Alum putting his faith into action with literacy-based nonprofit
by Chuck Gordon

A childhood spent in Africa has 2015 alum Ben Davis uniquely prepared to play a large role in helping faith-based nonprofit SIL International promote literacy on the continent. Davis is taking his political science degree to Foggy Bottom in Washington, D.C., where he will act as a liaison between SIL and several large organizations.

Ben Davis's endeavor to better the conditions of the people of rural Africa is more than just a theoretical exercise. Davis is intimately familiar with their plight.

As a 5-year-old, Davis moved with his missionary parents to West Africa. Early on, they lived in a tiny rural village in Burkina Faso. It was far different from living in suburban America, as the Davis family soon found out. Before long, Ben had contracted both malaria and amoebic dysentery. The malaria caused his body temperature to rocket up and down and his body and head to ache. The amoebas he’d contracted from contaminated drinking water were devouring the nutrients that were supposed to be fortifying his body. He became extremely dehydrated.

Although Davis subsequently contracted malaria several times over the years, that first double-whammy left an impression on him.

“I don’t remember anything else from that time except for this,” he says. “It was so traumatic. You can’t forget that!”

Davis was lucky. His father drove him to a hospital in Ivory Coast, where he recovered. “I would credit that to the grace of God,” he says. “I probably should have died.”

Native peoples aren’t always so fortunate, and Davis, a 2015 Wingate University graduate, is devoting the next phase of his career to helping them improve their lot in life. He recently accepted a position as the international-relations officer for Africa with SIL International, a faith-based nonprofit organization that focuses on documenting local languages in order to promote literacy and translate the Bible. He will be stationed in Washington, D.C., starting in September.

Davis spent 13 years in Africa, most of it in Mali and Senegal. He knows the environment well – the poverty, the sense of community, the challenge of eking out a living in unforgiving terrain. But his time at Wingate, studying business and political science, helped him frame that experience in a different way. And it will help him as he embarks on his latest mission-related journey.

A new perspective

Since graduating from Wingate with a political science degree (and minors in economics and French), Davis has been working at JAARS Youth and Family Ministries, helping prepare missionaries to leave for their assignments while providing a soft landing for those returning from overseas.

Wingate alum Ben Davis

He’s uniquely qualified for that work. Because he returned not terribly long ago from over a decade in Africa, it’s easy for Davis, 25, to empathize with returnees.

“It’s one of those things that’s very hard to understand unless you’ve lived it, because there’s so much personal change involved,” he says.

When Davis returned to the United States in 2011 for his senior year of high school, he found it difficult to connect with his classmates. On Davis’s mind were ways to help poor tribes in sub-Saharan Africa break the cycle of poverty. His American peers were concerned with whom the Carolina Panthers would draft, or with the relative merits of rappers Lil Wayne, Nicki Minaj and Kendrick Lamar.

“My peers here in the states didn’t have the same perspective,” Davis says. “They didn’t have the same opportunities to travel, and so they were interested in things that I don’t find as interesting.”

Everything about the experience was slightly disorienting. Davis enrolled in Metrolina Christian Academy in Indian Trail, and on his way to school he’d marvel at the plush, green lawns and beautiful trees. Mali, where Davis spent the bulk of his childhood, is one of the poorest countries in the world. His family served in the dusty, bustling capital, Bamako, and now here he was seeing manicured lawn after manicured lawn, the green of the grass appearing to be exceptionally bright and vivid.

“It’s easy to appreciate how many blessings we have in this country when you’ve been in one of the world’s poorest countries and you haven’t taken those things for granted,” he says.

But this isn’t Davis in preaching mode. He is genial and practical, and it’s easy to see him in a diplomatic role in Washington – he explains things clearly, he’s quick with a smile, and he doesn’t condemn others for the environment in which they were raised.

Even now, Davis refuses to criticize those who are caught up in what he might find trivial. He isn’t fond of the phrase “first world problems.”

“It is very funny sometimes, but when it’s all somebody knows, I think it’s wrong to look down on them in that way,” he says.

'Thanks to Wingate, I can contextualize my experiences growing up in Africa.'

Davis arrived at Wingate with his eye already on mission work. He initially considered majoring in elementary education but quickly changed to business once he realized he could teach even without a teaching degree.

Business courses attracted him for their emphasis on organizational structure. “I like to understand how teams work,” he says. “I believe really strongly that we can achieve so much more when we have a teamwork mentality, and how can we on an organizational level operate as a cohesive team?”

Then, in 2013, the University decided to offer a political science major, and Davis started seeing his future a little more clearly.

‘Good, old-fashioned hard work’

After three semesters of business courses, Davis felt like he’d grasped the concepts he most wanted to understand from that field of study, so he switched majors, ultimately becoming the University’s first political science graduate. He didn’t abandon business entirely, earning an economics minor, but political science seemed the best fit for someone interested in navigating worlds overseas as a missionary.

In the summer after his junior year, Davis served an internship with the U.S. Department of State in Uganda. Because much of Uganda is English-speaking, Davis was able to do a little more than a typical State Department intern. For instance, he conducted an advance trip in preparation for a visit from Dr. Tom Friedan, then the director of the Centers for Disease Control.

Poli sci has been an invaluable tool enabling Davis to put into context his experiences growing up in West Africa. Davis says he’s always been able to communicate those experiences to others, but not always in a way they can fully grasp.

“I’m regularly using my experiences of having grown up in Africa and having done a lot of service over there,” he says. “But now, thanks to Wingate, I can contextualize those experiences. Thanks to professors like Dr. (Joseph) Ellis and Dr. (Peter) Frank, who really care and are willing to build relationships with serious students, I can communicate my ideas about how important development is in a way that makes sense to people, rather than as a set of stories that are completely unrelatable. And (Campus Minister) Dane Jordan helped me think critically about my worldview and beliefs.”

Ben Davis working with young people

The work SIL does is not always easy – for those in the field and those, like Davis, who are promoting the organization stateside. But Davis is used to hard work. Aside from doing volunteer work during his time in Africa, he also learned how to handle himself on a farm while living with his grandfather during his University days, in addition to taking 18 credit hours per semester and serving as a volunteer with the Wingate Fire Department.

Davis’s paternal grandfather, Wriston Arthur Davis, ran a cattle ranch not far from campus, and Ben lived with him all four years he was a student at Wingate and paid for his room and board by helping around the house – running errands, shopping, doing other things a 90-plus-year-old might have trouble doing.

On the weekends, he worked for his grandfather on the ranch, for pay. Even though Davis’s grandfather was in his 90s, he was still active on his land, and he even started a business selling mobile homes in nearby Peachland, in Anson County, when he was 94. The elder Davis died last year at the age of 98.

“He taught me everything I know about good, old-fashioned hard work,” Davis says. “I hadn’t really had a lot of opportunity in Africa to work for pay. I had mostly done occasional service projects. I’d done a little construction, digging foundations for small churches and stuff like that.

“But coming here, working for my grandpa, taught me so much about how to work, how to operate farm equipment and stuff like that. Those were very formative years.”

Although not a Wingate graduate, Wriston Davis also had a strong connection to the University. Decades ago he supervised the construction of several buildings on campus – most of which are no longer around. He built several dorms that have been replaced by apartments, but he also supervised the construction of the Burnside Dalton Building.

“He described just how hard it was to build that building, because of those springs that are close by,” Davis says. “We have that monument that talks about the springs (The Old Well Spring). Well, that’s nice, unless you’re involved in construction, and then it’s a problem. They had to dig up all this ground. I think he said they had to dig down 60 feet and put in a lot of casings – like, superstructure components to hold up the building. He talked about how he was proud of the end result, because it was so sturdy.”

Faith in action

Davis is taking a strong foundation with him to Washington – forged by his parents, by his time in Africa, by his grandfather and by Wingate University.

In Washington, Davis will stay in a small “au pair” suite and spend most of his time getting the word out about SIL International, which William Cameron Townsend founded in 1934 as the Summer Institute of Linguistics as a way to take the Bible to remote areas. Townsend also founded Wycliffe Bible Translators and JAARS, originally Jungle Aviation and Radio Services, which operates out of Waxhaw, in western Union County.

Davis’s position is not salaried. Because Washington is so expensive, Davis is spending the summer building a team of financial partners. “I’m praying that the Lord will provide what I still need, which is approximately $900 per month,” he says. “It’s definitely achievable.”

Once firmly established in Washington, Davis will act as a liaison between SIL’s country directors – individuals in Kenya, Mali, Tanzania and the like – and the organization’s executive leadership. He’ll also be a diplomatic point of contact, in case any emergencies arise in the field.

'I see my faith as entirely dependent upon action. ... Jesus very much went in and met simple, practical, critical needs. He gave sight to the blind. He fed people.'

In his new post, Davis will also visit with USAID, UNESCO and other aid organizations to promote partnerships with SIL. “If they are made aware of what SIL does, they’ll realize that it’s a valuable partnership, because we’re serving the same constituents,” he says.

In the field, SIL has historically been most concerned with learning local dialects and teaching reading and writing in mainly nonliterate societies.

“SIL’s focus has been very linguistic, because being able to read and write enables you to do so many things that we take for granted,” Davis says. “Healthcare workers can keep records. Education is entirely transformed once you have the ability to read and write.”

Davis says the best thing about his role with SIL is the development work it does. Davis sees himself as a man of action. He wants to make life better on a practical level for the people in the areas SIL serves. “We think it’s really important for us to go overseas and help with linguistics, education, development, not to just go in and translate the Bible,” he says. “The ministry of Jesus was not some kind of academic ‘head knowledge’ kind of ministry. He very much went in and met simple, practical, critical needs. He gave sight to the blind. He fed people.”

Davis came to Wingate intent on being a teacher, but it’s hard to see him in a classroom. He’ll always be teaching, and in a way preaching, on some level, but he likes to get his hands dirty. In fact, he thinks it’s essential.

“As a Christian, I see my faith as entirely dependent on action,” he says. “James talks about that. He says, in the Message version – which I don’t use very often, but sometimes the Message version says it very well – he says in James, Chapter 2: ‘Faith without action is a corpse.’ It’s entirely dead.”

That sentiment dovetails nicely with Davis’s view of the University.

“I’ve been reflecting on the fact that, you know, Wingate’s motto is ‘Faith, Knowledge and Service,’” he says. “I’ve begun to really understand what that means and why those three things go together. We’re faithfully serving these underdeveloped communities, empowering them with knowledge as we provide education while we serve. Faith, knowledge and service just go together so naturally.”

If you’re interested in helping support Davis and his work with SIL, email him at ben_davis@sil.org.

July 9, 2018

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