When rioting threatened to drive Christians out of northern Nigeria, a 20-year legacy of faithful witness by missionaries from Christian Reformed World Missions (CRWM) helped to pave a path to peace.
In spite of the violence, new roads have opened up for sharing the gospel, including a fresh opportunity to witness to government leaders in the region.
Two CRWM missionary couples, accompanied by a staff member from the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC) and a number of families of Nigerian Christians, temporarily left the area earlier this year after violence, triggered in part by Muslim outrage against a Danish newspaper’s publication of cartoons that caricatured the prophet Mohammed, flared up.
In this instance, a Nigerian Christian Reformed church was burned and threatening fliers warned Christians to leave or be killed.
When the riots died down, it was time for the World Missions team to decide whether to return. Nobody would have blamed Dave and Jan Dykgraaf of Grand Rapids, Mich., or Larry and Rose van Zee of Pella, Iowa, for not wanting to go back. Hesitation could well have been deemed wisdom.
But when these two couples heard from local authorities that they were being invited to return and join in dialogue with top regional officials about commitments to restore the peace, they returned eagerly.
“Two local chiefs and the military commander in Kontagora [a town in northwest Nigeria] have encouraged us to return and assured us that things will be fine,” Dave Dykgraaf said.
The invitation was a tribute to two decades of testimony and relationship building, but could it be trusted? The government had not started the riots, so could it really guarantee safety?
Such guarantees are luxuries in any part of the world, but in Nigeria, where religious tensions always simmer just below the surface, the potential for violence is perhaps more likely than that of prolonged peace.
But both couples went back, obeying a calling they had received years ago to work among the Muslim people of northern Nigeria: a calling in response to the Great Commission—to spread the good news of God’s kingdom and to make disciples of all nations.
Upon their arrival, the missionary teams heard that at least four people had been arrested in connection with the violence and that the governor of the state of Niger had instructed authorities to rebuild the church that had been burned.
The dialogue between authorities and Christian leaders resulted in an official commitment by the one side to keep the peace and by the other not to retaliate.
“This is really good news, and it has happened more swiftly and definitively than I had dared to imagine,” Nigeria field leader Albert Strydhorst reported.
About the Author
Rev. Mariano Avila is assistant professor of New Testament at Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Mich.