Breman 1996). Though Kato’s sudden departure was a terrible setback for AEAM, Maillefer was convinced that the association had been well established. Maillefer had been involved with AEAM since it was founded almost 11 years earlier, in 1965. If it has managed to get this far, Maillefer mused, “Why could it not survive further till another African leader could be found?” And it did continue until Kato’s successor was chosen a year and a half later at AEAM’s third General Assembly in Bouaké, Ivory Coast (Maillefer 2009).
At the next meeting of the AEAM Executive Committee, March 15-19, 1976, a Byang Kato Memorial Fund was established to assist with the “promotion, encouragement and provision of higher theological training and education of evangelical Africans within an African context” (3.15-19.76 Minutes of AEAM Executive Committee). Then the Executive Committee focused the rest of its business on steps that Kato would have supported. They reorganized the Theological Commission that Kato had led, established the Evangelical Accrediting Association of Africa, formed an Evangelical Theological Society of Africa, and continued planning for the two emerging Graduate Schools of Theology. Recommendations from the Theological Commission’s November 1975 meeting and from the Board of Governors meeting from December 29, 1975 to January 1, 1976 were, in general, approved. The local Action Committee was dissolved and replaced by FATEB’s new Board of Governors. Dr. Paul White was officially named Dean of FATEB. The opening of the seminary was set for October 15, 1977. The FATEB constitution and by-laws were revised to clarify the relationship of the seminary to AEAM. Under the AEAM General Assembly and its Executive Committee, the AEAM Theological Commission served as FATEB’s next highest governing body over the FATEB General Assembly, FATEB’s Board of Governors, and the seminary itself that “is under the jurisdiction of the Association of Evangelicals of Africa and Madagascar (AEAM)” (3.15-19.76 Minutes). Finally, the word “inerrant” was inserted into FATEB’s Confession of Faith, Article 1, that dealt with biblical authority. Otherwise, the Confession of Faith was identical with that of AEAM. (Maillefer explains the background of this addition to the FATEB Confession of Faith requested by the Board of Governors, influenced by the Grace Brethren Mission operating in CAR.)