Illinois Area Takes Africa University to Heart
On Saturday of the first week of the 1988 General Conference, the plenary session opened debate on establishing a university on the African continent. The air was electric with excitement and anticipation as if the contagious enthusiasm of Richard Reeves had spread throughout the throng of 1,000 delegates and 2,000 visitors. When the overwhelming approval came, plus $20 million for its 1988-1992 budget, spontaneously everyone rose as one body and applauded what we had done until our hands were numb. Then just as vigorously we broke into praise, singing “Praise God from whom all blessings flow….” That’s when I gave my heart to Africa University.
The Illinois Area also took Africa University (AU) to heart by paying its apportionments in full(fair share giving) and World Service Gifts. Local churches supported special projects with enthusiasm and creative ways to raise funds. Thousands caught the spirit for AU.
This success story, however, focuses on a few leaders who told the story no one could refuse. First, we were blessed to have Dick Reeves, who fondly called himself “just an old bald-headed pump man” from Decatur. He was the spark to enthuse, challenge, inspire, and dedicate this episcopal area to support AU year after year.
Our bishops gave solid leadership, which first began in the Council of Bishops and the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry in the early 1980s. Bishop Emilio de Carvalho of Angola, first chancellor of AU, told Reeves that, as the only engineer on the Board of Trustees, he needed “to build the campus.”
To accomplish this, Reeves made at least four trips a year to Zimbabwe at his own expense to work with architects and construction contractors. At every General Conference and every annual conference he talked with tears in his eyes and voice about the students, most of whom “come to school with hardly two coins to rub together in their pockets.”
Ultimately, his priority was the youth of Africa. He marveled over the “privilege of living in this time and place” in order to be a part of such a project that would live in the lives of people long after we are gone. Reeves was unique in his influence on our global church and his hard work that dubbed him “Mr. Africa University.” As the Rev. Janet Eggleston of Macon said this spring, “His imprint will be forever on that campus.”
The premier performance of “The Bridge” in 1992 honoring Bishop White and his wife, Kim, expressed the exuberance of audience, choir, bell ringers and orchestra, singers, drummers, dancing director and trumpeter, and the “voice of God” in the person of acclaimed bass-baritone William Warfield as narrator.
Director John O’Connor, retired professor of the University of Illinois, wrote the lyrics. The composer was Oscar Braimah, a native of Ghana, who rolled the drums for the 300-voice choir from Ill. Area churches. The two men said the cantata was inspired by
Bishop White’s words of connecting bridges of understanding “between people, cultures, races, faiths, and dreams….There is a need to build a bridge from unbelief to belief, suspicion to trust, hate to love, estrangement to salvation….”
The cantata set a tone of thanksgiving and celebration for the conference, said a native of Zimbabwe, Professor K. Paul Kasambira of Bradley University. He and his wife, Irene, and children Danai and Fari, sang a quartet in their native language of Shona, as part of the 14-voice Shona Singers in the choir. Soloists from the Schools of Music of Illinois Wesleyan U. and U. of I added to the beauty of the performance.
Bishop David J. Lawson [Illinois Area 1992-1996] was a heartfelt spark in the Council of Bishops after a statement by Bishop Arthur Kulah of Liberia in a 1984 meeting. He said that, although the denomination had established schools of higher education in China, India, Brazil, Cuba, The Philippines, and Japan, it had not provided a college or university on the African continent.
Bishop Kulah, in a sermon at the 1994 Official Opening of Africa University, said that Bishop Lawson had turned to him following Kulah’s statement and said, “Why don’t we start one?”
Can you imagine what it takes to establish an international, private university in a land that has no legislation allowing it?
Lawson was a member of the original steering committee formed by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry to carry out the first steps of development. He chaired the committee that selected the dean of theology.
The steering committee, Lawson said, “set the beginning curriculum, identified schools of theology, agriculture, business, and education, and developed and hired academic leadership. We recommended John Kurewa of Zimbabwe as president (vice-chancellor).” The group also met with Zimbabwe’s Commission on Higher Education to begin negotiations for the school’s charter.
From the beginning the committee envisioned that the new university would be ecumenical. “This school is the United Methodist gift to an educationally deprived part of the world,” Lawson said. Reeves said that Bishop Lawson’s “behind the scenes work has helped others claim what we need to do. The African bishops trust him. He can articulate the vision. He sees the need.. He has always seen the global nature of the church and the importance of leadership all across the church in every nation.”
Several years ago the Rev. Terry Clark, now retired, said that the IGRC “has been blessed by [those] who labored in love with Richard Reeves and many passionate people to plant this spiritual and academic garden of learning in Africa.” Two of those passionate people are the Rev. Wayne C. Hess and the late Rev. Jack Cramer-Heuerman. They were on the AU Partnership Committee from the beginning. Jack chaired the committee from about 1992 until his death in 2003. He made three trips to Zimbabwe. Everyone who knew him or heard him speak knew of his love for the education at AU of African students. Many committee projects passed on to the conference for vote came from his insight and contact with AU and the development office in Nashville.
The strong motivation of the Rev. Wayne Hess to tell the AU story influenced at least two gifts from outside the conference: A $500 gift for AU scholarships from a man in Houston, Texas who was a child in Hess’ Chicago parish decades ago; and a $2,500 gift for Reeves Maintenance and Endowment Fund from a man in New Zealand who was a member of the Methodist-Presbyterian Parish that Hess once served for a year. And as Terry Clark noted, “The Rev. Hess has faithfully reminded us of our historical connection from Illinois to Zimbabwe where the dream began with Bishop Hartzell.”
The AU conference Partnership Committee sought to add members with a passion for Africa University. They have been marvelous supporters of AU and faithful to the annual conference vision to help provide educated leaders in “all of Africa.”
“It is like planting a seed that will bear fruit long after our time,” said the late Bishop Lawson in 1996. “The United Methodist Church in Africa is growing so rapidly that future leadership is a critical need. We are also contributing future leaders with Christian backgrounds to the developing nations and businesses of Africa. We can thank God for the gift of Africa University.”
Bettie Story, conference communications staff person 1974-1998, related to the AU Partnership Committee from its inception, joined its membership about in 1994. She traveled with Bishop White to Zimbabwe in 1990 and with Bishop Lawson in 1994 for the official opening of AU.