|Print | Back||January 12, 2016|
African VoiceConstructing Safe Communities: The Institute of Religion in Calabar
by Imo Eshiet
The Spires of the Institute of Religion reach out from the ground seconds before the plane touches down, to welcome any observant visitor flying into Calabar City. For me, this landmark is not only part of the uplifting influence but also, a significant milestone for the spread of the restored gospel there. Thinking of Calabar, this guiding beacon of light frequently stirs in me fond memories of service and commitment to the Church.
While presiding over the Calabar District of the Church between 1996 and 1998, I also doubled as Institute instructor. It was a calling I especially relished. As a recent convert, teaching Institute enabled me to learn more about my new belonging, its history, doctrines and principles of the gospel and how to run a functional family.
Also, it helped me to stay young at heart, for my primary audience were young college students, so their enthusiasm robustly played off on me. Happily, state authorities are not particular on keeping religion out of campuses. Many professors, in their spare time, use their offices for prayer meetings for both faculty and students.
Since I had an expansive though scantily fitted out office, I saw an opportunity to use the facility to minister to my Institute students in the evenings. In addition to my regular courses, I taught a course, The Use of English for Academic and Communication purposes. This course was interdisciplinary and attracted students from medical school, law, arts, sciences, and the social sciences.
My office could sit over fifty students. Though furnishing was meager because funding for education was miserly and waggish, we got along with desks and a chalk board. Luckily, the Church came in with teaching and writing aids, so I did the best I could to make the learning atmosphere conducive to my college and Institute students. Power supply was chronically erratic, but I had huge rolling windows I often threw open to let out the punishing heat and high humidity.
As blinds for my window, I draped my panes with big posters that illustrated the themes Institute of Religion. The pictures were as attractive as the phrases which captioned them were catchy. An unending stream of students visited to learn more of our curricula and activities and it was a great delight sharing with them the information they asked for. To many, Church programs were refreshingly new and exciting, so they flocked to register for Institute classes.
The most appealing thing about it for many students was the wholesome alternative Institute offered to the rampaging orgies of frightening violence, destruction, and death so commonplace in the city and college. Our nation had been under military rule for over thirty years, so that intimidation, coercion, and brutality had replaced persuasion, gentleness, and meekness. As the bloodletting seeped deep down, many deadly campus cults emerged and as they contested for turf, life in the university became increasingly hazardous. Many lived as if in a maze unsure of which direction to take in life.
It did not help that those who held power kept repeating that the youth were the leaders of tomorrow, though they never retired. Even when they died, they still clung to power. Fresh graduates who remained unemployed for years after leaving school were growing in numbers with doubt about their future prospects soon turning into hard boiled cynicism.
As I worried over the troubling squalls, I had an unexpected visit. The Nigeria- Port Harcourt Mission President at the time, George and Anne Pingree swung by my office. In their company was James O. Mason, President of the African Area. They had heard the pleasing growth rates of the Church in Calabar and the exciting developments in Institute membership and visited to know how they could help stay the course.
In the course of our conversation, they asked me to search for land to put up an Institute Building, the first of its kind in West Africa. The assignment was like anodyne in a troubling world and it salved my concern for peace, healing, dignity, strength, and happiness in my community. I knew there was a crisis of knowledge in the community hence the dark and mischievous influences which made life so cheap and brutal even at institutions of higher learning. Knowing my visitors' plan meant a new way of seeing, thinking, and doing things by my folks in time and eternity, I thanked them for the blessing they brought.
When they left, I reflected on Confucius who taught that, "If your plan is for one year plant rice. If your plan is for ten years plant trees. If your plan is for one hundred years educate children." I also thought deeply about President Howard W. Hunter. In one of his teachings, President Hunter promised that, "Surely life would be more peaceful, surely marriages and families would be stronger, certainly neighborhoods and nations would be safer and kinder and more constructive if more of the gospel of Jesus Christ "with sweetness" could fill our breasts."
After sharing the development with my counselors, we went to work praying and prospecting with fervor and gratitude for a choice location. The search was not instantly rewarding but we pressed on with a strong pioneering spirit of determination and faith.
Initially we approached the University for space for the building. Complications arising from campus politics frustrated our request, but we were undaunted. In fact, we counted the setback as a blessing, for it dawned on us that the incessant instability in the university as in the larger society could frustrate our objectives and goals. So, we broadened our search.
Some choice plots of land lay undeveloped just by the Department of Works of the University. We set our sights and hearts on these, but just as we were about to seal it, our plans fell through. An attorney working for the Church found out that the land was under litigation.
Another piece of land almost opposite the gate of the university came in for consideration. It was bush where folks, when pressed, dumped refuse and human waste in the absence of a functional public disposal system. Though ugly in its undeveloped condition, a real estate agent we worked with assured us that this one was trouble-free and suitable for our purpose.
After several rounds of investigation, we bought the land and transformed it into a beautiful Institute of Religion Building and another facility for Ward meetings.
With the transformations these added to the cityscape, Church as well as Institute membership spiked. In these buildings, leaders helping the community struggle through its challenges are continually shaped and trained on sustainable family relationships, building strong and resilient communities, self-sufficiency, creativity, innovation, and invention.
In this New Year as I think about what lies ahead for me, my family, and community, I feel confident that despite the appalling turbulence all around us, "If our lives and our faith are centered upon Jesus Christ and his restored gospel," as President Hunter taught, "nothing can ever go permanently wrong."
I am convinced that in the years when all who conceived and saw the Institute of Religion project through are long gone, the building shall remain a standing visual testimony for commitment, service, hope, and the power of the gospel to strengthen families and construct safe communities.
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