Vicksburg shaped exchange student’s ministry

Published 11:59 pm Friday, April 1, 2011

Setri Nyomi was an 18-year-old idealist when he came to Vicksburg as an exchange student from the west African nation of Ghana in 1972.

“I knew very little about the United States,” said Nyomi, now, at 56, the general secretary of the World Communion of Reformed Churches headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland.

“Of course, I thought I knew everything about the United States — it was a wonderful Christian country, from which Christian missionaries were always being sent out. It was my stereotype that there were no sinners here,” he said with a smile.

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Finding out that was not quite true has had a lasting impact on Nyomi’s ministry, which has been dedicated to working on a world stage to correct social injustice between the races, the sexes and the economic classes.

“Whether race, whether women and men, in this global climate and economy, many are still suffering in this world. There is plenty, but many are still hungry,” Nyomi said Sunday in a visit to Vicksburg’s First Presbyterian Church, where he belonged to the youth group during his time here as exchange student.

“It’s meant a lot to me to be a part of this church family and to come back again and again,” he said of First Presbyterian, where he spoke Sunday morning and also addressed an adult Sunday school class.

Nyomi returns to the River City at least every year or two to visit with his “Vicksburg family,” Euphytee and Theresa Williams, with whom he lived while attending what was then called North Vicksburg High School, two or three years after the city’s public schools were integrated, he said.

“What I learned about the South, about racism, was not pleasant,” he said. “It shocked me. Not acts against me in particular, but I was shocked at the tension, at the difficulties that came from people seeing each other as different and threatening.”

Nyomi was the first African student the American Field Service assigned to the Deep South. The Williamses and their children were the first Southern African-Americans to host an exchange student, Euphytee Williams said.

“The AFS office in New York was always apprehensive about sending an African to the South,” Nyomi said. “By the early 1970s, they felt it was time to try it.”

Nyomi, who is married with three children, has retained a strong connection with the Williamses, keeps a key to their house and has been known to arrive for a visit late at night, let himself in and sleep on the couch.

“I thought someone was breaking into our home one night when he came in,” Euphytee Williams said with a laugh.

In a 2009 visit, Nyomi brought his mother, now 83, to meet the Williamses.

In the nearly 40 years since his Vicksburg year, Nyomi’s path led through the University of Ghana and Trinity Theological Seminary in Legon in the 1970s to Yale University Divinity School, where he earned a Master of Sacred Theology degree, and to Princeton Theological Seminary for a doctorate in pastoral theology.

He was ordained a Presbyterian minister in Ghana in 1980, and served as a church pastor in both Ghana and the United States. If not for his experience in Vicksburg, he said he feels sure God would have used him in parish ministry all his life.

Instead he was led to wider fields, teaching in seminary, working with the World Council of Churches and the All Africa Conference of Churches.

In 2000, he became the first non-European general secretary of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, which merged in 2010 with the Reformed Ecumenical Council to become the World Communion of Reformed Churches, an organization that has about 80 million Presbyterians, Reformed and Congregational Christians worldwide in its membership.

Besides advocating for social justice, the WCRC supports disaster relief efforts, promotes Bible studies, prayer requests and leadership development and works for unity among Christians.

In many ways, he has held on to the idealism of his youth.

“The means of communicating the same message has become more complicated,” he said, “and the church does well to ask itself the best way to communicate our freedom in Jesus Christ, and live out the message of the Gospel.”