Project aims to put knowledge in African seminarians' hands

It’s a long way from Casselberry, Fla. — a suburb of Orlando — to the Catholic University of Central Africa in Yaoundé, Cameroon. 

But proving that it is “a small world after all,” a young Catholic author, blogger and speaker and a priest doing doctoral studies in Cameroon forged an online connection that they hope will grow into a network bringing together Catholics from all over the United States and beyond with seminarians studying in the central African nation. 

Brandon Vogt, author of “The Church and New Media: Blogging Converts, Online Activists, and Bishops Who Tweet” (OSV, $12.95), is working with Father Linus Patem, a doctoral student at the seminary, on the “Africa eBook Project” to offer seminarians access to Catholic literature and thought while offering U.S. Catholics an opportunity to experience the universal nature of the Church — all from the comfort of their computer monitors. 

“One of the key problems the Church in Cameroon is facing, as in many parts of Africa, is that Christians do not read,” Father Linus said in an email to Vogt. “And if they do, it’s very thin. Most know very little about the Catholic faith and the situation is worst among the young people.” 

Extensive library

Vogt, 25, wants to attract online Catholics to donate about $2 each to raise a total of $4,000. 

“The tagline is simple: For just $2, you can strengthen a future priest and give him access to the entire Catholic tradition,” Vogt told Our Sunday Visitor. 

That will pay for 2,000 CD-ROMS packed with quality Christian and Catholic works, from the writings of the Church Fathers — whose 38 volumes, in hardback form, take up two of Vogt’s bookshelves — to St. Thomas Aquinas’ entire Summa Theologica, the full Catholic Encyclopedia and Catholic classics by G.K. Chesterton, St. Thérèse of Lisieux and Blessed John Henry Newman. The discs also will include modern works on preaching, new media and the priesthood, including several written by Pope Benedict XVI. The discs can put a more complete Catholic library than most people have access to on a piece of plastic less than 5 inches in diameter. 

Much of the older material is not covered by copyright, Vogt said, but to get it in digital form isn’t so easy. Kevin Knight of New Advent — which has put that material online already —is allowing Vogt to use it for this project. Publishers of the newer works have been equally generous in allowing the material to be included, and Lighthouse Catholic Media will produce the CDs at minimal cost. 

Each CD will be delivered to a seminarian in Cameroon. 

Global connection

For Vogt, the project is not simply about getting material into the hands of people who need it. It is more about the connections that will be generated. 

Vogt
Brandon Vogt

“I could probably find a big donor to just write a check for $4,000,” Vogt said. “But I didn’t want to do that. I wanted this to be an experiment in new media solidarity, a charitable work or mercy, harnessing the power of Catholics all over the world.” 

Vogt, of course, will promote the project on his blog, www.ThinVeil.net, and he will ask other Catholics with an online presence to do the same. 

“I have dozens and dozens of Catholic friends who are online,” he said. “I want this to be more about ‘we’ than about me doing this. It’s harnessing the power of Catholics all over the world.” 

To donate, Catholics can visit the website africaebooks.com, which will be available from June 1-30. That will take visitors to indiegogo.com, where they can donate through PayPal using only a few clicks on their computer. 

In July, once the financing is in hand, the CDs will be produced and shipped to Cameroon. Father Patem expects to take pictures of several seminarians with their new ebooks, so donors can see how much they mean to the recipients. 

Many of the strategies Vogt is using — from “crowdsourcing” the funding to giving something for free to people who otherwise wouldn’t have access — are being used more and more in the secular world as ways to create communities around different projects and values. 

The website that will actually take donations — indiegogo.com — is a global funding platform that allows entrepreneurs, artists and nonprofits to appeal directly to individuals for funds. In early May, indiegogo campaigns aimed to raise money for individual students to go to college, to support a café in Harlem and to underwrite numerous theatrical and film projects. 

Dearth of resources

It also wouldn’t be possible without the connections already created by the shrinking world of the Internet that allowed an African priest to contact an American blogger to share thoughts about a favorite English author. 

The project started when Father Patem saw a blog post of Vogt’s that was reposted on the New Advent site. As people do, he started reading back through other posts on www.ThinVeil.net, and eventually emailed Vogt. 

“We quickly hit it off. We talked about books, theology, and seminary formation,” Vogt said. “But while discussing the writings of C.S. Lewis, a mutual favorite, Father Linus admitted that he had only read one Lewis book. That’s not because he doesn’t like Lewis — he does — but because there are no other titles available.” 

After more discussion, Vogt learned that that’s a common predicament in Africa: seminaries bursting at the seams with students, and library shelves only sparsely filled with books. 

“That’s when I found out the literary situation, especially in the seminaries, is really pretty dire,” Vogt said. “They just don’t have the resources to support them.” 

So Vogt and Father Patem considered ways to help. They thought about collecting traditional paper books and sending them — but shipping would have been much too expensive. It also would have been too expensive to pack the books onto portable flash drives. Creating online access would not have worked because most seminarians in Cameroon don’t have consistent, continuous access to the Internet. 

But CDs are inexpensive, can hold lots and lots of text, and can be read in almost any computer, whether it has Internet access or not. 

If the project works, Vogt told OSV that he sees the opportunity for it to be expanded and replicated in countries all over the developing world.  

But that’s a thought for another day. 

Right now, he just wants to see if the connection made between him and Father Patem can grow new shoots and bring together 2,000 American Catholics with 2,000 seminarians in western Africa. 

“We’re going to put this in God’s hands,” Vogt said. “This whole thing could be a flop. And if it is, I’m OK with that. If we can run this and prove that it works, we’ll see where God takes this.”

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.