Nicole Cashen '10

Hometown: New Port Richey, FL
Major: Religion 
Senior Study Title
: “The Inculturation of Christianity in Ghana: A Case Study on Bompata”
Dr. Brian Pennington

Thesis Abstract

After Nicole Cashen returned from studying abroad in Ghana, she knew she wanted to incorporate that experience into her Senior Study.

The religion major from New Port Richey, Fla., took a class, New Religious Movements, at the University of Ghana while studying abroad during the fall 2008 semester, where she learned about the concept of “inculturation.”

“Many scholars argue that inculturation can best be defined as the process of the Gospel or Word of God intersecting with a culture, but it is truly a more complex process,” Cashen wrote in her thesis. “Inculturation is an open dialogue which arises when a religious tradition carried in the evangelizer’s culture is placed in a new indigenous culture.”

It was during the summer of 2009 when she returned to Ghana to live with a Ghanaian family and teach at the local school, however, that she was able to fully examine the concept of inculturation.

Cashen stayed in the village of Bompata, near Ansankare, with a host family, the Twum-Barimahs. The Twum-Barimahs had already established a relationship with Maryville College. Their son, Frank Twum-Barimah, graduated from the College in 2004 — an education made possible by Jamestown Presbyterian Church in Greensboro, N.C., and church member and MC alumnus the Rev. Dr. George Carpenter ‘53.

Through interviews with the people of Bompata, Cashen sought to determine the “dialogic relationship between Christianity and African culture.”

“European missionaries have been evangelizing since the 17th century,” Cashen wrote. “The Basel missionaries were incognizant of their culture embedded within the Christian teachings they were implanting in Bompata, Ghana. Inculturation provides both the church and the indigenous culture the opportunity for open dialogue. Over the last 125 years, the Presbyterian Church of Bompata has been in conversation with the local culture; therefore not only has the culture been transformed, but the church itself has been altered.”

Cashen conducted interviews and participant observations in Bompata to learn about the influences of African culture on Christianity, as well as Christianity’s effect on African culture.

“My study finds that some aspects, such as healing and witchcraft were inculturated, while others, such as ancestral worship and libations were labeled ‘heathen’ from the onset and never given the opportunity to be in dialogue with Christianity,” Cashen wrote. “Education, Protestant work ethic and salems (small communities that allowed pastors to provide pastoral care and provided early converts to Christianity with a place to escape the persecution of the traditional belief system) have greatly affected the social structure and culture of the community of Bompata.”

Brian Pennington, associate professor of religion at Maryville College, said that because Cashen treated her first study abroad experience in Ghana as more of a living-abroad-while-studying experience, “she not only had an entire community eager to welcome her back, she was already nurturing keen insights about Christianity in Ghana that could have only come from really living day-to-day life with a family.”

Cashen said every aspect of the study brought new challenges, including the language barrier. Although she spoke some rudimentary Twi, which is the dominant language in the village, she often found herself unable to grasp the context of conversations and had to rely on a translator when conducting interviews.

“I was really nervous about interviewing, but to my surprise, interviewing was one of the aspects that helped the community to embrace me,” Cashen said. “Community members loved sharing their stories, and it was a great opportunity to get to know and understand the people I was working with.”

Additionally, there was no real research on the town of Bompata, so Cashen had to rely heavily on the interviews and pamphlets she had collected in Bompata.

“When I began to write, it was frustrating, because I was limited to the interviews I had conducted,” said Cashen. “I learned so much about the village of Bompata and the impact Christianity has had, but more importantly, I learned about the research process.”

Pennington said Cashen is “a natural” at this kind of work.

“It takes a particular kind of person to enter a family's or community's life fully; to be willing to sleep on their floor or in other close quarters for weeks or months at a time as any other family member would; to do chores and assume responsibilities without hesitation and to embrace them as what one does as part of a family; to handle routine intrusions and invasions of privacy and personal space (which are such peculiarly Euro-American concepts) without complaint; to undertake careful and persistent observation as your 24-hour-a-day job; and to conduct that observation in ways that does not reduce the people that you have come to love to the objects of your scrutiny,” Pennington said.

Pennington said that both he and Cashen grew as a result of taking on this project. In his previous 12 years at MC, he had not had the opportunity to advise a student on a thesis conceived from the beginning as an ethnographic project, or a project that involved the study and systematic recording of specific human cultures.

“Because this kind of research is undertaken only by people trained in certain ways, the opportunity to swap stories and epiphanies about ethnography in the developing world on the MC campus is rare for me,” Pennington said.

Academically, he said, Cashen became more adept at discussing the theory and ethics of ethnographic research.

Personally, Cashen cultivated “life-long relationships with individuals, families, a village, and a culture that will continue to be parts of her very self,” Pennington said. “What was most rewarding about directing Nicole's senior study was not the academic part, but the part that was about Nicole making a transnational and transcultural life for herself that was anchored in her adopted family and community in Bompata.”

Cashen currently works as a case manager for Youth and Family Alternatives, Inc. in New Port Richey, Fla. She plans to attend graduate school, where she is confident that her Senior Study will be useful.

“The Senior Study process provided me with opportunities that most undergraduates do not get,” she said.