“The Only Place of Peace”: The Seminary as Refuge

In English, “sanctuary” means both “place of worship” and “place of refuge” – a double meaning that many Majority World seminaries live out. During COVID-19, several Majority World seminaries housed students trapped by lockdowns. Sudanese students in Lebanon were ten minutes from the airport when it closed; they returned to Arab Baptist Theological Seminary (VSI). In Moldova, University Divitia Gratiae (VSI) sheltered over 100 Central Asian students, including a Kyrgyz couple with a baby. In many places, faculty and staff added serving these refugees to teaching online and caring for their families. 

This work is not new. During longstanding violent conflicts, some Majority World seminaries worship God by sheltering those who would otherwise be killed or homeless. ScholarLeaders serves many schools like these, including:

Biblical Seminary of Colombia, Medellín, Colombia (FUSBC): In Colombia, for more than 50 years, conflict has simmered between government, communists, and paramilitaries. 5.7 million have been displaced, second only to Syria. 

Faculté de Théologie Évangélique de Bangui, Bangui, Central African Republic (FATEB): In 2012-2013, extremists attacked Central African Republic (CAR). In Bangui, wells were stuffed with corpses. 1.6 million were displaced.

Université Shalom de Bunia, Bunia, Democratic Republic of Congo (USB): Refugees from the Rwandan genocide spilled into the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 1994, and the ensuing war between ethnic factions displaced 4.5 million. You can watch a short interview with Dr. Katho Bungishabuku, USB’s former president, here.

Jos ECWA Theological Seminary, Jos, Nigeria (JETS): In Nigeria, Boko Haram’s incursions have so far displaced 2.5 million during a conflict primarily caused by religious tensions.

The unique qualities of theological institutions – stable physical facilities; deep study of God’s Word that sustains principled nonviolence and nonpartisan peace; concentrations of Spirit-gifted people – enable these seminaries to “maintain the right of the destitute and the afflicted” in the face of unimaginable violence (Ps. 82:3). By acting as shelters, they witness to God as stronghold, peacemaker, merciful to all, and teacher.

God as Stronghold: Physical Facilities

FATEB now includes an elementary school as well as the seminary. Credit: Evan Hunter

Thanks to their architecture – walls that encompass buildings and green space – FATEB, JETS, and USB have sheltered many. When conflict intensified in Nigeria in 2008, neighborhood families hid at JETS alongside faculty and students. In March 2013, 4,500 refugees filled FATEB’s grounds and classrooms. Nuns climbed over its walls to safety, and in 2015, the Pope thanked FATEB by visiting it. Bullets are still lodged in its walls. The last refugees left just weeks before a ScholarLeaders team arrived on campus to discuss long-term plans. 

USB is still serving as a refuge. In May 2003, 1,300 fled to its campus. Seventeen years later, although the scale of violence has decreased, George Atido, USB’s current president, writes, “Even now we have a new displaced family who joined students’ families on campus. Dr. Katho [USB’s former president] hosted about 30 people in his house last week…. They have just returned to their villages after soldiers chased away the militia.”

Because the nature of Colombia’s conflict is slightly different from those in Africa, FUSBC shelters smaller numbers of refugees longer-term. David Baer, faculty at FUSBC and a ScholarLeaders Board member, describes how one refugee family with an entrepreneurial flair cooked meals for him: “Twice a day they come up this path, huffing and puffing, because everything is vertical there…. [They are] so generous that you quickly forget that supposedly they’re the needy ones. They’re the ones who’ve been through a trauma that you don’t even ask them about.” 

God as Peacemaker: Principled Nonviolence

Because of their contexts, all four seminaries are accessed only through guarded gates. Yet the guards are unarmed. At FUSBC, David explains, “In part that’s so that any violence that’s going to happen doesn’t get escalated. But in part that’s also a commitment to a kind of thoughtful nonviolent forging of this [new] Colombia that we all want to be citizens in.” 

Bulus Galadima, JETS’s president during the 2008 conflict, was offered the opportunity to buy guns for JETS’s security personnel. However, he says, “They would say that the seminary is a place where we are training Christian militias. So I said no, we won’t do guns. We will just trust God.” This decision was tested one night when Bulus heard that JETS was the militants’ next target. He contacted all the officials he knew, begging for help: “I was beside myself.” No one answered. At 1:45 a.m., the gate guard called and said, “There is an armored car here. Did you order an armored car?” Bulus laughs, “I hadn’t spoken to anyone.” But the tank parked just inside JETS’s gate, and for a month, students passed it as they attended classes.

The armored car parked outside JETS. Credit: Bulus Galadima

God as Merciful: Nonpartisan Peace  

These seminaries care for those on all sides of conflict. 

The VSI team visits FUSBC. Credit: Evan Hunter

Colombian guerillas have called for churches to close and Westerners to leave – a particular threat to FUSBC, which has several Westerners on faculty. In the basement of a house a few yards from FUSBC, militants held prisoners. Yet Elizabeth Sendek, FUSBC’s president, “knows our neighbors and loves them. She has a real nose for right and wrong…. [But] it’s a principled addressing of people and issues in a context where too many people and too many issues are forced upon you all the time.” 

Such hospitality has a particular poignancy in Nigeria, where the conflict is often more directly religious. Although everyone knew that Muslims had killed three JETS students, Nigerian soldiers told a Muslim woman and her toddler to flee to JETS. Fighting had just broken out in the city; she had to shelter somewhere or be killed. When the woman arrived, Bulus and Rose, his wife, were afraid: “Sometimes Muslims would send people to infiltrate Christian communities or even to drop poison in the wells. You could get mass casualties that way.” Yet, “We knew that this was what God wanted us to do.” They invited the woman to sleep in their home to protect her from those who might “in anger hurt her or kill her and the baby.” 

George Atido’s installation as USB’s current president. Credit: USB

As its name implies, USB (Université Shalom) also received refugees from warring sides – the Lema and the Hendu tribes. This decision involved fear and prayer, just as it did for JETS. George writes that at first, USB hesitated “to accept displaced people, fearing that some might come with guns.” Furthermore, because USB had trained Lema and Hendu pastors, people were coming to USB from both groups. The staff prayed “in the name of Jesus who welcomed suffering people” and “decided to welcome them because they had nowhere else to go. We encouraged them to live in peace and be examples for others.”

Both George at USB and Nupanga Weanza, FATEB’s current president, speculate that this equal hospitality may actually have protected their schools. George writes, “Those who were fighting discovered that [USB] had welcomed their people. They decided that they would not attack [USB] because of this.” Nupanga is “still convinced that the hands of God were over [us]. Not a single rebel visited the campus. Around us it was chaos and looting, but FATEB was secure.” Despite fear, FATEB, too, received all “to show our love for Christ [and] to keep our testimony.” 

God as Teacher: Spirit-Gifted People at Work

“I’m dealing with humans who have never known anything but conflict and will only ever serve where conflict defines their communities,” David says of teaching at FUSBC – a statement true of all four seminaries. Their programs engage ministry during violence, an effort that ScholarLeaders has helped to develop through the Vital SustainAbility Initiative (VSI), which enables seminaries to think strategically about training students for their specific contexts. 

For instance, partly thanks to VSI, FATEB offers “a course on relief and trauma” that draws on their experience. At JETS, faculty “thought it would be a good experience for our students to see how you do ministry during crisis because this will be their life as pastors.” So JETS never closed, even at the height of the unrest. Professors taught over the sound of gunfire. Bulus, Rose, and their son went to bed with their shoes on, ready to flee if they needed to. JETS’s current president was sponsored by ScholarLeaders LeaderStudies for a PhD in Christian Ethics and has published on Christian responses to violence. 

FUSBC students celebrate communion during Athena Gorospe’s visit.

Because FUSBC’s students mostly live on campus, FUSBC encourages spiritual formation through dormitory prayer meetings, chapel, and a mentoring program that pairs families with single students. This not only trains students for the future but also opens avenues of healing for students who have themselves suffered. Thanks to its faculty’s expertise, FUSBC leads research on how the Church can minister to the internally displaced. Athena Gorospe’s ScholarLeader of the Year visit to FUSBC in 2019 enriched FUSBC’s work with her perspective from the Filipino experience of displacement.

USB collaborates with the DRC’s government on similar research. In 2004, when the new District Leader was chosen, she said, “For the moment, this is the only place of peace in the District. I know that God is with you, and I beg you to continue helping us.”

As they reflect God’s character even more powerfully to Church and society during conflict, these seminaries are “more than conquerors” of staggering evil (Rom. 8:37). They offer physical refuge to those on all sides, and they train those who build lasting peace. 

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