June 13 2024

The Globally Engaged Scholar: An Interview with 2020 Hart Award Winner Elias Bongmba

Photo of Elias Bongbmba with text, "An interview with Elias Kifon Bongmba 2020 Ray L. Hart Service Award Recipient"

AAR is pleased to present an interview with Elias Bongmba, recipient of AAR's 2020 Ray L. Hart Service Award which recognizes AAR members' whose dedication and continuing efforts of service to the AAR have been exemplary. Bongmba is Harry and Hazel Chavanne Professor of Christian Theology and Chair of the Department of Religion at Rice University. His service extends beyond his participation in various AAR steering committees, committees of the board, and juries and into his native Cameroon and across Africa, where he has lectured and advised national and educational institutions on social justice issues, including poverty, gender, disability, and homosexuality. 

Bongmba will be formally presented the Hart Award on December 3, 2020, at 6 PM Eastern during AAR's Annual Business Meeting (A3-400). All members are invited to attend this session during the Virtual Annual Meeting to celebrate Bongmba's contributions to the field and to learn more about the ongoing work of the AAR.

You have contributed your time and energy in so many ways to the AAR, including on AAR's International Connections Committee, as a member of the Graduate Student Award Jury, and as a steering committee member of several program units. What are some of the highlights of your AAR service?

Serving the AAR has been a privilege for me because those opportunities gave me insights into the AAR's work from different angles. The International Connections Committee allowed me to work with colleagues from outside the United States who attend the Annual Meeting. The committee's programs extend a warm welcome to the United States and work with our colleagues to enhance the annual meeting experience and establish in-person connections with our colleagues from around the globe. One of my most cherished memories was joining colleagues from southern Africa who have several academic societies for the study of religion, and a big Joint Societies conference every three years that brings people from around the world to share their appreciation for the hospitality they received at the AAR and SBL that year. The research universities of southern Africa send many participants to the Annual Meetings, and it is always a pleasure to go to their panels to learn from the research that is taking place in that region. The yearly reception for international scholars at the Annual Meeting remains a highlight of the committee's work. It brings scholars together to connect, discuss shared research interests, and explore ideas for future meetings. It was a joy to work with the International Connections committee and the AAR staff on the Africa Focus at the AAR and SBL Annual Meetings in 2006.

Your record of service extends far beyond the walls of the academy. Which of your international projects has meant the most to you?

Several things come to mind here, and I will only highlight a few. During the past ten years, it was my privilege to serve as the President of the African Association for the Study of Religion (AASR), a member of the International Association for the History of Religions (IAHR). It has been a privilege to travel in Africa and work with our colleagues and university officials who have helped us plan and hold four African conferences. These conferences were held with excellent support from our parent organization, the IAHR, whose leaders have attended these conferences and met with our colleagues and state leaders in Africa who have attended our conferences' inaugural sessions. I will always remain grateful for my colleagues' support in AASR and President Tim Jensen of IAHR and its Executive Committee for their support. During the period I served as President, it was a privilege to work with a committee based in the US and Canada to present panels and hold the association's meetings at every Annual Meeting of the AAR. We also established a similar relationship with the African Studies Association.

Two rewarding service experiences remain my engagement with two intellectual and public initiatives of Thabo Mbeki, the former president of South Africa (1999–2008). I was fortunate to participate in the launching of the Thabo Mbeki Institutes and presented a position paper on responsibility in public health. It was my privilege to offer perspectives on the Thabo Mbeki Presidential Library Project to Dr. Maureen Tong, one of the library project coordinators. I was later invited by the Vice-Chancellor of the University of South Africa, Mandla Stanley Makhanya, to attend the inauguration of the Thabo Mbeki Presidential Library and deliver a lecture on Mbeki's pre-presidential and presidential years and President Mbeki's contribution to the African Renaissance and Pan Africanism.  In the lecture, I highlighted Mbeki's vision of an African Renaissance. Mbeki called for a rebirth of Africa to develop freedom, responsible governance, fighting corruption, and work to eliminate poverty. I also pointed out that The Thabo Mbeki Presidential Library should be a space for the cultivation of knowledge deployed to promote equality, peace, and prosperity in Africa.

In my home country of Cameroon, other people from the Wimbum area and I have worked with leaders from our region in the US to promote education on the HIV-AIDS pandemic, worked with members of the Wimbum Cultural and Development Association in the US to promote rural development and support construction of water wells to provide clean drinking water. I have spoken with local state administrators on finding a peaceful solution to a land dispute that began in the 1970s.

Why is global engagement important to the study of religion and to the development of an individual scholar?

The global engagement in the study of religion is essential, if not crucial, for the AAR's research and scholarship. Despite the critical takes on globalization as an ideal or theoretical construct, the truth is that we have always lived in a globalized world. What has happened, and here with only a brief reference to the AAR, is that by embracing a global perspective, we have expanded not only the reach of the mission of the AAR but created a context for a robust critical dialogue that involves the many religious traditions of the world. More importantly, for individual scholars of the AAR, this global outlook has allowed us to work with and learn from scholars from different parts of the world. The global perspective is also inviting theoretical developments that have shaped neo and postcoloniality and gender studies. Today's AAR Annual Meeting is moving towards an intellectual utopia if by utopia one means that we are approaching a confluence of ideas where the world's religions are taken seriously on their terms as scholars continue to ask new questions. Serving on the Graduate Student Jury and also chairing it, I was impressed by the quality of the applications we received because they gave the committee members and me an insight into what was taking place in graduate seminars and colloquia around the world and signaled the view that the AAR was making strides in globalizing the study of religion.

What does service to the guild mean to you? Has it changed throughout your career?

Service to the guild, especially the AAR, means several things to me. First, as an African who came to the United States and was introduced to the AAR by Stanley Grenz and Randy Maddox, my Professors at the North American Baptist Seminary and Sioux Falls College, has meant being a representative of Africa and its religions to the academy and making sure that we continue to organize high-quality panels to promote critical dialogue and advance the field. Second, it has meant listening to my colleagues and working with them to ensure that the academy is a space to showcase our research and nurture the future generation of scholars. Third, it means that we are called to work with the AAR leadership to support the scholarly study of religious traditions by building an intellectual forum where scholars of religion can pay attention to the work of different faith traditions. We are also called to think critically about the challenges we face in a world that remains divided by gender, race, class, sexuality, cultures, and nationalities and borders. In committee meetings over the years, it has been a privilege to work with colleagues and the leaders and staff of the AAR to promote human equality and make everybody feel welcomed at the AAR. It has been fascinating to see committees work very hard to make the AAR a diverse intellectual family.