My American friends often want to know about my trips to Jos, Nigeria. “What’s it like?” they ask. “What did you do for them while you were there?” I usually say something like this: “Let me just tell you about Nigeria. It’s beautiful!” The open markets filled with vendors hawking fresh-cut bananas and tomatoes; the dusty streets thronged with cars and wandering pedestrians; the lush green valleys and majestic rolling hills of Plateau State; the moi-moi (smashed, spicy beans) and tasty pounded yam served with goat meat; the Nigerian women with their color-splashed traditional dresses, no two alike—it’s a beautiful land.
But, as recent events of violence and terror show, Nigeria is also a suffering land. On May 18 and 19, 2015, armed militants descended on four small villages an hour outside of Jos. These members of the increasingly radicalized Fulani tribesmen killed 21 people—including a local pastor—and reduced many of the buildings to rubble. When I visited the largely abandoned villages in November of 2016, the ground was still littered with piles of bricks and tin sheets, remnants of the former church. One of my guides pointed to the dead pastor’s shoes, still strewn on the dirt floor of the desecrated church—a lingering symbol of his people’s grief.
The world hardly noticed. Just try Googling Lo-Biring, Nigeria, Jong, Rabuk, or Zim. You won’t find them on a map or read about them in The New York Times. And yet the people returning to these tiny shattered villages are almost all followers of Jesus. Their faith is often simple but mind-boggling. When we asked one of the village pastors why he didn’t flee even though terrorists were coming, he stared at us, speechless. Then, as if we were children, he said, “Because I am a shepherd. Like Jesus, a shepherd does not leave his sheep.”
This combination of deep faith and deep sadness filters into their worship services. It’s not surprising to hear my Nigerian brothers and sisters routinely praying in their Sunday morning worship times (which can last up to three or four hours) for those whose homes or businesses have been destroyed or for those who have seen loved ones killed. They live with trauma and tears, lament and longing for peace.
But I also tell my American friends about the joy I’ve seen in the Nigerian church—a joy that always catches me off guard. The government is rife with corruption. The economic picture looks bleak. Terrorists still roam the northeast quarter of the country. People like my friend Hassan, a pastor and journalist for CNN, have witnessed dozens of bombings. He still bears the traumatic memories in his body and mind. And yet, my brothers and sisters laugh often. They play practical jokes on each other. They sing and dance. If you want to see embodied joy, just watch Nigerian believers—young adults, old men and women, little boys and girls—dance as they stream forward to drop their money into the offering plate.
We have so many things a lot of them don’t have—professionally managed retirement accounts, first-rate medical and dental care, shiny new cars and iPhones. But they have something we often lack—a deep, unshakeable confidence in the gospel. Every year the Christian Institute in Jos trains church planters, evangelists, and health care workers for ministry in Nigeria’s northeastern states, the very places that have been leveled by the terrorist group Boko Haram’s violence.
Two of my spiritual mentors, the Anglican Archbishop Benjamin Kwashi and his wife “Mama” Gloria Kwashi, have adopted 60 children, victims of disease, terror, and tribal warfare. About a fourth of them have witnessed the murder of one of their parents. But the Kwashis and the churches in their network have a simple outlook for their home (and you better not let Mama hear you call it an “orphanage”): Christ can heal the most profound trauma and loss, but that healing occurs in the context of a loving Christian community. As Mama Gloria says, "Orphans' greatest needs are parents. It was the loss of parents that made them orphans." And so for Mama Gloria the solution is simple: Root them in a new family called the church of Jesus Christ, the family of God. That is why they are not orphans—they have a home.
Christ can heal the most profound trauma and loss, but that healing occurs in the context of a loving Christian community.
With a humble heart, they feel deep sorrow for the ways some Christians tend to dilute the gospel, cool our faith, and pervert our morality. The Archbishop often shows visitors two gravestones that belong to the two British brothers who brought the gospel to Jos in 1907. Both brothers died tragically, the older at the age of 32. But their untimely deaths opened the floodgates for the gospel to stream into the land. Then the Archbishop says, “You in the West, you brought us the good news about Jesus, and we remain eternally grateful. But now many in the West have abandoned the gospel. We must help you now. We must reintroduce the gospel to you and your troubled land.”
The church family in Jos can truly say and feel and mean Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body” (2 Corinthians 4:8-10).
So ask me that typical question about my visit—What did you do for them?—and I could talk for a few minutes. I guess I helped. I preached often, usually on the spot and off the cuff. We talked as friends do. We ate together. We blessed the Christian Institute’s new Resurrection Health Center, funded largely with our church’s Good Friday offering.
But I would rather you ask me this: What did they do for you and your faith? Ah, I could talk all day.