How can a pastor continue leading a church that keeps getting attacked? How can he protect other people after he’s been assaulted multiple times?
These are some of the questions that ran through my mind as 48-year-old Reverend Yakubu D’zarai recently shared his story with me at VOM’s office in Nigeria.
Since 1993, Yakubu has pastored churches in Borno state – where terrorist group Boko Haram is based and Sharia (Islamic law) is rule. Two of his church buildings have been bombed. The first, home to 276 worshippers, was bombed on 18 December 2012. The second, home to 278 worshipers, was bombed on 1 July 2014. In each attack, four people died, many others were injured and everyone lost a sense of security.
During the first attack, Boko Haram members hacked at Yakubu’s head, leg and back with a machete. Fortunately, he didn’t lose any limbs.
So how can any pastor continue his work after experiencing persecution? It helps to expect it.
“The Bible said definitely, ‘in this life there will be persecution, you will be killed for My sake,’” Yakubu said, referencing Matthew 24:9. “I was really comforted in this.”
Most would consider Yakubu to be a rare leader. How many pastors are willing to continue risking their life after they’ve nearly lost it?
The truth is he’s one of many. A growing number of pastors, in fact, are receiving training in how to stand firm in their faith following persecution. Why? These pastors know the power of the Gospel and the need for Nigerians in the Muslim-dominated north to hear it.
In March, VOM workers from Nigeria drove through multiple military checkpoints and past numerous burned vehicles along the road – attacked by the same extremists that Yakubu experienced – to get to Borno state. Once there, they trained 50 pastors in how to deal with depression, trauma reduction and stress management. They also further examined what faith looks like in the face of danger. They’re learning to expect persecution.
“We are very optimistic that these pastors were transformed to these several days of fellowship, prayers and interaction in the training, and are therefore returning with new hope and spirit to train others,” a VOM worker said.
These pastors are now charged with training at least 10 other pastors in neighbouring villages, bringing the total number of newly trained pastors in Nigeria’s most difficult region to 500 by the end of 2015.
Additional training sessions took place in Yobe and Gombe states, which border Borno to the west, and Adamawa state to the south.
These pastors are truly on the front lines, both physically and spiritually. They’re willing to risk everything because they know it all means nothing in light of eternity.
So what do these pastors pray for? Of course, they ask God for protection, peace and the courage to continue. After all, they’re human. They’re also thoughtful. If you ask Yakubu what he prays for, he’ll tell you he’s praying for you.
“I am praying that God will keep protecting you people and keep you because the Boko Haram members are not happy with how you people are sending help to the Christians,” he said.
‘Kelvin Varnsen’ is a writer for VOM USA.
I have the privilege of helping connect believers with their persecuted family. In my conversations with believers, I have seen some common misconceptions about persecuted Christians.
- They are Super Hero Christians
This is probably the most common misconception. When we hear powerful testimonies of believers standing with boldness in unthinkable circumstances it’s easy to put them on a pedestal and think they are ‘super Christians.’ The way I hear some people talk about persecuted Christians is almost as though they think something magical happens when you are persecuted and you immediately become an angelic saint, untouched by the worst suffering. This is simply not the case.
The danger with this mindset is that it can be used as an excuse to slack off in our own dedication to Christ. I’ve heard, “Oh well, don’t worry, when the time comes, God will give you to strength to get through anything!” True, there is a special grace in suffering, but that does not negate the fact that we must chose to count the cost to follow Christ and take up our cross and deny ourselves daily. The believers who stand strong in the face of persecution made these decisions about Christ beforehand. You can choose now to build your house on the rock or on the sand.
- They are a Case Study
While I was representing VOM at an event recently, I was sharing about our persecuted family with an individual who immediately launched into a full rant about how the United States was going down the drain and that the American church was weak and liberal. I’ve seen people use persecuted Christians as a platform to be critical and judgmental. In addition, they can use them to guilt trip others: “How can you complain about your car accident when people are dying for their faith overseas?”
Granted, we absolutely can learn from our persecuted family and be inspired and encouraged in our faith. Viewing persecuted Christians as a case study should never trump who they are first and foremost: our family. They are fellow members of the body of Christ. If your mother was dying of cancer, you wouldn’t go around criticising others who have it easy or feel guilty that you don’t have cancer too. No, you would first use what you have – your health, your love, your prayers, your resources – to be family to your mother. That is what we are called to do with persecuted believers.
- They Always Heal Quickly from Traumatic Experiences
This goes back to misconception number one. Our persecuted family are human. They are real people with emotions, hopes, dreams, doubts and weaknesses just like you. Occasionally we meet believers who miraculously are able to instantly forgive and find consistent joy in their lives again. But more often than not, our persecuted family walks through a process of healing. I remember sitting across from a sister in Malaysia who wept as she shared with me how her Muslim parents had thrown her out of her home for being a Christian when she was twelve years old. She was telling me the story 15 years after it happened, and yet she still must choose daily to forgive her parents for things they did to her. VOM is committed to meeting spiritual and practical needs of persecuted Christians and sticking with them on their journey.
Brooke Parks works for VOM USA as Director of Voice Ministries.
When we read the Bible we usually read only those passages that we think relate to our personal situation. We are often not aware that there are themes that run through the Bible that reflect its most basic and most essential teachings. The theme of ‘deliverance,’ for example, is an important theme that is very prominent in the book of Exodus as Israel is delivered from the bondage of Egypt. It shows up again when Jews in captivity are allowed to go back to their homeland to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple. It has a spiritual dimension when we are taught that we are delivered from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light.
There is a theme that is very prominent but mostly neglected and unrecognised by the Western church, primarily because it does not appear to relate to our present situation. But it relates well to many Christians around the world who are experiencing persecution and martyrdom. The theme is ‘suffering for righteousness’ sake.’ In the New Testament and beyond it becomes suffering for Christ’s sake. This theme is first introduced in Genesis 4 in the story of Cain and Abel. Abel is killed for doing the right thing. He suffers for being obedient to God and for offering sacrifices pleasing to Him. It is an unjust murder, which is the case for all suffering for righteousness’ sake.
The theme continues throughout the Old Testament in the stories of Job, Joseph, the three Hebrew young men (the fiery furnace), and with Daniel. All of them suffered for being righteous and for doing good. But it is not just an Old Testament theme. Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, his inaugural sermon that would explain the kingdom of God and what it meant to be a genuine follower of Christ, says that those who are persecuted and who are slandered for His sake are blessed. We are not to be surprised if we suffer for the sake of Christ.
We discover as we read through the Bible that suffering is the method God uses to reach the world. It is through Christ’s suffering and death that we have salvation to proclaim. As we see in the book of Acts, the proclamation of the Gospel and witness in Christ’s name often lead to beatings and imprisonment. The apostle Paul, as well as other disciples, experienced the full force of persecution and eventually martyrdom because of their faithful ministry. It continues into the present time.
We don’t consider this when we become a Christian or as we work in ministry. It is far from our minds; yet in most areas of the world to be a Christian and to serve Christ is very costly. Our monthly reports story after story of persons who have suffered for their faith in Christ. It is a very real part of our world. It is also a significant biblical theme. More and more Christians are becoming aware of this fact. It is only then that we can confront the world realistically and pray realistically. We pray for those who are in fact living out this biblical theme and are suffering for righteousness’ sake.
Becoming aware of this theme and the stories of suffering for righteousness’ sake changes the way we think and pray for our brothers and sisters around the world. If we have a loved one who is serving in a hostile area of the world, we feel very much a part of their lives. In the same way, if we know that there are Christians suffering in a particular area of the world, we should have the same feeling toward them that we have toward our family members, because, in reality, these Christians are a part of our families. In fact, we are a part of the same body. If one part suffers, all parts suffer.
Do we feel their pain?
Islamists are suspected of the murder of Samson Nfunyeku, whose body was found close to his home in eastern Uganda on 23 September after he had taken part in a church-organised debate with Islamic scholars. The discussion had to be cut short after tempers flared.
Islamists threatened Samson after a similar discussion four months ago. “They gave a warning that such debates were not good for Muslims,” one participant said.
Samson’s body was found with head injuries; he is believed to have been strangled. He was 59, had seven children and was the grandfather of 16.
Then, on 19 October, his brother’s wife was also killed. Mamwikomba Mwanika, mother of eight, died en route to a hospital after Muslims dragged her from her home at about 9pm and assaulted her.
Strangers approached Mamwikomba while at home, asking for her husband. When she stated he was away, they told her, “Your husband has followed the religion of his brother, and we had warned you people to stop these activities, but our message has landed on deaf ears.”
“The attackers dragged our mother outside the house as she screamed and cried for help,” said her 13-year-old child.
Soon afterwards, Mwanika’s husband arrived, and they found her unconscious in a pool of blood 100 metres away. They rushed her to the hospital, but she was declared dead upon arrival, her husband said.
Sources: International Christian Concern, Morning Star News, Release International
• Please pray for Samson and Mamwikomba’s families and friends, especially their young children, during their time of mourning.
• Pray that Christians in Uganda will continue to love their Muslim neighbours and not become fearful of sharing their faith.
• Pray for Muslims who are coming to Christ; many face hatred and hostility from their communities.
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