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Learning goes both ways in Nigeria learning tour
by Linda Espenshade
The Nigeria learning tour participants: top row, from left: Bruce Campbell-Janz; the Rev. Chuwang Pam; the Rev. Dick Davis; the Rev. Femi Fatunmbi; second row: the Rev. Grace Pam; Gopar Tapkida; third row: Mark Hartman-Souder; the Rev. Joe Roos; front row: Aminata Dieye; the Rev. Abel Dauji; and the Rev. Nehemiah Chigoji. Photo courtesy of PSMC/Brenda Hartman Souder.
FRESNO, Calif. – Nigerian pastors of Mennonite churches in California live with one foot in the U.S. and one foot in Nigeria, serving people in both countries.
In Los Angeles, Inglewood and Upland, California, the pastors inspire their church members to support organizations and churches in Nigeria that are helping Christians there deal with increased violence and poverty.
West Coast Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) supports people around the world, including in Nigeria, by raising funds for MCC’s international program. Staff also work with organizers of the West Coast MCC relief sale to raise dollars for MCC.
Churches of Mennonite Church USA’s Pacific Southwest Mennonite Conference (PSMC), including the Nigerian-led churches, support the relief sale and the work of MCC.
And yet, it seems the right hand did not know what the left hand was doing.
“The Nigerian churches would join the relief sale every year, but a lot of people in the church didn’t know what MCC was doing in Nigeria,” said the Rev. Femi Fatunmbi, pastor of Royal Dominion International Church in Los Angeles and assistant moderator of the PSMC board.
A few believed that MCC, by providing humanitarian assistance to Muslims, was indirectly supporting Islamist groups that bombed churches, burned a village near the capital city of Jos and killed Nigerians known and loved by them. With this perception, they wondered why they should support MCC.
And so after much dialogue and discussion among the pastors, PSMC and leaders of West Coast MCC and MCC program in Africa, representatives from all these groups traveled to Nigeria together this spring for a unique learning tour, co-sponsored by West Coast MCC and PSMC.
“This learning tour was different because it wasn’t MCC primarily showing their program to interested supporters,” said Bruce Campbell-Janz, who was director of MCC’s Africa department from June 2006 to December 2011, and is now executive director of MCC East Coast. “Most participants were already knowledgeable about Nigeria and the Nigerian pastors had personal experience and connections in Nigerian churches and organizations that led to profound mutual learning.”
MCC Nigeria representatives Brenda and Mark Hartman-Souder of Syracuse, N.Y., who completed their term in July, introduced leaders of MCC partner organizations to the group one day, and the next day, Nigerian pastors from California introduced their partner organizations. The work of partner organizations supported by MCC and the Nigerian churches in California was similar and compatible.
The Rev. Chuwang Pam and his wife, the Rev. Grace Pam, immigrated to the U.S. from Nigeria in 1994. Now pastors at Los Angeles Faith Chapel, they were surprised to learn that MCC was working with an HIV and AIDS hospital that the Pams personally support.
Fatunmbi and Chuwang Pam were pleased with MCC’s peacebuilding work between Muslims and Christians and realized that MCC is not working with Muslims who persecute Christians.
“Traditionally these are two groups that are not supposed to see eye to eye,” said Pam, “so I was impressed to see that MCC was working on a lot of Muslim-Christian initiatives.”
Dick Davis, conference minister for PSMC, said he came away with a much clearer realization that MCC peacemakers, such as Gopar Tapkida in Nigeria, carry out their work despite risks. Davis repeated the story of a woman who came to Tapkida’s peacemaking training intending to kill Tapkida, but is now very supportive.
“I was deeply, deeply impressed with their commitment to kingdom values. There’s a sense of fragility. A sense of danger, but somehow or other in grace and love they continue their mission.”
As part of the learning tour, MCC brought Mennonite church leaders from the south, where there is little violence, to talk with Church of the Brethren leaders from the north, where churches have been targeted by Muslim extremists and in some cases, Christians retaliated. The two groups of Christians knew little about each other, and the learning tour participants learned from both of them.
Bringing together people and groups that don’t have a close relationship and encouraging them to communicate was the key to the success of this learning tour, various group members said.
Aminata Dieye, West Coast MCC executive assistant who was part of the tour, said the trip helped to build trust between West Coast MCC, the Nigerian churches and PSMC leaders.
“We want to serve the church and we want to have a better relationship with our conferences,” said Dieye. “I think this was a major improvement in that regard. We’re seeing that learning mutually actually works.”
Group members committed together to explore ways to strengthen the cooperation among all of the groups that met together and shared their hearts in Nigeria.
“The shared experience allowed all participants to share their views, hear the views of other, see each other’s work and partners and to discuss what that means to them,” said Mark Sprunger, who is MCC’s Central and West Africa area director. Sprunger is from Lancaster, Pa. “I think the communication can flow a little more easily as we are building closer ties between our international program and U.S. constituencies.”