African Church Information Service (Nairobi)

15 September 2003

Africa: How Sam Kobia Made It to the Helm of WCC

Nairobi — It is a new dawn in Africa. A continent once regarded as "dark" is now demonstrating intellectual capability, as affirmed by a gradual emergence of prominent Africans to key leadership positions in global institutions. One of the latest of such acknowledgement is the appointment of Rev Dr Sam Kobia, a Kenyan, as General Secretary of the giant World Council of Churches. AANA's Joseph K'Amolo profiles Rev Kobia's ascension to the helm of the world ecumenical body.

Once again, another of Africa's sons has been chosen to steer a global institution. Rev Dr Sam Kobia was recently elected the new General Secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC), for the next seven years.

His journey to this achievement, was however, long and winding, but made possible by a consistent commitment to serve the Christian community.

Rev Kobia, thus, has a long history in the Christian faith. He was born in 1947 in some remote village in what is today called Meru North, near Mt Kenya.

His parents were among the first generation of Christians in the area.

He grew up just like any ordinary Kenyan child, carrying out domestic chores in the house and looking after his father's livestock.

After completing his basic education in 1967 in his home district, young Kobia was set to start his journey in the world of theology.

In 1969, he joined St. Paul's College in Limuru town, about 30 km from Nairobi, for theological studies. He graduated in 1971 with a university diploma in theology. To expand his knowledge in this field, he immediately joined McCormic Theology Seminary, in Chicago, USA.

Rev Kobia then decided to fine-tune his career by blending his theological knowledge with another discipline. He studied city planning at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in the USA. This was in 1976.

In 1993, he was awarded a Doctor of Divinity by the Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, USA. He completed studies for a PhD in Religious Studies in June this year, at Fairfax University in Louisiana, USA.

So much for his studies. Rev Kobia's involvement in the ecumenical movement stretches a long period. It started while he was at the theological college in Limuru, where he was involved in both the Student Christian Movement and the World Students Christian Federation.

He had the opportunity to broaden his horizon when he joined Tema Urban Industrial Mission in Ghana, under the auspices of the Christian Council of Ghana. Here, he was part of a team involved in industrial chaplaincy work, as well as in urban development work of the port city of Tema.

In 1974, the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK) hired him on full time basis as the industrial advisor to the council. This marked the beginning of his full-time involvement in the ecumenical movement.

Four years later, he joined the WCC as executive secretary for urban rural mission. He did not stay there long, for in 1984, he returned to Kenya to work as director of development co-ordination at the NCCK.

Destined to climb up the ladder, he was elected the NCCK General Secretary in 1987. He served in this position until 1993, when he returned to the WCC to take up a position as Executive Director of Unit III on Justice, Peace and Creation.

He then served as Director of Cluster on Issues and Themes between 1999 and 2002, after which he became Special Representative of the General Secretary, for Africa.

With this vast experience, it came as no surprise therefore, that WCC recognised him as the most suitable for the position of general secretary, which he officially assumes in January next year.

But what does Rev Kobia say about his appointment as the new WCC leader, and what this means for Africa?

"I consider my appointment as WCC General Secretary not as an individual honour. It is an honour to Africa, since I am the first African to assume this responsibility. I hope it will be a source of inspiration for many Africans within the ecumenical movement and beyond," he says.

Indeed, his sentiments are apt. That an African has been honoured to lead the umbrella body of the faith community that comprises a fellowship of 342 churches in more than 120 countries, is a pride to the continent.

Rev Kobia now counts among several Africans holding high profile global positions, both in the secular and ecumenical fronts.

Kofi Annan from Ghana is in charge of the United Nations as its General Secretary, while in the ecumenical circles, Rev Dr Setri Nyomi, also a Ghanaian, is the General Secretary of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. Others are Rev Dr Ishmael Noko from Zimbabwe, and Kenya's Dr Musimbi Kanyoro, who head the Lutheran World Federation and the Young Women Christian Association respectively.

Rev Kobia notes that his greatest challenge will be how to respond to the world that is becoming increasingly violent. He intends to build on the work already done through WCC's Decade to Overcome Violence (2001-2010) initiative, and blend it with his personal involvement in the peace process for Sudan, in particular, and for the Great Lake region in general.

His other challenge will be to nurture inter-religious dialogue. He concedes that religion is assuming a central role in the affairs of human beings, hence the need to use faith to create harmonious living in various aspects of life.

For him, the persistent poverty afflicting Africa and other Third World continents is of great concern. He acknowledges the huge challenge in fighting poverty, but notes that WCC will seek to promote abundant life for all.

The outgoing WCC General Secretary, Rev Dr Konrad Raiser, shares these sentiments. According to him, the growing importance of inter-religious dialogue and the response of the Christian community to the situation of religious plurality and tension are among the challenges during the decade ahead.

As he leaves office, he acknowledges that Africa will be the continent where the future of Christianity will be decided in the 21st Century.

This, he says, is because a new face of Christianity is emerging in the continent, which could have far-reaching implications for the ecumenical movement.

For this, he notes, it is important that the WCC is led into this period by a general secretary from Africa.

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