Below is a piece I wrote for Disciples News Service. Emailed today, it is the latest in a series of brief historical essays entitled “Moments in Disciples History”; to sign up for DNS emails, click here. For the Historical Society website, click here. I have also added this essay to my Written Word page.
A Mission Planted With Such Splendid Seed
“A mission planted with such splendid seed,” wrote J. B. Lehman in 1911, “will certainly bring an abundant harvest. Other hearts will be touched and the ranks will be filled up.” Lehman spoke of the work of Liberia Christian Institute, founded, nurtured and literally built from the ground up by Jacob Kenoly.
In reality, the Liberia mission was both fruit and seed. It was the fruit born of seeds planted in Kenoly’s heart while he was a student at Southern Christian Institute. The first graduate of SCI in 1902, he found there inspiration for his faith and education for his mind. Blessed in these ways, in 1905 he committed himself–heart, mind and body–to evangelism and education in Africa.
Cultivating the seeds planted at SCI took work, hard work. He saved for two years in order to make the journey, but was robbed while aboard the steamer to Liberia. Kenoly stepped onto African soil with only the clothes on his back and precious little money. For two years he lived among the people and nearly died from disease and exposure. He earned credibility by teaching their children and soon had built—with his own hands – a school and farm.
By 1911 his mission school began to bear fruit; it also planted seeds of its own. J. B. Lehman described the work as one which “told its wonderful story in the transformation of the lives of the people.” There can be no doubt that memories of Southern Christian Institute loomed large in Jacob’s mind during the long years during which he labored daily on behalf of his mission. His work of preaching and teaching, of declaring of the gospel and of working for the good of the lives of the people among whom he lived resulted in at least two of Kenoly’s most promising students continuing their education at SCI. The cycle was beginning to repeat itself: the faith, hope and love planted in Jacob’s heart and mind years earlier, in Mississippi, resulted in a harvest of faith in Liberia.
Speaking of his death and comparing it to that of a seed, Jesus said to his disciples, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.” (John 12:24-26, NRSV).
Jacob Kenoly embraced his mission, and loved his students. Not only did he proclaim good news to their hearts, and not only did he equip their minds with knowledge and their hands with skills, he also nourished their bodies. How poignant, and yet how tragic, that just as the Liberia Christian Institute was founded to bear its best fruit, Kenoly died while fishing to feed his beloved students. His death mirrored his life: a full sacrifice for the sake of the gospel and for the good of God’s beloved people. Jacob Kenoly lived by faith in the liberating power of the gospel. As the story of his life and death plants a splendid seed of faith in our hearts, may those seeds bring forth an abundant harvest in the lives of those who hear.
Written by: McGarvey Ice
Director of Public Services, Disciples of Christ Historical Society