North Dakotans visit Nigeria
KENMARE The biblical comparison of cause and effect, about a tiny mustard seed growing into a towering tree, became a present-day reality to three North Dakotans who attended a 100-year celebration in Nigeria this month.
In 1910 tiny Trinity Lutheran Church of rural Kenmare, active today as part of United as One Lutheran Parish, collected $2,000 to establish missionaries in West Africa. When the Lutheran Church of Christ in Nigeria celebrated 100 years of success, three people connected to that donation were among 35,000 to 50,000 celebrants who gathered in Nigeria.
The Rev. Cole Bentley, pastor at Trinity Lutheran, Janet Rhoads of Minot and Bryan Quigley of Kenmare were honored guests at the three-day observance in Numan, Adamawa State, Nigeria. Rhoads and Quigley’s wife Jean are granddaughters of Jens Pedersen who was active in the original donation.
“We didn’t realize how important our presence was to the people in Nigeria,” Rhoads said. “Many people we met said they were happy for the gifts we had sent them over the years, but now that we had come to visit they knew we really cared about them. It was a really important lesson to learn.”
Quigley was particularly impressed by the joyful and generous attitudes of people who have so little materially, especially after the North Dakotans visited an area hospital and attended some village outreach programs dealing with desperately needed clean water and health care. He noted the Global Health Mission, partially supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and Mission Afrika, a group supported by Denmark, have partnered for 100 years, working on projects such as new wells. One well might support 500 or 600 people, he added.
“We bailed water out of a 90-foot well with a rope and an old plastic purse,” Quigley said. Despite their daily hardships, he described people they met as having strong spiritual and family relationships.
Food was interesting: a heavy emphasis on rice, with goat and lamb added. The visitors were surprised how little fruit and vegetables were eaten, but noted most of those foods had to be imported. Temperatures were in the 85 to 90 degree range with 90 percent humidity. They experienced 3 inches of rain in 20 minutes.
Rhoads said she was surprised at how often she was thanked that the North Dakota delegation treated the Nigerians with such respect. All three visitors expressed amusement and discomfort at being treated like “foreign dignitaries,” which was how they were often introduced.
“Church officials had told us they would see to our comfort and safety,” Rhoads said, adding that the comfort concept involved officials borrowing and hauling in sofas for them to sit on. Most of the 35,000 to 50,000 people at the assembly camped on the grounds and sat on the ground through three days of speeches, dances, skits, and re-enactments of the original visits of missionaries.
Safety of Westerners was a major concern, with several incidents of Islamic radicals murdering people at schools and other places where Western education was offered. The North Dakotans were closely guarded and unaffected by the unrest. Rhoads noted she saw no evidence of that conflict at villages they visited, where both people who accompanied her and people in the area were careful to be respectful and fair with both Christians and Muslims as they offered help and instruction about programs such as maternity care, getting clean water, preventing malaria and AIDs or HIV.
Some native clothing was provided for the travelers, including a dark green, two-piece cotton dress for Rhoads and a bright tunic for Quigley. Both men begged off on wearing the bright and intricate headpieces used by Nigerian natives, since they looked ridiculous on Westerners, but Quigley conceded head covering made sense in the bright spring African sun. He did appreciate his fishing hat.
Cotton is one of Nigeria’s major crops, and the brilliant-colored fabrics they produce are vivid. Rhoads told about the Women of Hope, a group of women and children affected by AIDs or HIV, who sew and sell fabric products to earn a living. Begun when a pastor recognized their desperate need for food, the women in Mashiah Foundation began marketing their vivid products. The North Dakota delegation was given a generous sample, gifts to the Minneapolis ELCA synod, to be sold to further its work.
Trinity Lutheran at Kenmare, which Bentley said directs about a fourth of its income to missions, fits right into the Nigerian program. The small church was founded in 1986 by Danish homesteaders. In 1910 member Jens Dixon returned from a World Missions Conference in Scotland with a fierce conviction the church needed to support African missions. He funded the Mission Society Lebanon group in north- central North Dakota and Montana. The congregation and an associated school raised $2,000, a major part of the $5,000 that funded the mission. In 1913, Dr. Niels Bronnum founded the Danish Lutheran Mission in Numan. Today 90 percent of Nigeria’s 2.7 millions Christians are Lutherans. Bronnum’s original St. John’s Chapel is still used. The church, which adds about 10,000 members every month, now has seven dioceses, 555 pastors, a seminary and other facilities.
Although the Kenmare church has continued to support the Nigerian one, no one from Trinity had visited the sister congregations. Four Nigerian pastors, completing advanced studies at U.S. seminaries, have visited Kenmare: the Rev. Penuel Dalata, former Archbishop David Windibrizi, the Rev. Benjamin Fudata and the Rev. Sekenwa Briska. Their families accompanied them.
When the Kenmare church was invited in December to send representatives to the Centenary Ceremony, Bentley was not surprised that the answer was affirmative in a church so focused on missions.
“We sent 10 letters to area churches,” Quigley said, “and held three small fundraisers.”
Money came in quickly to pay travel costs, about $3,500 per person. In fact, the group was able to present a $10,000 gift to the Nigerian church. They also took hymnals, books from Bentley’s personal collection and a hand-crafted banner made by the women of Trinity Lutheran.
“We didn’t feel we went to Nigeria alone,” Rhoads said. “All the people who supported us were there with us.”
One of the most remarkable aspects of the trip, she said, was how much is common to the two widely separated churches. “It was amazing, sitting in Africa, to hear an official say ‘God is good’ and hear the same response from thousands of Africans, ‘all the time,’ that we would hear at Metigoshe Ministries. Despite the distance, we are one church with our brothers and sisters in Nigeria.”