by Kelsey Holm, Communication Specialist
On Aug. 19, Benjamin Ngede, professor of theology at Tumaini University in Iringa, Tanzania, died at the age of 63. In addition to his role as a pastor and professor, Ngede was a leader in the Bega Kwa Bega (shoulder to shoulder) partnership between the ELCA's St. Paul Area Synod and the Iringa Diocese of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania.
Through Bega Kwa Bega, thousands of secondary school students have been sponsored, hundreds of churches were built, Tumaini University was established and an area health center has become a government-supported hospital.
In a partnership that has grown since 1987 to include 64 St. Paul churches, Ngede was a trailblazer, the first pastor from the Iringa diocese to visit SPAS congregations. At the time, Don Fultz was a pastor at Faith Lutheran Church in Forest Lake, Minn. Ngede came for six months in 1989 to experience ministry at various SPAS congregations, with the intention of taking what he learned back to Iringa.
"I have to admit that I was a little more than nervous," Fultz says of his initial meeting with Ngede. "But within five minutes of meeting him I knew I would be very comfortable and it was going to go well. He just had that kind of personality—warm and welcoming and open. It felt like you could walk right in, sit down with him and talk about life."
After Ngede's visit, Fultz and his wife, Eunice, traveled to Tanzania, where Ngede served as their personal tour guide. The following year, in 1991, Ngede returned to the states. After transferring from Gettysburg Seminary, he enrolled at Luther in 1992, earning a Master of Theology in 1994 and a Doctor of Ministry in 1996.
"In that period of time," says Fultz, "I arranged for Ben and his family to spend three out of four Sundays of every month in one of our synod congregations. They really touched the hearts of many in the synod that way."
Ngede would go on to be a professor and dean of the theology department at Tumaini University, but after accompanying him on Sunday morning visits in Tanzania, Fultz says it was clear: "Being out in the parish was his first love. That was where he would come alive and shine in remarkable ways."
While on a church trip to Tanzania in August, Kent Claussen Gubrud, '97, pastor of Christus Victor Lutheran Church in Apple Valley, Minn., learned of Ngede's sudden death. He stayed for and spoke at Ngede's funeral.
"We began to discover the impact one person had in the lives of thousands," Claussen Gubrud says.
The procession past Ngede's casket lasted more than an hour, all the while accompanied by voices "lifted in songs of hope, faith, praise and thanksgiving to God," Claussen Gubrud says.
"...The procession continued out of the church ... Walking down the dusty hill in the midst of hundreds, we came around the bend to find thousands of people waiting for the graveside service to begin. There were people crawling up on boulders and hanging from trees to get a better view."
An estimated 4,000 people attended Ngede's funeral that day, and 200 came to honor him at a service at Faith the following month.
"He was a very deep individual spiritually who believed in and relied on the power and presence of prayer in his life," Fultz says. "He probably has had the biggest impact of anyone from the Iringa Diocese in the SPAS. It's a legacy that won't go away."