The Sanneh Institute – Inaugural Conference, Accra – Ghana

From Wednesday, February 25 through Saturday, February 29, Christian and Muslim scholars, religious leaders, students, family, and invited guests gathered to celebrate the inauguration of The Sanneh Institute at the University of Ghana in Accra, Ghana. The new institute is named for the late Lamin Sanneh who until his sudden passing in January 2019 was the D. Willis James Professor of Missions and World Christianity at Yale Divinity School and Director of the Project on Religious Freedom and Society in Africa at the MacMillan Center. Under the leadership of Professor John Azumah, Executive Director, and, like Sanneh, a scholar of African Christianity and Islam, the Sanneh Institute seeks to build bridges of mutual understanding in West Africa by “Offering scholarship as a tribute to God, with the religious and non-religious Other within hearing distance, for the transformation of society.”

At the academic conference convened from February 26-28, sixty-one Christian and Muslim scholars and leaders from around the world delivered and discussed almost forty papers on the theme “Territoriality and Hospitality: Christians and Muslims Sharing Common Space.” A delegation that included Sanneh’s widow and son, Sandra and Kelefa; the Dean of YDS, Dr. Greg Sterling; the Gambian High Commissioner to Ghana, and local institute Board members was received by the Vice President of the Republic of Ghana, Dr. Mahamudu Bawumia, a Muslim and an advocate of inter-religious harmony. Dr. Bawumia pledged his support and that of the Government of Ghana to the institute.

On the evening of Friday, February 28, Dr. Greg Sterling hosted a banquet at the Holiday Inn in Accra for conference participants, Sanneh family members, and invited guests. The inaugural lectures were held on Saturday, February 29 at the University of Ghana. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, and Professor Farid Esack, a Muslim theologian at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa, delivered inspiring lectures on the conference theme. Sanneh’s son Kelefa addressed the crowd of more than 1000 on his family’s behalf.

In his lecture, Dr. Williams underscored God’s sovereignty over all space. Rather than belong to any space, God belongs to a form of reality in which God depends on nothing but himself. In this way, humans do not invite God into their space. Rather, God invites all of humanity into the fullness of God. He cautioned that the territorial and temporal character of humankind can often lead humans to appropriate God to a particular place or people. Such appropriation of God to finite things can be termed idolatrous.

Drawing from Islamic texts and history, Dr. Farid Esack spoke about the need to make space for the Other. Taking a cue from multiple qur’anic references to God as The Greatest, Dr. Esack pointed out that humanity owes everything to God. Consequently, the most appropriate response to God’s benevolence is not to reduce God to religious and national boundaries but to let God be God and to celebrate diversity as a gift from God.

The University of Ghana’s Provost of the College of Humanities chaired these lectures. A representative of the Emir of Kano and the High Commissioner of The Gambia to Ghana, Mr. Eddie Mandhry, Director for Africa & Middle East, Yale University, Office of International Affairs attended, along with leaders and representatives from Ghana’s indigenous, Islamic, and Christian traditions. The inaugural events were sponsored by The Blankemeyer Foundation, Yale Divinity School, MacMillan’s Project on Religious Freedom and Society in Africa and the Centre for Early African Christianity.

Comments from Participants

I want to appreciate God Almighty for the successful Inaugural Lecture/Dinner and Academic Conference all in the space of 5 days. Indeed God is wonderful! As a participant, I must say you have really tried in achieving resounding success in organizing such international event. I will forever be grateful to you for the opportunity you gave me as an upcoming scholar. Accepting my abstract and sponsoring my trip, feeding and accommodation in Accra will be a long-lasting experience that will linger in my heart throughout my life time… As you know, the conference has allowed me to meet and network with participants from all around the world.” Sidiq Kadara

The events surrounding the inauguration of this new and innovative center named for the late Lamin Sanneh, Professor at Yale Divinity School and Yale University and long-time trustee and friend of OMSC, gave resounding witness to an extraordinary intellectual and spiritual legacy. As the site of Professor Sanneh’s first academic appointment, the University of Ghana seems a most fitting location…. The Sanneh Institute is poised to make a significant contribution to scholarship on ‘lived religion’, which was Lamin’s lifelong existential interest and the north star that guided his academic agenda.” Tom Hastings

I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for inviting me to the Sanneh Institute inaugural conference.….What I learned from this conference will carry me for the rest of my life and this would have not been possible if you didn’t give me the opportunity to meet so many people involved in the dialogue Islam-Christianity.” Azizou Atte-Oudeyi

I want to add to the others my great admiration for the way that you and your team organized the conference last week in Accra. What a fantastic launch! And the diversity and level of people in attendance at the conference, at the dinner, and at the launch event was absolutely breath-taking! Well done!” Martin Accad

What a start! I was blown away by the convening that happened at the Saturday event.” Joel Carpenter

A high-profile public event culminated the three days academic conference. It was attended by about 1,000 people representing every religious community you can imagine. Excellent and challenging keynote lectures were by Rowan Williams and Farid Esack. Lamin was honored. Sandra (widow) and Kelefa (son) were here. John Azumah and various Africans reflected on Lamin’s influence, as did Greg Sterling (dean, Yale Divinity), and the two keynotes, Rowan and Farid. I was close to tears more than once. Tributes were a reminder of the power of insights when presented, sometimes prophetically, but always with balance and charity. Azumah is the human engine behind much of this!” Larry Smith

The conference and the inaugural event were truly inspiring and I felt so privileged to be a part of it. It was an encounter I will treasure for the rest of my days! To God be the glory and to us, a memory of commitment and perseverance to draw upon for the future.” Georgina Jardim