UCC ecumenical partner involved in the struggle for religious freedom in Nigeria
Written by Connie N. Larkman June 10, 2014
Bring back our girls. Many Americans are familiar with the international outcry surrounding the April 14 kidnapping of almost 300 Nigerian schoolgirls. An Islamic militant group, Boko Haram, stormed a school in Chibok in Northeast Nigeria and spirited the girls away. The girls have not been rescued, even though on May 26, Nigerian officials said they know where they are.
"The tragedy of the kidnapped girls in Nigeria is not an isolated incident, but part of a global pattern of the abuse of women and girls," said the Rev. Jim Moos, UCC national officer and co-executive of Global Ministries of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ. "Sadly, religion is often used to justify the ideology of male superiority instead of proclaiming the liberating good news that women equally bear the image of God."
While much of the outrage over the conflict in Nigeria centers around the abduction and the abuse of women and girls, the terrorism inflicted by Boko Haram on the people in Nigeria is not gender specific. The underlying issue is religious freedom.
"Boko Haram proclaims a distorted and cruel version of the Muslim faith," Moos said. "it serves as a warning to people of all faiths that privileging any single belief system at the expense of all others inevitably results in oppression."
'Violence is rampant.'
Stanley Noffsinger with EYN president Samuel Dali
Stanley Noffsinger has seen the lethal results firsthand. As General Secretary of the Church of the Brethren, a UCC ecumenical partner and birthing church of Ekklesiyar Yan'uwa a Nigeria, Church of the Breth¬ren in Nigeria, or EYN, he hears horrific stories of destruction and death from his brothers and sisters in EYN almost daily. Of churches bombed, and members abducted and killed. And the trouble is escalating. Boko Haram's attacks started out focused on the churches, the Christian community, because they wouldn't support shariah law. The terrorist group wants to convert Christians to Islam and the church is the problem. But now, Noffsinger says it's no longer that simple. The extremists no longer discriminate between Christian and Muslim. Boko Haram is targeting all who are not with them in their ideology. Their territory is the northeast region of Nigeria, where most of the EYN churches are concentrated.
"Borno state is where a lot of violence is taking place. As of this weekend, all civil authority has left the Borno state," said Noffsinger. "That's a Boko Haram mainstay, and it's critical for us – our church is strongly located in northeastern region and we're in the middle of the violence."
More than 350 EYN members have been killed and many more injured in this violence. A great deal of property has been burned, including 22 church buildings, nine local churches and more than 2,500 homes, affecting thousands of members. Many people no longer feel safe sleeping in their homes. They sleep in the bush instead. "Violence is escalating so quickly that there are new reports every day," said Noffsinger, indicating it's becoming very difficult to track the details of what is happening in Nigeria because of the hostility.
EYN President Samuel Dante Dali said EYN has no contact with Boko Haram. "They will not even agree to work with the church because the church is their primary target of destruction," he said. "We, as a church, can only present our petition to God to seek for his mercy and his own will to liberate the girls from Boko Haram."
The U.S. Brethren are working to support their Nigerian brothers and sisters, with prayers, financial assistance ($100,000 has been sent to Nigeria to date through the EYN Compassion Fund, with more assistance being received daily) and their presence. Noffsinger has spent a lot of time with the people of EYN. He last visited Nigeria in April, and was flying home the evening of April 14 when the girls were kidnapped from a school founded by the U.S. Church of the Brethren.
"The history of the U.S. church with Nigeria dates back to 1923, when Church of the Brethren was established as a mission outpost," Noffsinger said. "Our ties are long and deep with the church in Nigeria. It was viewed as a mission church until the early 1970s, when both churches decided that the Nigerian church needed to be recognized as its own entity. It was about the same time that the Chibok School was turned over to the government to become a government school, in an area where there are a lot of Brethren people. Education for Nigerian Brethren has been around for a long time, as a holistic part of the mission program. Health and wellness and education were part of it as well as spirituality and faith formation."
Noffsinger believes spirituality, strong faith, and an unwavering belief that God is walking with them is sustaining the Nigerian Brethren in this time of crisis.
"EYN leaders and members have been writing to me with resolve in their voices that nothing can shake them from their commitment to Christ and the Church," said Noffsinger. "The Nigerian Brethren believe deeply in the power of prayer. They are emphatic about that." He told the story of a young man he met in Nigeria who attends one of the Brethren schools. "His responses continue to amaze me, because his faith is absolute. He told me, 'Nothing can happen to me that can separate me from the love of God.'"
And despite the horrific uncertainly with which the Nigerian Brethren live, they continue to reach out to help their neighbors.
Rebecca Dali, the wife of EYN president Samuel Dali, created a nonprofit organization CCEPI (Center for Caring, Empowerment, and Peace Initiatives) to assist women and children affected by the violence, orphans, and refugees who have been fleeing to neighboring countries and those displaced within Nigeria. She can often be found, at great personal peril, traversing the countryside taking supplies to those in need. She loads up her car and takes food to refugees. She documents the missing so they will be remembered, and has interviewed the girls' families, and all the returning girls who were able to escape their captors. The U.S. Brethren sent her $10,000 to support her work.
"We need your prayers," she wrote to the U.S. church. "Now there is virtually no security in Borno State. Many have fled to Cameroon. In refugee camps in Cameroon and [for] some who are displaced, there was no food, medical, or other kinds of help. The government, even when warned, does not stop the violence. People are suffering."
"Although Global Ministries does not have partner relationships in Nigeria, it is important that we care about the recent kidnapping of school girls because of our commitment to a shared life with justice," said the Rev. Sandra Gourdet, Global Ministries Africa office executive. "We are connected as human beings and our solidarity demands that we reach out to the girls and their families in their struggle to cope with such an atrocious act."
Noffsinger says the Nigerian Brethren are asking their brothers and sisters in the United States to do two things —to fast, and to pray for them. From candelight vigils to Mother's Day events, the call to prayer has been picked up by Brethren and other denominations' congregations across the country.
"We have tried to approach this from a point of engagement of spiritual disciplines," Noffsinger said. "Because we want to honor and respect the request of the Nigerian church saying, 'Here's what you as a North American church can do as a sister church: prayer and fasting.'"
The people of EYN believe that with God, all things are possible. That spiritual partnership, sharing their stories, documenting their history and their struggles will help them get through this crisis.
Stanley Noffsigner at EYN service
"The Church of the Brethren is an historic peace church," said the Rev. Geoffrey Black, UCC general minister and president. "As they and their partner churches and institutions in Nigeria face the challenges resulting from religiously motivated violence in that country, we stand with them in prayerful solidarity. Our affinity with them comes out of our shared commitment to peace and just peace making."
Our grief and our love are being held at the same place," said Noffsinger. "We, like the Nigerian church, must not be overcome by this great darkness, but rather, walk forward in the light of Christ. The darkness will not overcome us. Love is stronger than grief and will overcome this time."