At the time of writing this, I have been in Nigeria for almost a week. My time here defies a simple description or even a simple narrative. Experiences are intensified by the extreme emotions one feels in a place like this:
– The encouragement I felt at meeting people with whom I share a common faith, if not a common culture.
– Experiencing their irrepressible joy amidst hardship and persecution will remain with me forever. These are Christians whose churches, homes, families and friends have been bombed, burned, and machine-gunned. And yet, optimism prevails with them where self-pity and a spirit of defeat might rule a lesser people.
– Encountering a priesthood who are committed to their calling and prepared to serve and sacrifice for the sake of what the Apostle Paul calls “the household of faith.”
And all of this is punctuated by a fear that is heightened by a more or less constant feeling of vulnerability. My friend, Jay Smith, had warned me that my whiteness would greatly elevate my exposure to danger, and he is right. This is not a commentary on race. It is, rather, a commentary on economics. Before this trip, Jay related to me how, on a visit to Nigeria more than a decade ago, his hosts hired armed guards to protect him. They did not, however, do the same for Jay’s colleague from India. When his Indian friend complained at this apparent oversight, the Nigerian responsible for these decisions replied flatly:
“You aren’t white.”
His point wasn’t that he didn’t care about the safety of this fine Indian man; his point was that as an Indian, he was a less lucrative target for would-be kidnappers or terrorists hoping to make headlines. White people in Nigeria are, with few exceptions, oil and mining executives from Western firms that have shown a willingness to pay large ransoms when kidnappers start mailing body parts of captives to their companies and families. Consequently, whites generally live in gated, heavily armed compounds and move about with security details.
For strategic reasons, I had decided to forgo that. I couldn’t afford enough security to do anything other than signal criminals that I must be important. For a time, I wished that I had my Glock 9mm. Then one day we visited a local hospital. At the entrance, a sign read: “Firearms Not Allowed Beyond this Point (Except Side Arms).” With that sign, I realized the futility of my wish. This was a country where they didn’t even consider a pistol to be a firearm. I might as well have a slingshot.
Compounding my vulnerability, I had no hope of blending in. In addition to being white, I am much taller than the average Nigerian. Jwan Zhumbes, the bishop of Bukuru, introducing me at a conference, joked, “I will guarantee that Larry is the biggest man in the room!” At every stop while driving through villages or the city, it was only a matter of time until someone noticed me, pointed me out to someone else, and a crowd of onlookers began to gather around. No doubt most mean no harm, but in crowds of Muslims one is conscious of the fact that promises of eternity are a pretty strong incentive to violence.
But I am glad to be here. No, I am honored to be here among these people. And that is because whatever hardships I might experience, they are minor inconveniences compared to what the Nigerians themselves have suffered. The Nigerian Civil War saw more than a million killed. Since the crisis of 2001 where armed Islamic groups attacked Christians and their churches, slaughter has been common once again.
“If one is out at night walking alone, he cannot be sure he will make it home,” Jwan had said of the crisis.
One evening Jwan took me to meet a man in his diocese named Luke. Luke is an 80-something year-old man with a deceptive energy. He and his family greeted us with a warm handshake as we entered the walled compound in which he lives. Such residential compounds are common for Nigerians who are middle class and up. The tops of the walls are covered in broken glass or razor wire and the steel gates are typically operated by a youth. A honk of the horn, the sight of someone peeking through a slit in the wall, and the gate opens.
Luke had prepared a feast for us all in a lovely outdoor pavilion. He grew up in the region, received a degree in geology, and was now retired from years of service with a British company that once mined tin here.
“We used to have a lot of British people here,” he said.
“Where did they go?” I asked.
“They left!” he replied with a burst of laughter. “I really can’t imagine why they would want to leave Nigeria,” he added sarcastically.
Luke, I would learn, is a thoughtful man who possesses an infectious good humor.
“My father was a pagan. African religion. You must understand that Christianity didn’t penetrate this deep into Africa until the early twentieth century,” he explained. “I was eight years-old when, in the Second World War, I was out in the field with a friend and we saw a British squadron flying in formation. We had never seen an airplane before!” He laughed at his childhood self. “We were certain it must be Jesus returning as the Anglican missionary had told us! We ran and hid!”
But Jesus didn’t return that day and Nigerian Christians suffer new challenges from an old religion with a global agenda.
Muslim men in Africa, often having ten or more wives, might have 50-100 children. Unable and unwilling to support them, these children are shipped off with promises of education and a future. In recent decades, Nigerians like Luke began noticing truckloads of them being dropped off all over the northern and central parts of the country. Few really knew or processed what was going on. These children became a blight. They are at every gas station begging and rapping on the windows. Unbeknownst to most, these children were radicalized by Muslim clerics while also learning their way around the cities and villages of Nigeria.
When the Boko Haram and the Fulani Herdsmen Militia were ready to attack Christians, the children became the end of the spear. In exchange for a bit of food and money, they were armed and told to identify where this or that person lived. “Where does the vicar live?” they might ask. And the children, knowing the city, would lead the terrorists to their targets.
After the first Fulani attacks that led to widespread slaughter throughout Nigeria, Christians began arming themselves, preparing should there ever be a next time. There was, and this time the Fulani suffered great losses. Embittered, they concluded Luke, a reasonably wealthy man by Nigerian standards, had armed Christians in this part of the country. With help, they identified his house and attacked.
“I was watching television and heard gunfire,” he explained casually. “At first, I thought it was some distance off, but then I realized it was within the compound. They were over my wall.” He then pointed to where they breached his security.
Machine gun fire sprayed the side of his house, shattering windows. A sly fox, Luke had a preplanned escape route. He and his family exited the back of the house and through a hidden gap in the wall. They all laid in a field and watched the house burn. From there, he called another member of the church, Patience, and asked her to come and get his family.
It was my honor to meet her, too. A lawyer of graceful bearing, she drove out into the countryside to help.
“I was terrified,” she told me. “I was shaking. Literally shaking, as I drove past burning houses and fighting. I was certain I would be killed.”
But she nonetheless went. Let me underscore that point. She went. This is courage defined. I was humbled by the courage and faith of these people. To me, Luke and Patience were like Christian super heroes. Were such people given the means and help they currently lack, they would change the world. American Christians, by contrast, have allowed their culture to be hijacked by evil elements hell-bent on the annihilation of the unborn, freedom of speech, religious liberty, and the family as we know it. That this is happening is because Christians have preferred silence to what I will call a soft persecution—a lost scholarship or promotion, perhaps, or being ostracized socially.
There is much we could learn from Nigerian Christians. It is not for nothing that earlier this year the United States Congress named Nigeria the most dangerous country in the world for Christians. Even so, those I have met here are joyous, optimistic, and prepared to defend themselves while also proclaiming the love and hope of Jesus Christ in one of the most spiritually dark places on earth.
This was driven home to me when the diocese, on Jwan’s recommendation, voted to ordain me. I can think of no greater honor ever bestowed upon me than to be numbered as part of this Nigerian fellowship.
But given the brevity of this visit, planning an ordination ceremony on such short notice is no easy thing. In a meeting of the gathered priests of the diocese, one kind soul stood and asked Jwan if the service could be moved from morning to evening so that he could attend.
Jwan’s answer was eloquent. “Ordination is something to be done in the light of day before all of God’s people, not in darkness, my friend.”
And so, with that, the wheels were set in motion and the cathedral staff and congregation began preparations. Looking over the vows, one struck me as unusual: “I swear that I am not a member of any secret societies.”
Sitting in the bishop’s office, I asked the meaning of this. “Jwan, what is this vow all about?” I then read it to him. “Is this a reference to Freemasonry?”
He laughed heartily at my naiveté. “No, my friend,” he corrected me. “It is referring to ancient African religion, secret societies that involve the eating of human flesh and drinking of human blood. This is very prevalent here and exists at all levels of society.”
This was not the answer I had expected.
A few minutes later, we exited his office and I stood in the cathedral before the gathered Christian people of this region as they adopted me as one of their own. Knowing that I might not understand the procedures of this ceremony since we had no time to practice it, Jwan had one of the priests stand next to me. It was his job to whisper directions in my ear:
“Stand there” or “kneel” or “get up” or “turn around” he would say in his best ventriloquist voice.
When it was all over, Lois, Jwan’s remarkable wife who is a force of nature, kissed me on the cheek and took me by the hand and led me to where photos would be taken.
“Larry, stand here,” a priest said.
“No, I want him next to me,” Lois said. I obeyed her rather than him. He smiled and said, “You were wise to obey mother,” as people in the diocese often call her respectfully.
Returning me to the compound, Jwan squeezed my hand and said, “My people would put you on their shoulders and carry you as a champion. I am serious, my friend. Because you have put yourself at great risk for them.” But the man and the people he shepherds are the real champions.
“Now that you have come,” he added, “Perhaps others will see that it is safe and start coming again, too.”
He had expressed this hope often. He wants major American investment in his country. I had always remained silent, not wanting to disappoint him. But I knew that I could not leave him with false hope.
I looked away and out of the window at the barren landscape and thought hard for the right words.
“It won’t happen, Jwan,” I began. “They aren’t coming. I’m an anomaly, I’m afraid.”
I then explained how Western churches are fighting their own battles and how this, combined with the instability and terrifying nature of Nigeria, had made Western investment unlikely anytime soon. Nigerians must redeem Nigeria and not hope for salvation from the West. It’s a hard truth and it broke my heart to say it.
The bishop took this news as well as anyone possibly could receive such a disappointing blow.
There is a sense in which this country feels forsaken. It is the end of the earth. A few days ago, a madman in Las Vegas killed more than fifty people. That event made headlines even in Africa. Unfortunately, violence of this nature, often targeting Christians, occurs in this part of the world with great regularity and usually goes unreported in Western media. It is as if these people don’t matter. Recently a freelance videographer working for BBC told me that he offered them footage of Nigerian churches being burned to the ground. BBC refused it. They simply weren’t interested.
Even so, the country isn’t forsaken by God. And, as I discovered, a cheery Christian community flourishes. For me, Jwan Zhumbes and the Christian people of Nigeria, are a living example of a great theological truth of which the Apostle John wrote in the first chapter of his Gospel:
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”