Kobia, Samuel, Rev. Dr. 1947–
Rev. Dr. Samuel Kobia 1947–
Minister, church organization executive
A Kenyan religious leader committed to solving the problem of religious strife on the African continent, the Rev. Dr. Samuel Kobia was named general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in 2003. He was the first African and the first black minister to hold that position, heading an international organization of thousands of Protestant and Orthodox churches. As an ordained minister in the Methodist church of Kenya, Kobia brought to the post a lifetime of experience, not only with spiritual matters, but also with issues of development and economic inequity.
Kobia was born March 20, 1947, in the village of Miathene, Kenya, in the mountainous Meru district of the country. His parents were among the area’s first adherents to the Christian religion, but otherwise his upbringing was similar to that of many other rural Kenyans, as he cared for the family livestock herd and did household chores. He finished secondary school in his home district and then enrolled in a Kenyan religious institution, St. Paul’s United Theological College in the city of Limuru, near Nairobi. His gift for reaching out to members of other Christian sects first showed itself during this period, when he became involved with the Student Christian Movement and the World Students Christian Federation.
Time spent in two foreign countries, the United States and Ghana, shaped Kobia’s faith and thinking. After graduating from St. Paul’s with a theology degree in 1971, Kobia moved to Chicago and enrolled in the Mc-Cormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. His chosen field at McCormick, urban ministry, showed his interest in a career that was engaged with the problems of ordinary individuals in addition to purely theological questions. This broader set of interests was confirmed when Kobia augmented his religious education with a highly practical course of study, earning a master’s degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1978.
Kobia was awarded a Doctor of Divinity degree from the Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1993, and completed coursework for a Ph.D. degree at Fairfax University in Louisiana in 2003. Alongside these studies, however, Kobia gained practical experience and became more and more involved in ecumenical organizations—cooperative enterprises
Born on March 20, 1947, in Miathene, Meru region, Kenya; married, four children. Education: St. Paul’s United Theological College, Kenya, diploma in theology, 1971; McCormick Theological Seminary, Chicago, IL, diploma in urban ministry, 1970s; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MA, city planning, 1978; Christian Theological Seminary, Indianapolis, IN, Doctor of Divinity degree, 1993; Fairfax University, Baton Rouge, LA, PhD, 2003. Religion: Methodist.
Career: World Council of Churches (WCC), executive secretary, Urban Rural Mission, 1978-84, executive secretary of the Justice, Peace, and Creation unit, 1993-99, director of the Issues and Themes Cluster, Special Representative to Africa, 1999-2003, general secretary, 2004-; National Council of Churches of Kenya, director of church development activities, 1984-87, general secretary, 1987-93.
Selected awards: Harvard Divinity School, Cambridge, MA, sabbatical fellowship, Center for the Study of Values in Public Life.
Addresses: Office— World Council of Churches, P.O. Box 2100, 150 Route de Ferney, CH-1211 Geneva 2, Switzerland.
among various churches. In a project sponsored by the Christian Council of Ghana, Kobia worked as an industrial chaplain and did urban development work in the coastal city of Tema. Back in Kenya in 1974, Kobia joined the National Council of Churches of Kenya as an industrial advisor.
Married with four children, Kobia gradually became a more and more important figure among African Christians, who every year made up a greater and greater proportion of adherents to the faith worldwide. Over two decades, he divided his time between Nairobi and Geneva, Switzerland, the location of the WCC’s headquarters. His first post with the WCC was as executive secretary for the organization’s Urban Rural Mission from 1978 to 1984, during which period he also served as secretary of the WCC Africa Task Force. Kobia returned to the Kenya National Council of Churches (NCCK) in 1984 to take an administrative job relating to church-sponsored development projects. In 1987 he was named general secretary of the NCCK—the top post in Kenya’s ecumenical hierarchy.
As his influence increased, Kobia became more active in social and political arenas. He became involved with several church-related peace and anti-racism groups and chaired peace talks in neighboring Sudan in 1991, working to promote a Christian-Muslim dialogue. He headed a monitoring team in Kenya’s 1992 elections and the following year assumed the post of executive director of the WCC’s Justice, Peace and Creation unit. Kobia wrote several books about Africa’s problems. These included 1985’s Origins of Squatting and Community Organization in Nairobi and 1993’s The Quest for Democracy in Africa, with other works in progress.
Kobia’s profile in the WCC was raised by a term spent in 2000 as a fellow at the Center for the Study of Values in Public Life at the prestigious Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was named to several other divisional leadership posts in the WCC, and began to win recognition outside of religious circles in 2001, when he criticized the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C. “The world is being led on the warpath not because of the loss of 6,000 lives but because the security of the rich has been threatened,” he was quoted as saying by BBC Monitoring Africa.
Observers were not surprised, therefore, when Kobia won election in 2003 over a European, Trond Bakkevig, to become the WCC’s general secretary as well as its first African leader. “I consider my appointment as WCC General Secretary not as an individual honour,” Kobia told the Accra Mail. “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.”
The historic nature of his appointment notwithstanding, Kobia inherited a set of high-intensity problems and controversies as he prepared to take over the reins of the WCC. Christian churches faced deeply rooted disputes over such issues as homosexuality, the degree to which churches should become politically engaged, and the decrease in membership among the organization’s traditional “mainline” denominations—its financial lifeblood. This decrease highlighted the loss of many young people who had become more attracted to emotionally direct worship styles. Kobia was circumspect in addressing the homosexuality issue. “We’ve created an ’ecumenical space’ for churches to engage in this issue, to share experiences of different churches,” he told United Press International (UPI). “Human beings need to be understood, even if they choose lifestyles different from what we know.”
“To the extent politics determines who gets what in the world, then churches can’t run away from the politics,” Kobia told UPI. On the potentially explosive issue of Christian-Muslim relations in Africa, Kobia offered visions of hope. “There is an African way of being Christian. And an African way of being Muslim,” he argued in a UPI interview. “In situations where there is no outside interference, then you will find very harmonious multi-faith living between Christians and Muslims.” Kobia used the examples of Sierra Leone and Malawi, as nations whose presidents each were Christians married to Islamic spouses. His appointment and his role as a dedicated peacemaker appear to hold promise for the often strife-torn continent of Africa.
Origins of Squatting and Community Organizations in Nairobi, NCCK, 1985.
The Quest for Democracy in Africa, NCCK, 1993.
Courage to Hope: The Roots for a New Vision and the Calling of the Church in Africa, Consul Oecumenique, 2004.
Accra Mail (Ghana, via Global News Wire), September 15, 2003.
Africa News, December 1, 2003.
BBC Monitoring Africa, October 14, 2001.
Deutsche Presse-Agentur (German Press Agency), August 28, 2003.
Guardian (London, England), September 13, 2003, p. 29.
New York Times, August 29, 2003, p. A7.
United Press International, October 29, 2003.
“Samuel Kobia—Director and Special Representative for Africa, General Secretary-elect of the WCC,” WCC Press Corner, www.wcc-coe.org/wcc/press_corner/pc_kobiabio.html (January 2, 2004).
—James M. Manheim
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