Not a single eyelid droops when Théophane Boko preaches. Congregations become still as they wait to hear what happens to a deceitful bat. And then in the hush, they learn it is better to follow Jesus' example rather than copying the bat who sleeps through the day, and, in a Beninese fable, illustrates the ultimate outcome of selfishness.
Boko's dedication to Jesus permeates all that he does. Every encounter is an opportunity to share the good news that God's love and redemption extends to all people. Boko is also deeply rooted in his Goun heritage. Like the Jewish culture into which Jesus was born, Boko's culture is rich in the oral tradition of storytelling. Nearly two decades ago, Boko had a vision of combining these two passions in a dynamic approach to sharing the biblical message with the people of Benin. It changed his preaching style and enlivened his evangelism.
"It responds to a need to be Christian while remaining true to who we are," Boko said. "Our stories and proverbs show that it is within our own culture and our ancestral traditions that Christ touches us and speaks to us."
When Nancy Frey, who served in Benin through Mennonite Mission Network and Mennonite Church Canada from 2000-2010, taught a homiletics course at Benin Bible Institute, she invited Boko to demonstrate his preaching method. She was impressed with how Boko's combination of traditional educational techniques with the biblical message enthralled those with and without formal schooling, children as well as adults.
"The students' response was powerful," Frey said. "They requested copies of the stories and asked our brother to publish them."
So, Boko, who also worked at Benin Bible Institute, and Frey began to type and edit the fables and proverbs of the Goun people of southeastern Benin. The resulting book, Contes et histoires commentés à la lumière de la Bible (Fables and Stories Told in the Light of the Bible), was published in 2008. Here is a chapter from the book:
Once upon a time, the birds would gather for community meetings. At the end of sessions, each bird would pay taxes for improvements to their society. The king of the birds, none other than the eagle, noticed something: The bat never attended meetings and, thus, never paid taxes.
King Eagle sent messengers to the bat asking her to pay her taxes, but the bat replied, "Go tell your king that I am not a bird. I am a mammal. I have teeth, I give birth to living babies, and I nurse them."
When King Eagle's messengers reported what the bat had said, he sent them to see the animals' monarch, King Lion, to ascertain whether the bat had told the truth. As soon as King Lion heard what the bat had said, he sent his own agents to collect the bat's back taxes.
"I am not a mammal. I am a bird," the bat said. She spread her wings and flew off to prove her point.
When the bat's words were reported to King Lion, he called King Eagle. Together, they ordered the bat to appear before the two of them. They beat her severely for trying to deceive them and for refusing to contribute to the good of society.
Since that day, the bat has been a loner and only comes out at night.
In his commentary on this story, Boko says that we are called upon to make choices every day, decisions like what our occupation will be, or what kind of house we will build.
"To live is to choose," Boko said. "It is impossible to attempt neutrality. We cannot play a political game [like the bat in the story]. That is why God tells us in Deuteronomy 30:19-20: 'I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him …*'"
Boko also cites the proclamation of Elijah to the children of Israel in 1 Kings 18:21: "'How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.' The people did not answer him a word.*"
We should follow Jesus' mother, Mary, in making good and courageous choices, Boko said.
"The only good choice that God sets in front of humanity is Jesus," Boko said. "God, creator of heaven and earth, could have programmed us to choose Jesus. But he didn't create robots, or machines; God respects the choices we make."
*The New Revised Standard Version