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In Memoriam

LAMIN SANNEH (1942–2019)

Lamin Sanneh - taken by Alexy Markevich


Professor Lamin Sanneh died suddenly and unexpectedly on Epiphany Sunday, January 6, 2019. Lamin was a professor at Yale Divinity School and Yale University, trustee of OMSC, and contributing editor of the IBMR.

A recognized pioneer in the exploding interdisciplinary field of World Christianity, Lamin was a rare scholar who combined rhetorical eloquence with scholarly erudition, and religious conviction with child-like curiosity. Arguing, for example, that the missionary movement’s greatest gift to the peoples of the world was Bible translation, he sought to free us from our presuppositions and hubris, saying, “It is not so much that the West transmitted the gospel to world but that the cultures of the world discovered the gospel when they heard the Bible in their mother tongues.” This profound insight from a convert from Islam into the intrinsic and infinite translatability of the gospel still has not been understood or heeded by much of the Western theological academy.

Lamin believed it is high time for the churches of the West to get over their guilt complex about the missionary movement and recognize that the center of Christianity has shifted to the global South. In a Washington Post tribute, Dana Robert commented, “The colonial guilt was so huge that Westerners were completely bogged down in self-flagellation about colonialism, rather than seeing the growth of the church in other ways and other places. The fact that he was a distinguished African scholar saying this blew the lid off mission studies and opened the way to what we now call world Christianity, which is looking at local cultures in dialogue with a world tradition.” In the past thirty years, there is hardly a dissertation in the fields of Missiology, World Christianity, Missional Theology, or Intercultural Theology that fails to reference Sanneh’s work.

Next I want to offer brief reflections as the Executive Director of the Overseas Ministries Study Center. Lamin’s death has hit us really hard at OMSC, because this place was the “home away from home” he loved and to which he returned again and again. We really miss this great man who was unapologetic in his love for this institution and our staff. While all of us warmly welcomed Lamin whenever he came through the front door at 490 Prospect Street in New Haven, Judy Stebbins and Pam Huffman deserve special mention. Indeed, they should be counted among Lamin’s closest and most faithful friends and confidents. Week after week, month after month, year after year, this welcoming, generous, and sensitive tag team provided the healing presence, listening ear, and water, tea, or wine he needed when he was depleted from teaching, lecturing, or traveling. We have Judy and Pam to thank for always being there for Lamin.

I will miss our late afternoon chats in the OMSC kitchen or parlor. He often told me he was at heart a frustrated theologian who sometimes wondered if he had missed his calling. I would assure him by saying that I’ve found all of his writings to be infused with the evangel, and that is why he has attracted so many seekers, students, and scholars across geographical and religious boundaries. At the same time, he would express puzzlement and exasperation with the status of theology in the academy today. With ironic wit he would quip, “Why does it sometimes seem that Christian profession of faith is suppressed in schools of divinity and theology? Nonsense!”

We were not prepared for Lamin’s sudden departure, though I must say, upon reflection, it seems remarkably characteristic. All with whom he worked knew that he was notoriously hard to pin down. He always came through, albeit often at the eleventh hour. I think he knew that he needed to preserve his limited strength carefully for the times it really was required, so what may have been perceived by some as aloofness was more likely a survival mechanism complemented by his shyness, reticence, and humility.

Requiem æternam dona ei, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat ei.

We will close with the words of tribute to Lamin by Andrew Walls, another dear friend of OMSC: “Visionary, man of faith, scholar, teacher, writer, architect, motivator, networker, dear friend and pillar of our fellowship – let us give thanks for the life and work of Lamin Sanneh, remembering his widow Sandra, his children and grandchildren, and all those who will miss him most.”

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