Growing up in different but equally poor and remote villages in Cameroon, Pierre and Martine Boumtje were taught from an early age that a solid and active faith in Jesus Christ and the attainment of higher education would provide their best opportunity for success and survival. After marriage, both were given an opportunity to come to the United States to earn doctorates, he in agricultural economics and she in French.
When Southern Arkansas University (SAU) later called them as faculty members, they moved to Magnolia, Ark., with their three sons and visited the First Presbyterian Church. They had both been raised in the French-speaking Presbyterian Church of Cameroon (ECC), and brought with them a deep commitment to Christ and their trademark enthusiasm. SAU and FPC fell in love with them. Pierre and Martine both served terms as elders and deacons, with their boys taking active roles in the Sunday School and Youth Programs. The Boumtje family became, in effect, missionaries to the Magnolia church from Cameroon.
In the spring of 2009, Martine received word that Erna Yick, her mother and the matriarch of her home village of Nkom, had passed away. Pierre and Martine returned to Nkom for the funeral and brought back video of the multi-day event. When the video was shared with the congregation in Magnolia, the session was moved to ask if there was something special that could be done in Mrs. Yick’s memory.
Knowing little of Nkom, Magnolia’s elders thought that perhaps a well from Living Waters, some livestock from the Heifer project, or some kind of gift to the school or church might be a fitting memorial. The elders of Nkom were not afraid to ask boldly and quickly responded that what they really needed was a new church building. The village had plenty of labor to draw on, but no money to purchase materials.
The existing church was a small pole and rail structure on a sloping plot of ground with a rusted-out tin roof. There were three or four pews (ramshackle benches with backs in terrible disrepair) and about 20 benches. The pulpit was rotting at the base, and the Lord’s Table leaned badly to one side. The roof leaked so badly that only 10 percent of the area under it remained dry when it rained — and it rains a lot in Cameroon. Given that most of the congregation walked five miles or more each Sunday, and some as many as 15, spending four hours in worship was a major test of faith during the rainy season.
The session felt that if a church in Nkom was needed, the church in Magnolia would pledge whatever help they could provide.
Plans were drawn by a former member of the Nkom congregation who had become an architect and moved to the capital city of Yaounde. Construction estimates were gathered and shared with the elders in Magnolia. It would take about $35,000 to purchase cement, tin, paint and lumber for the building. The church in Nkom would dig the sand and gravel out of the river by hand and get it to the new church site on top of the highest hill in the village. They would hand-make each block before laying it in place and plastering over it with a stucco-like finish. A concrete floor would be mixed and poured one wheelbarrow-ful at time. There was no electricity, so the wood and tin would be cut and nailed by hand.
The Magnolia church decided that if Nkom could do all of that, the Magnolia church of 125 members could rely on God’s help to raise the money. Jeff Boyd, the PC(USA) mission representative in West Central Africa was contacted for advice and help. A Cameroon Partnership Committee was formed by the Magnolia Session. For the next two years, the little church of 125 members in southern Arkansas, cooked and served barbecue brisket lunches, committed all of its memorials not otherwise designated to the Cameroon project, and solicited donations. One 8-year-old boy in the church did odd jobs, saved his allowance, and contributed about $50 to the project — all in coins.
But as with all truly worthy projects, building the church in Nkom had challenges. The first problem encountered was how to get the funds raised in Magnolia into the hands of the church in Nkom. Because of the corruption endemic in Cameroon, it was determined that there was no official channel through which funds could be sent without a significant portion of them being siphoned off. From their own experience in helping their extended family still in Cameroon, the Boumtjes suggested wiring the money from the Magnolia WalMart to a Western Union office in Yaounde in care of the chairman of the committee. Problem solved.
Sharing reports of the progress in Nkom presented different issues. The people of Nkom did not speak English and no one had a camera or knew how to use one. Even worse, we were told that the mail in Cameroon was so unreliable and corrupt that nothing of any value could be sent by mail.
Jeff Boyd, once again came to the rescue, suggesting that Magnolia send the digital camera with extra batteries and memory card to his daughter at college in Europe. She would then place the camera in her carry-on bag and bring it home to Yaounde at the end of term. Jeff would hand-deliver the camera to the Nkom church’s building committee and show them how to use it. When they made a trip to Yaounde to pick up each money transfer, they could e-mail the pictures to the Boumtjes in Magnolia. Another problem solved.
Finally, as the U.S. economy worsened, the cost of construction rose. The initial estimate of $35,000 eventually surpassed $50,000, due to the drop in the value of the dollar and the inexperience of the Nkom church with projects of this size. However, the more the Magnolia congregation did, the more they wanted to do. Soon it wasn’t enough to build a building, they wanted to provide extras — a communion set, candlesticks and real church furniture — pews, pulpit, font and Lord’s table with chairs for those seated on the chancel.
By April 2012, the final portion of the funds for construction had been raised and sent. The construction was nearing completion and a date for the dedication service was set for May 27, Pentecost Sunday. The Nkom church asked if it was possible for the Magnolia church to have some representatives present at the service. The church commissioned Elders Pierre and Martine Boumtje, the director of music, Dan Dykema, and Pastor Mike Morgan to participate in the dedication.
The delegation stayed in the home of the late Mrs. Yick while they were in the village for the service and met with the congregation and session in the old church building on the evening before the dedication. Ironically, it rained, reminding the Magnolia group of the reason the project had begun. Morgan was graciously invited to preach the morning sermon and assist with Communion. Pierre Boumtje translated Morgan’s remarks. Dykema led the congregation in singing a hymn in the Basaa language.
After worship, the women of the church served lunch to all who could stay and celebrate what God had done. The delegation met with village leaders who expressed their deep appreciation and their desire to continue the partnership of the two churches.
The Magnolia church is already considering its next effort in Nkom, exploring the possibility of establishing the Cameroon pilot program “One Laptop per Child,” making the books and school supplies currently missing from the Nkom school obsolete.
MIKE MORGAN is pastor of First Church in Magnolia, Ark.