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Strengthening Connections, Building Community

Strengthening Connections, Building Community
Alison M. Benders and Gina Hens-Piazza
Jesuit School of Theology
September 30, 2016

The car bumped and rumbled along the rut gutted dirt road for two long kilometers. Humorously labeled the “Via dolorosa” by our host and driver, this treacherous stretch of dust, mud and ruts concluded our long journey from the Jesuit School of Theology of SCU in Berkeley to the Theological Institute of the Society of Jesus (ITCJ) in Abidjan, Cote D’Ivoire. Like so many international visits among scholars, our goal was to experience first-hand the work of this West African Jesuit theologate and together consider how to share resources. Our hope was to build stronger relationships between our schools both of which prepare people, lay and religious, for service to the global Catholic church. During the gracious welcoming dinner hosted by the Jesuit community in Abidjan, we counted together the many graduates of the Jesuit School of Theology who now teach and work in African nations. Many of the men at the table had themselves visited our Jesuit School in Berkeley to study or teach, but we were the first emissaries who had traveled east to Abidjan. Over the course of the visit, we explored together the social and ecclesial concerns that vitalize our professional and personal lives. Our hosts, Professors Bienvenu Mayemba, SJ and Augustin Atsikin, SJ, enthusiastically and tirelessly introduced us to residents across a wide spectrum of the surrounding communities. Beyond the walls of the Jesuit compound, these villages and parishes have become the locus for the pastoral work of both faculty and students at ITCI. This more intimate view of the Ivorian peoples’ lives made clear the enormous ministerial challenges faced by members of ITCJ. It also opened our hearts and imaginations to the possibility of a shared future in a more authentic intercultural Catholic church through genuine encounter.


Arial view of the campus of the Institut de Theologie de la
Compagnie de Jesus (ITCJ) in Deaux Plateaux, Abidjan.

The Academic Convocation for ITCJ on our first day and Dr. Hens-Piazza’s conference lecture, “Supporting Cast vs. Supporting Caste: An African Post-Colonial Reading of the Subaltern in Biblical Narrative”, on our last day bookended the visit. Yet, every exchange during our trip spoke to the theme of interculturality, a practice where all traditions and cultures participate in crafting theological understanding and praxis. For nearly three decades, JST has practiced culturally contextualized theology, situating our theological reflections within a deep and critical engagement of the cultures from which our students come and to where they will return. Likewise, ITCJ in Francophone Africa and its counterpart Hekima University, in Anglophone Kenya, recognize the mandate to teach theology as interculturality. They work to disentangle their African heritage from its colonial trappings, and now struggle for recognition with their emerging identity as a post-colonial entity in the global world. During our visit, questions of authenticity, method, authorities, voice and applicability surfaced in every theological discussion. With every conversation, the fundamental and most practical question surfaced, as in every era: Who is God and what is the church for these people here in their situation now?

Blessing the Bahouakoi village children as the school
year begins.

Beyond finding common academic ground, the highpoint of our time was a renewed recognition of education as the path to a more open and hope-filled future. With smatterings of French and English, clumsy gestures, many smiles, and perceptive translators, we connected with students yearning for learning and the chance to engage the wider world. We shared in blessing the school children of Bahouakoi, a 400-person village with one high school graduate - total. We greeted mothers in the village who, in a country where so many children do not go to school, claimed proudly that their child would start first grade this year. At Cocody University, reputed to be the most prestigious university in West Africa, rebuilt in five years since the civil war in Cote d’Ivoire, we conversed with 100 students about globalization and education. Their drive to participate in the international marketplace of information and goods was palpable. More poignant was their response when we urged them to participate in the many opportunities for on-line education internationally. Not only do they have no personal computers but they reported that this 10,000-student university has no computers in its library. Their questions after our presentation were courteous but to the point. “How can we ever participate in global education or a global future when the economic differences between countries like the U.S. and Cote d’ Ivories are so vast and inequitable?” Another student wondered, “How can we Africans even hope to be recognized as members of a global community when in a democracy like the US, racism continues over centuries?”

Undergraduate students at Cocody University, Abidjan.

On another morning, we were humbled and awed again by the rapt attention of 500 girls at Lycee Sainte Marie. In that auditorium, we told personal stories mixed with affirmation to encourage their heroic efforts to get a high school diploma. Reminding them that in a country where 61 million girls are not in school, we urged them to believe in themselves and dream big. As we hugged and greeted many of them, we saw young faces filled with optimism and heard their hopes. One reported, “I want to be a teacher.” Another added, “I hope to study law.” A third said, “I don’t know if it’s possible but I really want to be a doctor.” We praised their courage to stay in school in a culture where girls are least likely to complete their education facing both discrimination in funding in favor of boys as well as enduring exhausting bus rides or long walks through crowded streets. While globalization and education were the rallying cry, there is no immediate solution on the horizon for lack of books, computers, and other academic support for the vast numbers of students who have a right to education.

Upon reflection, at the distance of 7500 miles and one week, awe and gratitude overwhelm us still. Over and over, parents, students and educators shared their infectious hope. We were awash in the Ivorian spirit of optimism and determination to join the international community using education as the path. Our objective in visiting Cote d’Ivoire was to reach out to ITCJ to strengthen connections with our Jesuit mission partners. In doing that, we also found a deep thirst for education among people we met. Their needs demand from the world and the church a generous response at the intersection of faith and academic grounding. As always in human history and consistent with our shared Jesuit traditions, education is the means for building communities. Education is hope in our globalizing world. We pray that our visit to Abidjan will be the first, albeit small step toward strengthening connections among Jesuit theologates around the world and building a truly intercultural theological community for the church’s mission in God’s world.

Our final evening with some members of the ITCJ Faculty and Community in Abidjan.