Voices from the Communion: Rev. Joseph Ngoé, President, Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Central African Republic
(LWI) – When others pointed out his potential for the ordained ministry, his response was resistance, “for a long time” - ten years. Today, Rev. Joseph Ngoé looks back at what has marked two decades of his ministry as a pastor and teacher, and since 2021, head of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Central African Republic (French: Eglise Evangélique Luthérienne en République Centrafricaine - EEL-RCA) in a country marked by crises but also opportunities to work toward reconciliation, provide health care and education.
He describes the EEL-RCA as a beacon of light that has contributed “a great deal to stability and the gradual return of peace.” Ngoé was among 14 Bishops and Presidents, who recently participated in the annual LWF Retreat of Newly Elected Leaders (RONEL).
Tell us about yourself, and the path to becoming a pastor?
My vocation was detected by three pastors: two from the Baptist church and one from my church. The first, in Berbérati in 1983, invited me to his office one afternoon and told me: “My son, I see in you a future pastor and suggest that you go to the school of theology in Carnot, without taking the competitive exam. What do you think? I'll give you two days to think it over.” Out of respect I told him I'd drop by. But I decided to leave town for the capital Bangui, because if I stayed there, he'd call me back. The second, a Lutheran, returning from a trip to Europe, pulled me aside and asked me what I would do following my admission to university in 1986. I told him I'd rather study law than theology, and in any case, a pastor’s salary is also low. He said, "Go and think it over, and you can write to me.” That's how we parted. The third, a relative who is a Baptist pastor, after a conversation at his home in 1990 when he was ailing, asked me. "You've got the aptitude to be a pastor, tell me what's stopping you - celibacy or what? If you become a pastor, we can share ideas about the ministry. I'm the only one carrying this weight, whereas you are in a good position. What do you say to me today?” On the way home I felt lost. It was as if our two dead fathers were speaking in my ears. Struck by his words, I found it hard to eat that day. Despite all these interventions, I persisted in my resistance for a long time, and it was only in 1993 that I finally responded to this call.
Can you tell us about your theological education, and ordination?
I began my theological studies in January 1994 at the Baboua School of Theology, western CAR, then proceeded to the Faculty of Protestant Theology in Yaoundé, Cameroon, September 1996 to June 2000, where I finished with a master's degree. I was appointed professor at Baboua School of Theology in 2003, its director from 2005 to 2010, and then director of the Bible School in the same town from 2010 to 2015 to complete my master's cycle. From October 2015 to June 2017, I studied at the Faculty of Theology in Bangui for a second master in missiology, and I am currently a doctoral student. I was ordained on 15 December 2002. I was consecrated as EEL-RCA President on 21 March 2021.
What stood out in your early years in parish work?
After my studies at the Faculty of Protestant Theology in Yaoundé, even though I was a vicar trainee under no supervisor, I was assigned as director of Fambélé district, the smallest in the central western region, with fewer than 700 committed members at the time. In just two years and seven months – December 2000 to July 2003 – the motivation and commitment of the faithful was remarkable. We had mobilized a collection for the construction of a presbytery in less than a year. By 2003, each congregation had set up an income-generating project – banana plantation, fish farming, goat rearing, cassava fields, etc. – and the amounts donated over a period of two years surprised the other districts in the region and even the church management. One unique initiative was an association of farmers who cultivated onions, and they came from different Christian denominations: Baptists, Catholics and Lutherans, and Muslims. This strengthened our relations and dispelled mistrust in the community.
What are the church’s priorities; in mainstream news about your country, we tend to hear only about crises?
The church's priorities are concentrated in working toward reconciliation, providing health care and education to the people, and supporting especially those living in rural areas to confront poverty. The crises refer to the military and political conflicts that have shaken our country for more than two decades, on the one hand, and on the other, the internal crisis that disrupted operations from 2019 to 2022.The CAR experienced two civil wars between 2012 and 2014, which destroyed everything.
What are some of the challenges and opportunities?
The first challenge is insecurity. The presence of rebels hinders the church’s ministry and puts the population at great risk and disadvantage. Our church has lost some congregations as Christians fled their homes seeking safety in neighboring Cameroon, Chad or other regions.
The second is empowerment: in the sense of fighting the mentality of a stretched-out hand asking for help. We also need to establish transparency in financial management.
Our opportunities lie first and foremost in our human resources: catechists, evangelists and pastors (80 trained pastors, 20 evangelists and 635 catechists) various movements (Sunday school, youth, women and volunteers), and natural resources. Good leadership of the faithful, and these movements will bear fruit in the years to come.
As leaders, we have a duty to spiritually nourish every human being, to go out and teach the good news not only in word but also in deed, to pray and counsel, to participate alongside the catechists, evangelists and pastors, in projects to extend primary schools, health centers, construction of a hospital and more schools, and train highly qualified pastors.
The EEL-RCA recently celebrated its 100th anniversary, what does this signify?
We celebrated our centenary from November 6 to 12 under the theme, “100 years of evangelism in word and deed,” taken from Matthew 28:19-20. The aim is to draw attention to the long journey and the various achievements of this church in the country.
As a prelude to these activities, we made available to the population a medical team from Cameroon, comprising a doctor, an ophthalmologist, a surgeon, an ultrasound specialist and others in Gallo and Bohong, at very low cost. There were also lectures on the history of the church, site visits, worship services in Bouar, Abba and Baboua, campaigns in certain districts of Bouar, a caravan in the town of Bouar, an exhibition, songs and dances by various choirs. Through the theme, we wanted to remind all our members and the public that we are no longer children, and that we have to go beyond what we're used to doing. And so, we wanted to challenge our faithful. We also wanted to challenge the Central African Republic society as a whole about the Lutheran church’s existence in the country. A hundred years isn't a hundred months or a hundred weeks, let alone a hundred days. It is grace from God.
This church, which was the work of the Sudan Mission by Americans who arrived here in 1923, has borne fruit insofar as we have almost 125,000 members spread over seven regions, and we always hope that the church will move forward. It is true that there have been crises, but the Lord won't let His church sink completely.
You spoke of Lutherans as a minority Christian group, with a significant contribution to the country, please elaborate?
The mission of the Evangelical Lutheran Church is to evangelize and gather believers into a community, helping them to grow in faith as members of the body of Christ by teaching and practicing love of the neighbor in word and deed. Whatever its size, the EEL-RCA contributes enormously to the country's development in the fields of education, health, the development of water sources, income-generating groups, and in the agricultural field. For example, we have made 30 primary schools available to the population of certain villages in the sub-prefectures of Abba, Baboua, Bouar and Bocaranga, in areas where the government is unable to intervene. We have a total of almost 5,700 pupils for the 2022-2023 school year. This year, the Lutheran church has established a higher education college, and from next year onward, all the students who pass the sixth-form entrance exam can proceed to the college, which will prepare them for university studies or vocational training. In the field of health, there are two health centers: in Bohong (70 km from Bouar on the Bocaranga axis) and Centre de Santé Emmanuel (60 km from Bouar on the Baboua axis).
Lutherans in Cameroon and CAR started as the same church, but then separated in 1973, do they work together at all today?
The bond and collaboration between the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Cameroon and EEL-RCA remains. The church in CAR trains some of its pastors, especially at bachelor's and master's levels at the Lutheran Theological Institute in Meiganga, Cameroon. The two churches are also founding members of the Radio station Sawtu Linjiila, based in Cameroon, and the EEL-RCA President is currently chairperson of the radio’s board of directors.
LWF World Service is present in CAR, how is the cooperation between the church and country program?
The Lutheran World Federation (LWF) country program was set up in 2013 following the civil war, to assist those internally displaced by conflict. Even though the activities of World Service have since scaled down, a tremendous amount of work has been done, and staff from the program and the church collaborate very well. The World Service offices and staff are housed in buildings belonging to the church and since 2023, the country program has been involving the church in carrying out some of the activities in the field.
What does it mean for your church to belong to the LWF communion?
As I pointed out earlier, we are a country in crisis, and the church's prayers and presence as a beacon of light have contributed a great deal to stability and the gradual return of peace. Alongside the church, the LWF has also played a role in raising awareness and providing humanitarian support to alleviate the suffering of the population. It is for this reason that we are hoping for funding to ensure the continuity of its activities in the Central African Republic.