Walking with the Nigerian Church: An Interview with Church of the Brethren General Secretary Stan Noffsinger and Mission Executive Jay Wittmeyer

photo by Jay Wittmeyer
General secretary Stan Noffsinger preaches at Majalisa or annual meeting of the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria, during a trip to Nigeria in April 2014.

In this interview conducted in April, shortly after they returned from a trip to Nigeria, Church of the Brethren general secretary Stan Noffsinger and Global Mission and Service executive Jay Wittmeyer spoke with Newsline editor Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford about the trip and the situation of the church in Nigeria. They attended the Majalisa or annual conference at the headquarters of Ekklesiyar Yan’uwa a Nigeria (EYN, the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria), met with EYN leaders and the Brethren mission staff in Nigeria–Carol Smith and Carl and Roxane Hill–and visited the capital city Abuja. This is an excerpt from a lengthier interview that may appear in an upcoming issue of “Messenger” magazine:

Stan Noffsinger: Our presence was significant to the church. I don’t know how many times we heard, either from Samuel [EYN president Samuel Dali] or from Jinatu [EYN general secretary Jinatu Wamdeo] or members, how they recognized the risk we took to be there.

Jay Wittmeyer: And how encouraging it was. They were deeply encouraged by our presence and our willingness to walk with them in these times.

Stan: There was real concern that they were alone. Christians are a minority in a predominantly Muslim territory [in northeastern Nigeria]. Samuel kept saying over and over, “Please tell your family and the board how much we appreciate the risk.” It was perhaps an acknowledgment that the risk was more significant than we would have wanted to acknowledge.

The risk is evident everywhere. No matter where we went, whether it was the compound of our guesthouse or the EYN headquarters, there were security guards with guns all the time. There were convoys of military soldiers in Humvee-type vehicles with machine guns mounted on top cruising up and down the roads. A very visible presence of the military.

During their trip to Nigeria in April, general secretary Stan Noffsinger and mission executive Jay Wittmeyer visited with Church of the Brethren mission workers Roxane and Carl Hill, and Carol Smith.

Jay: Our movements were highly restricted. Our guesthouse where we stayed was about a quarter mile away [from EYN headquarters] and we could have at times have walked. But they said, “No, you don’t spend a minute on that road.” Because it was on the main road.

Stan: There was a curfew at nine o’clock every night. You weren’t welcome on the street after the curfew.

The other thing that was very real was what has happened to EYN, the local congregations, districts, and the church. As Samuel Dali was going over that report, the pain of all of the loss and unknown was evident in the faces and the eyes of the people. Within that report is a district by district accounting of who isn’t alive, the churches burned, and houses destroyed. That was a pretty somber occasion.

Newsline: It really shifts your idea of priorities, looking at what they’re going through. It’s that image of a body under attack. You pull in your resources.

Jay: That was the analogy I came away with. Like frostbite…. Part of it is you’re only able to focus on the core at the moment.

Stan: That’s true. If you look at trauma of any kind, and this is societal trauma, what do you do? Your peripheral vision deteriorates, and the lens that you use to look at everything changes daily based on the level of your experience. So if you have 200 girls kidnapped and two-thirds of them are Church of the Brethren, the lens for EYN gets shifted. And then you have a time of relative calm, and then there’s a bombing in the capital. And what becomes reality is doing anything and everything you can to help stabilize your experience. So you invest your resources closer and closer to home to stabilize the community.

Photo by Stan Noffsinger
EYN president Samuel Dali (center) leads the Majalisa or annual conference of the Nigerian Brethren, earlier this year.

Newsline: I wonder if you could speak about the work with Muslim leaders who are friendly to the work of peace?

Jay: There are three elements to the work: Toma Ragnjiya is the EYN peace officer, and then there is the work that Rebecca Dali does, and then the work that Markus Gamache is doing and that Basel Mission is supporting in Jos.

Stan: For Rebecca [Dali], the work with the Center for Caring, Empowerment, and Peace Initiatives or CCEPI isn’t anything new in her involvement with people who have been affected by violence. But it does mean that when there is an incident like the girls being abducted from Chibok, she is involved and working with the families. She is building an incredible database of narrative of acts of violence. She’s been to Cameroon, across the border, across the territory of Boko Haram, and in the refugee camps.

Jay: She’s developing a reputation within the Muslim community as someone that can be trusted to come in and do legitimate relief work. Rebecca is in the midst of people. She often says numbers [of those affected by violence] are underreported. She can list out name by name, person by person, why the numbers are wrong. She really has a grasp of that, and has good people working for her. This is a legitimate NGO that needs to be separate from the church. I don’t think a church agency could get to the places she wants to get to.

Stan: Markus Gamache’s work in Jos is called Lifeline. This is an interfaith group coming together as individuals, to respond to the need in the community. They’re working at internships, apprenticeships.

Jay: They would like to do micro finance. But before they give a loan they would like that recipients first do an internship so that they learn the skills, and then step out and take a loan to buy equipment and start their own business.

Photo courtesy of EYN
The Church of the Brethren sponsored this water project to provide a well at a Muslim school, through the interfaith peace project in Jos. Six students of this same school were killed in a riot in Jos, and the school was burned by Christians, but has since been rebuilt. It continued to be very dangerous for the students to go out for water because the school shares a boundary with a Christian community.

Newsline: One of you had said something about a well that was dug with this group?

Jay: It was a very important aspect of demonstrating this organization’s commitment to interfaith work. Because wells are so hard to drill even in your own community, to go into the Muslim community and [provide a well] is really something. That is really what propelled Markus’ work and allowed him access into Muslim communities. He told stories where his wife said, “Don’t you dare go there because they’ll kill you.” And yet that well has given him access into those communities to do more work. That was a tremendous witness.

Stan: The other piece is, what’s going to happen when the violence subsides? We asked both Rebecca and Samuel, “How is the church preparing to reintegrate the child soldiers?” And how can we assist, how can we walk with the Nigerian churches? There could be thousands of child soldiers that at some point in time are going to be summarily dismissed. What are you going to do with all these kids that have really been messed up?

Newsline: Not to mention the girls who have been used as sex slaves. I hate to even ask this, but is Nigeria at a point where we can say, “When the violence subsides”?

Jay: I would be surprised if it’s less than 20 years. I just saw so many similarities with the Communist take over in Nepal. There was a statement by a Boko Haram leader that said, “There are two types of people in the world: those that are for us, and those that are against us.” It reminded me of Pol Pot’s statement that if someone won’t work for the party they have no value, and if the person is killed there is no loss. I just think it’s going to be a long slow struggle with the violence going to another level, and then to another level.

Photo by Roxane Hill
Feetwashing held by EYN. Mission worker Carl Hill (at right) takes part in the outdoor service alongside friends in the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria.

After the bombing in Abuja people were pretty shaken up. They were saying, “How much longer is this going to go on?” Well, you could have a bomb a day for years. We didn’t have any sense of either a government initiative, or any sense of support from [Nigerian president] Goodluck Jonathan.

Stan: Quite to the contrary, there was suspicion that there are those in government who are suspected to be supportive of Boko Haram.

Jay: We didn’t hear anything that sounded like Boko Haram is reaching out for peace settlements. Or that the security forces are winning this at a military level. We didn’t get any sense of anything but that it was going to get worse.

Stan: The lasting impression I left with is just how the Nigerian church is striving to be faithful to their God, and to their belief that Jesus is their redeemer and savior. To live daily with the challenge of security, threats of violence, and some conversation around, “I’d rather be killed than abducted,” is sobering and challenging. In the midst of such uncertainty, I heard our brothers and sistsers repeatedly say, “I trust my God to walk with me and to provide for me during this journey of my life, no matter how long it is.”

What would happen to our church in the United States if we became the oppressed and persecuted in this culture? How do we measure up? How does living in safety and wealth taint our understanding of the role of faith in our lives? If I could choose, I would love to have the faith that I see expressed in the Nigerian people.