The plan for the remainder of this week to visit different churches in Bishop John's diocese.
It is 4:45 a.m. local time on Monday, I hear the morning wakeup call that precedes the first call to prayer at the local mosque. The wakeup call and all calls to prayer are broadcast over a loud speaker system, and although I have been awake for some time now, due to jet lag, it woke me up yesterday, as it is intended to do.
Bishop John lives in a primarily Muslim neighborhood, so the calls to prayer are a very important morning ritual for the many of the locals.
Today we will visit with three. The first church is over an hour's drive further north than Gusau. For any of you following our journey on a map, this means we were headed towards the Sahara desert, and we could tell. Until this point, we did not have to request the air conditioning in the car, but we broke down on this trip. I suppose if you visit the Arizona desert in the middle of summer you might get a taste for how hot and arid it is, but I believe that this was hotter and drier than even Arizona at its worst.
The further north we drove, the more palpapable the harshness of the landscape. How people settle and live here, I do not know. However, Zamfara State has done a wonderful job of putting in a main highway (two-lane), and running electricity to most areas. What was absolutely remarkable were the cell phone towers in the middle of absolute desert. They are huge, brand new and in impeccable condition.
And so here we are in the northern part of Zamfara State, closer to the Sahara than I will probably ever be in my lifetime, and we had perfect cell phone reception!! Indeed, there was not even any electricity or running water in most of the villages we passed through, but the cell phone reception was perfect!
The Christians who settle here do so in the midst of very difficult conditions. Not only is the heat oppressive, at least by our American standards, but these Christians live, work and worship in predominantly Muslim villages and neighborhoods. And I don't mean a 45% - 45% split, which is the average ratio of Muslims to Christians nationwide, I mean where were the split is likely 90% - 10%. In one village, all of the Christian church denominations were placed in the very back of the village, and in another village, not only was the church moved to a very remote, as yet undeveloped section of the village, it was moved from the very front of village because it was the first thing one would see when entering the town, and the Muslim governor had it moved.
Now, what is amazing, and I mean amazing, is that the people we met not only had left their jobs and businesses to greet us, in every single case they had gone to great expense to provide gifts of food and beverage for us to eat after our meeting. We were treated as royalty in each of these churches. It brought tears to my eyes to see how excited these folks were to meet us and spend some time together. God is certainly overseeing this journey, and for that we are all very grateful.
Mafara, "St. Michael's
This church was a welcome sight after a very long drive in the arid temperatures. This is the village where all of the Christian churches are grouped together at the back of the village. I was very impressed as we entered this village, it is clearly under development. As with any newer community at home, this village has new homes that are under construction, the village center is very clean, by Nigerian standards. One thing we learned early and that I had read before coming here is that there is no litter control, and no centralized rubbish pickup in many towns. As such, all of the modern plastics and rubbish that you might have and use in a typical American home are strewn across the roadways, and simply accumulates in the various pockets of space within the village.
In Marfara, the streets are relatively clean, the shops are modern looking, and the town is clearly developing in large part because the main road has been put into place and electricity brought to the city (not to mention the great cell phone coverage!!). Yet, in spite of all of that, there is still no running water. Anyone needing to use the facilities was out of luck!!
St. Michael's has about 92 members. The church was actually larger several years ago, but when Sharia law was instituted in Zamfara State in the early 2000s, many Christians left this Muslim-dominated community.
The hospitality shown to us was wonderful. They went to great lengths to buy beverages similar to what we would see in America Coke, Schweppes tonic water and of course, our standby, bottled water, which I have been surviving on since we landed.
Bakura, "St. Peter's
St. Peter's shares the namesake of Peter Dewberry's and my church in Connecticut, so we were excited to visit this church. This church has the harshest conditions of any we have yet seen. This is the church that had to move its building from the very first building you would see as you enter town, to a very small building in an as yet undeveloped portion of the village.
I got some excellent pictures and video here to give you a feel for how difficult these conditions are, and yet how African the landscape around this church is.
St. Peter's has about 55 members, and is led by Pastor Simon and lay leader Emmanuel. It is here that we first saw police officers who are church members, and attended our meeting on their break.
Peter Dewberry enjoyed this immensely, because as many of you reading this already know, Peter runs the Free Inside prison ministry in Connecticut. He had many smiles on people's faces as we joked about how the police officers catch the criminals, and Peter ministers to them. It is when Bishop John introduced my role as the lawyer into the discussion that we all had a good laugh.
The people at all of these churches are fun, funny and just so proud to be practicing Christians. There is something so profound about seeing people so dedicated that puts life into a different and proper perspective. The folks at St. Peter's had to move their church, rebuild it from scratch, and every week transport themselves to this church in the undeveloped section of the village. That is dedication, determination and resolve like I have never seen before first hand in my life.
You can see pictures and video from St. Peter's here, and here. Note in particular the mistaken lettering on the drum set!
The last church of the day was perhaps for me the most amazing. It was the smallest building, in a well settled town with perhaps the least harsh conditions of the three churches we saw today. But the energy in that small space would take your breath away.
As we entered, the choir was practicing, and every single member of that choir could enter American Idol and be a hands down winner without even proceeding to the Hollywood session! I was moved by their energy, talent and strong voice. You will be, too, when you see the video here, here and here.
The Pastor of this church is Ishaku Audi, and the church has about 100 members. I don't know how they all fit into this space when they all attend (and in these churches, the attendance rate is extremely high " one does not make these sacrifices and then stay away). This church is very far along, in that the pastor has a house (rectory of sorts), and the membership is large for the space and very dedicated. After listening to this choir, and asking them to sing in both English and Hausa, we all prayed for each other.
It was here that Peter came up with an ingenious idea that I want to explore "Let'ss get this choir into a recording studio in Gusau to produce a high-quality CD that we can sell back in the U.S., as part of our fund-raising for the school.
I must say that having Peter and Bob along on this trip has not only been a joy for me, but the ideas that they are generating are truly invaluable.
The next few days were spent visiting numerous rural Anglican churches. Bishop John's priority is to see as many churches planted in his diocese as possible. We were encouraged by the churches and the pastors and evangelists we were able to visit. Although our visits were during the week, some of the members turned out at every church. At each stop we were given a warm, enthusiastic welcome, some refreshments and greeted with some wonderful singing and dancing.
One of our forays into the rural hinterland was a trip to a church in Sangeiku in the district of Kaura Namoda. It took us 4 hours to get there over the rutted tracks that passed as roads, the sight of camels transporting goods was an indication that we were near the edge of the Sahara.
Each church we visited had a small primary school to teach the basic three Rs. It is anticipated that qualified students from these rural schools will attend the Diocesan school in Gusau.
These rural churches are poor, have few resources, but serve the Lord with an enthusiasm and joy, rarely seen in the West. In many cases they face pressures and restrictions from the Muslim majority yet their zeal for the Lord is not dampened.