Throughout the night and morning of 11 March 2019, Pastor Timothy Umaru and several other men stood guard at an entrance to their Nigerian village. They were watching for any sign of the Fulani Islamic militants who had attacked a neighbouring village days earlier.
As the sun rose shortly after 6am, they began to hear screams and gunfire in the village behind them. Villagers were running in every direction as the air filled with smoke from burning homes. The militants had attacked the village from another entrance, and Timothy felt helpless as he thought about his family, his church and his predominantly Christian village.
“In all honesty,” he said, “even though the Bible has told us that these things would happen, the first question I asked was, ‘God, where are You?’”
Timothy’s wife, Rifkatu, and their 3-year-old granddaughter, Uma, had just finished praying with their lead pastor’s family at the church parsonage when the attack occurred. Rifkatu heard the gunfire and screams when she stepped out with Uma to get some fresh air.
After scooping Uma up in her arms and running back inside to alert everyone, Rifkatu and the others hurriedly left the pastor’s home, which they knew would be a target of the radical Islamists. Running as fast as she could while carrying the toddler, Rifkatu stumbled repeatedly. As she grew tired, she became more afraid. Seeing another villager get shot only added to her terror. “The fourth time I fell, I could not get up because my body was weak,” she recalled. “I could not carry Uma.”
When a young man, also fleeing from the militants, saw Rifkatu struggling, he took Uma from her so they could both run to safety. The young man soon grew tired from carrying the child and decided to hide her in the bush and continue running on his own. Rifkatu had run on ahead until reaching cover in the bush. “I do not know how God did it,” she said of her escape. “I found a place and hid. I lay down there till morning.”
Rifkatu had run so far that she lost track of how to get home. When she felt it was safe, she started the long walk back, arriving at 10 the next morning. Once home, she asked if anyone had seen Uma.
That’s when she learned that Uma had been killed, her body discovered along with those of others shot by the militants. The lead pastor’s wife, with whom Rifkatu had been praying, was also killed as she fled. She and Uma were among the more than 70 villagers killed in the attack.
Thankfully, Timothy and Rifkatu’s four children, including Uma’s mother, were not in the village at the time. The family’s home, located on the outskirts of the village, was also unharmed.
Picking Up the Pieces
About a week later, the family travelled to another village, where they spent three months mourning Uma’s death and recovering from the trauma of the attack. Rifkatu suffered nightmares and anxiety as well as deep grief. Through prayer, reading God’s Word and spending time with family, she grew stronger and her grief became more manageable.
At the end of June, they returned home to help their church recover. Much of the church building had burned, along with all of the musical instruments inside, and the parsonage had been completely destroyed by fire. In addition, the lead pastor had left the village, grief-stricken over his wife’s death and overcome with guilt that he had survived.
Timothy has since taken over as lead pastor, but he has struggled with his mentor’s absence even as many in the church have continued to struggle with their own painful losses. Several church members lost their spouses, and many are now living in poverty. “People are tense and very scared now,” Timothy said. “If something small happens, people will start running. But we are encouraging them.”
Through it all, Timothy, his family and the church have found encouragement through Christ. “He helped us understand that these events are things that will pass,” Timothy said. “Whatever is happening today will pass tomorrow. What strengthened us in these events will become our story. We have faith that one day Christ will avenge us.”
Timothy’s family still grieves for those lost in the attack, but they’re also grateful for what they have gained. “Honestly, before this attack our faith was broken,” the pastor said. “Hearing about the attacks happening in other places shook our faith. But after it happened to us, our faith increased. Even if it happens to us again, we will not be afraid.”
They have no intention of leaving their home, despite the risk of another attack. “We stay here because this is where our faith is strengthened,” Timothy said.
Not Backing Down
Recently, another pastor from Timothy’s church was killed while visiting a neighbouring village. Timothy knows that working to advance God’s kingdom isn’t always safe, and he’s all right with that. In fact, the risk assures him that he is on the right track. “If you are in a peaceful place without any challenges, you will be far from God,” he said. “But if there is persecution, you will be close to God.”
VOM has helped pay his children’s school fees and provided his family with additional financial support since the attack. Timothy has used a portion of the support to start a farm, where he grows corn and rice for his family and also to sell for additional income.
“It is not by our doing, but it is by the grace of God that this help has come to us,” Timothy said. “If not for this support, we do not know what we would have done. We are incredibly grateful. All the help and support means so much to us. We are full of joy that we are part of a family who loves us and is praying for us.”
Pastor Timothy asks that we pray for his family’s courage and strength as well as for his village as they all continue to recover from the attack.