“Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed,” says Proverbs 15:22. What difference does wise counsel make for Logos and Cosmos Initiative Catalysts as they lead theology and the sciences projects on campus?
“My project has been enriched by so many people with profoundly diverse backgrounds and experiences,” says Lorena Brondani.
One source of support that Lorena has benefitted from is the input of two project consultants. She admits that she was not sure what to expect when she first met with project consultant Karen Hice Guzmån. On paper, they have different academic backgrounds and contexts. Lorena is a PhD student in social communication based in Argentina; Karen originally trained in horticulture and lives 5,000 miles away in the USA. But when they met on Zoom, they quickly discovered that they share a mutual passion for mentoring Christian women in academia, a theme which runs central to Lorena’s LCI project.
“It was amazing to learn about the Women Scholars and Professionals (WSAP) ministry that Karen leads at InterVarsity, and how God called her there to mentor other women,” explains Lorena. “We also share an interest in providing and generating resources for Christian women scientists.”
Karen has spent more than a decade empowering women through WSAP, a ministry initiative of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, the IFES national movement in the USA. With Karen’s advice, Lorena found that she has not had to “re-invent the wheel” on some aspects of her project.
“Karen’s willingness to stay connected with me and the materials she shared with me enabled me to see what I can apply from her ministry in my own country and national movement,” Lorena explains. “I am tremendously inspired by the work of the WSAP ministry, because it has been organizing forums, book clubs and activities for several years, and these helped me to think through my project.”
In 2022 – 2023, as part of her project, Lorena captured the stories of six Christian women in academia in Argentina and published them in a series of short videos and a book, Auténticas. Diálogos con mujeres académicas, seguidoras de Jesucristo (Authentic: Dialogues with Women Academics, Followers of Jesus Christ) which will be published by Editorial Certeza Argentina in January 2024.
Lorena gained the idea after reading a book that Karen recommended to her, Power Women: Stories of Motherhood, Faith, & The Academy (InterVarsity Press, 2021).
“That book was a real find for me,” says Lorena. “This book, and my own experience of motherhood, inspired me to write my own book, for my own context. It was important for me to write a book in Spanish because there are few biographies of Christian academics in my country, let alone in Latin America.”
This year, as part of her project, Lorena is leading a mentoring and research group for Christian “mother-scholars.” The books, journal articles, videos and websites that she learned about through her project consultants have helped her compile this list of resources on motherhood, family life, feminism, faith and academia for the ten women participating in her group.
Lorena’s story is not unusual. LCI regional staff ensure that each Catalyst is matched with one or two project consultants.
Meeting for the very first time
In Cameroon, geologist Dr Isaac Daama’s project on controversial mineral mining techniques has been strengthened by the guidance of Rev. Dr Ebenezer Blasu, Research Fellow at the Akrofi-Christaller Institute of Theology, Mission and Culture in Ghana.
In mineral-rich Cameroon, many artisanal miners hold traditional African religious beliefs about where minerals can be found. Their practices involve animal sacrifices and prayers, asking the gods to open up the earth for them. For the last two years, Isaac has been partnering with his IFES national movement to lead a project that draws together scientific and Christian perspectives on these mining techniques.
“Dr Blasu has really helped me to understand the foundations, objects and symbols of traditional African religions,” says Isaac. “Thanks to him I understood that the term “animism” is a pejorative term for these religions, since it was a label used by white colonialists who used this term without trying to understand the spiritual practices of traditional African religions.”
This year, Isaac is continuing his project by interviewing miners and university-trained geologists about their beliefs on these approaches. He is also hosting a training course and discussion workshops at his university about theology, science and the culture of traditional African beliefs.
“Dr Blasu suggested that I write a scholarly article based on my research, and suggested some courses that I can take,” Isaac shares.
In January, Isaac will travel to Ghana to take a course on primary African religions at the Akrofi-Christaller Institute where Dr Blasu is based. Whilst there, Isaac will be able to receive Dr Blasu’s input on his journal article, which has been accepted for publication in the Journal of African Christian Thought. Isaac is excited as it will be his first time meeting Dr Blasu in person.
“Dr Blasu has become like a father to me,” he explains. “We talk or email quite often and I receive a lot of advice from him.”
A highly enabling program
Project consultants are just one of many different sources of support that Catalysts are provided with to help them succeed with their projects. A recent external mid-term review of the LCI, described it as “a highly enabling program in which [Catalysts] have several levels of support available to make the journey easy and to find motivation and encouragement.”
Those were the words of Dr Bonnie Jacob, an independent consultant that the LCI commissioned to conduct a comprehensive review of the program. Her review won’t be finalized until 2024, but her preliminary report, submitted in June 2023, commended the LCI for its support of participants.
— Dr Bonnie Jacob, independent review of the LCI
“The number of people who speak into Catalysts’ lives and support them in different aspects is incredible. The Catalyst does not have to strive alone.”
Advocates walk alongside
As soon as they join the LCI, Catalysts are assigned an advocate, a mentor to walk alongside them in their learning journey and to assist them as they design and deliver their projects.
Professor Valentin Ngouyamsa from Cameroon, for example, is a sociology professor who participated as a Catalyst a few years ago and has continued his connection with the LCI by serving as an advocate. He currently mentors Sarah, a sociology graduate student from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and he has been instrumental in shaping her project right from the start.
“To help Sarah find a feasible theme, I asked her to look around and observe her environment and tell me what she saw,” he says. “She told me about the permanence of war in her country, so I suggested that she explore the impact of war on young people.”
From there, the two of them worked together on Sarah’s proposal for her project, which draws together psychosocial and theological approaches to the mental health of students traumatized by war.
“I helped her define the objectives, activities and scope,” shares Valentin. “And I provided scientific input and helped ensure that her proposal fit with the objectives of the LCI.”
Sarah’s project was approved by the LCI for funding and implementation. This year, she is leading a research study, hosting awareness-raising events and providing practical mental health support for students in her city.
“I believe the role of an advocate is to provide scientific, psychological and spiritual support to the Catalyst,” says Valentin. “It can mean calling them to encourage them, praying with them and for them, being available and approachable, and if necessary, providing constructive criticism.”
Always a joint venture
Catalysts are deeply embedded in their IFES national movements, and their projects are always joint ventures with the national movement. For this reason, once they begin their project, each Catalyst forms a project team, which includes the general secretary, and students and volunteers from the movement.
This is something that encouraged Álvaro Pérez when he began his first project earlier this year on the bioethics of gene editing.
“This is going to be hard work, but I won’t be alone,” he said. “I have the support of several collaborators and volunteers.”
Working with the national movement in Ecuador, Álvaro’s project will promote dialogue about bioethical and Christian perspectives on human gene editing. It will include an academic forum; a scholarly article; and the production of a video interview with an expert in the field.
“The general secretary of my national movement has agreed to provide advice on the content of the academic forum and the video interview,” explains Álvaro. “I will also have the support of the communications team, a logistics coordinator and volunteers.”
Wise counsel program-wide
Catalysts aren’t the only ones benefitting from wise counsel. The LCI program itself is also designed with feedback and accountability in mind. The LCI has about a dozen independent external advisors who provide input on the program in general and on individual Catalyst projects. All of them have significant experience in academia, science and theology discussions, and leading projects funded by the John Templeton Foundation.
They provide advice to the LCI leadership, and some have shared their expertise by teaching at events. For example, for the last two years, Argentinian academics Dr Ignacio Silva and Dr Claudia Vanney have taught a seminar for Catalysts in Latin America on the epistemology and history of science and religion. In 2022, Mexican science writer Ana Ávila spoke at a workshop for Catalysts about writing at the intersection of science and the Christian faith. In addition, some of these external advisors review Catalysts’ project proposals as part of our rigorous selection process, and several are serving as Catalyst project consultants this year.
“We emphasize community and collaboration,” says Professor Ross McKenzie, Leader of the LCI. “Catalysts are not isolated individuals but part of communities: the LCI community, their IFES national movements and their universities. And we hope that this will help their theology and the sciences projects to be the very best that they can be.”