March 10, 2020

Remembering Donald R. Jacobs, a leader who “had love in his heart”

Written by  Linda Moffett
Donald Jacobs was remembered as a “visionary leader” who had “love in his heart by Bishop Nelson Kisare. Donald Jacobs was remembered as a “visionary leader” who had “love in his heart by Bishop Nelson Kisare. Paul Jacobs

SALUNGA, Pa. — “Donald Jacobs was a visionary leader. To fit into a culture, one must have love. Don had love in his heart,” said Bishop Nelson Kisare.

Donald R. Jacobs died on February 11, 2020, after a long life characterized by service and a commitment to his family, his faith, and his Lord. Don Jacobs served with Eastern Mennonite Missions (EMM) in Tanzania and Kenya for 20 years, from 1953 to 1973, and in Salunga, Pa., as the overseas director from 1973 to 1980. Don and his wife, Anna Ruth, had recently celebrated 70 years of marriage.

“Like a giraffe, Don could see far ahead,” said Kisare, who is the bishop of the eastern diocese of Tanzania Mennonite Church (KMT) and Chair of the Bishops Council. “He made noble contributions to the Tanzania Mennonite Church through teaching and church planting.” Kisare arrived in the U.S. to attend the February 29, memorial service for Jacobs.

“Don transformed the Mennonite Bible College into the Mennonite Theological College of Eastern Africa,” said Kisare. “All of the current bishops were his former students or passed through the college.”

Kisare recounts that in 1965, a local leader advised Don not to buy a worthless plot of land in Dar Es Salaam but the church property now sits on prime real estate. “The land is worth billions” (in Tanzanian shillings), Kisare said.

Moving to what was then Tanganyika in the 1950s to work as a teacher and administrator, Don and Anna Ruth first lived in Bumangi, about 22 miles southeast of Musoma. They lived next door to pioneering missionaries Clyde and Alta Shenk. Don worked in school administration at Bumangi Middle School and learned Swahili at that time. His second assignment was at Katoke Teachers’ College before moving to Bukiroba in 1957 to work at the Mennonite Bible School. Don became the principal of the school although most of the students were older than him.

“It was one thing to teach teachers how to teach math, for example, and quite another to walk alongside pastors of the flock of Jesus Christ,” Jacobs later wrote in his memoir, “What a Life.” “Those years, 1958 and 1959, were watershed years for me. I shifted from being a teacher of a subject to being a willing learner myself, eager to go deeper into the realities and mysteries of African cultures.”

EMM President Gerry Keener remembers Jacobs as an enthusiastic preacher and insightful anthropologist. “It was his recognition of the spirit world in Eastern African religious experience that helped him better contextualize the gospel for the people of Tanzania and Kenya,” Keener said. “Don and Anna Ruth set a high standard for service. We are eternally grateful for their work.”

During a furlough in the U.S., Jacobs earned a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from New York University and returned to the field with the goal to establish the first Mennonite, English-speaking theological college in Tanganyika. Mennonite Theological College of Eastern Africa continued until 1981, then reopened in 1991 after a reorganization.

“Trustingly, we accepted the missionaries’ assessment of our traditional beliefs, and we actually thought that as Christians we had cleansed ourselves of all traditional influences,” wrote Zedekia Marwa Kisare in his 1984 autobiography, “Kisare.”

“Don Jacobs changed all of this for us, his 16 students,” Zedekia Marwa Kisare, the first African Mennonite bishop and uncle of Nelson Kisare, wrote. “He taught the theology courses. The first year he taught us African Traditional Theology. At first we were amazed that he knew about these things. This was a subject that had never been discussed with the missionaries except in terms of rejecting it. Now Jacobs taught it as though he himself were an African traditionalist. We found that Jacobs understood us. He helped us to understand ourselves.”

 David Shenk, an EMM global consultant, recounts that Jacobs introduced the concept of letting theology begin within the context. “The starting point was signs of the gospel within the local culture and then freeing those signs to burst forth in surprising ways,” Shenk said. “The students shared their gifts of the gospel that was forming within the local culture long before the missionaries arrived.”

“The Bible college students with Don decided that the soul of theology in the Tanzania Mennonite Church would be the three confessions of faith,” Shenk said. “First, The Apostles Creed; secondly, the Lord’s Prayer; and thirdly, a Trinitarian song. That simple step has been the foundational rock of the church, for every Tanzanian Mennonite Church at their Sunday morning worship recites those three confessions. This is just one part of Don’s legacy.”

“The power of God’s love is the wellspring of everything good. I understand only a little of that love, but I have experienced it mightily in my life,” Jacobs wrote on the last page of his memoir. “I am a debtor to God’s love, now and forever.”

Well done, thou good and faithful servant!

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