As the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria entered the second month of a crisis involving hundreds of kidnapped girls, the U.S. Church of the Brethren continues to support its sister denomination with prayer, fasting and financial assistance for refugees fleeing violence.
The radical Islamic group Boko Haram kidnapped more than 270 girls in mid-April from a school in Chibok built by Brethren mission workers in the 1940s. Many of the girls are part of Ekklesiyar Yan’uwa a Nigeria (Church of the Brethren in Nigeria, or EYN).
While the girls’ abduction eventually grabbed global attention, the act was not an isolated incident. Boko Haram has attacked Christians for about five years, and such actions continue since the kidnapping.
“At least 245 EYN members have been killed and many more injured in this violence,” reported the May issue of the denominational magazine Messenger. “A great deal of property has been burned, including 22 church buildings, nine local church branches and more than 1,000 homes, affecting thousands of members.”
In a May 20 email, EYN President Samuel Dante Dali said EYN has no contact with Boko Haram.
“They will not even agree to work with the church because the church is their primary target of destruction,” he said. “We as a church can only present our petition to God to seek for his mercy and his own will to liberate the girls from Boko Haram.”
Dali said all loving Nigerians welcome the idea of working for peace, though thousands in the northeastern part of the country are angry and frustrated and “have not rolled out the need for peace.”
EYN can’t work with Boko Haram, which will not compromise its belief that all Christians should convert to Islam and that Nigeria should install a Shariah legal code. Instead, the EYN Peace Committee, led by Toma Rangijiya, works with Muslims locally in Mubi.
“They have been trying to establish a Peace Club in several secondary schools with the aim to install the idea of peace and the need for mutual respect while working together for a common purpose among young Muslims and Christians,” Dali said.
However, such efforts remain a challenge. He reported in a separate May 12 email that another attack destroyed EYN homes.
“They have also kidnapped a wife of one [of] our evangelists together with her little child,” he wrote. “The few army who were there could not control them, and so the army had to run into the bush for their life and left the insurgents to destroy the village. Please, continue to pray for EYN and the pastor.”
Names are confirmed
The U.S. Church of the Brethren responded to the request with a call to prayer and fasting. A letter was sent to more than 1,000 congregations and fellowships that included background on the situation. Each girl’s name was sent to six churches for prayer.
“The names are confirmed by [EYN], and we said to our people that they are predominately Christian but also Muslim girls,” said Church of the Brethren general secretary Stanley Noffsinger in a May 14 interview.
“It’s cost the community, and we would not differentiate between Christian and Muslim girls. It is not about our girls, it is about all the girls.”
Response to the letter has been encouraging. From candle vigils to Mother’s Day events, the call to prayer has been picked up by Brethren and other denominations’ congregations.
“We have tried to approach this from a point of engagement of spiritual disciplines,” Noffsinger said. “Because we want to honor and respect the request of the Nigerian church saying, ‘Here’s what you as a North American church can do as a sister church: prayer and fasting.’ ”
Noffsinger and Brethren Global Mission and Service executive director Jay Wittmeyer attended EYN’s annual conference in April. They learned of the girls’ abduction on television in the airport as they prepared to return to the U.S.
“What I heard repeatedly from members of the church was, ‘We are OK. Our God has not forsaken us. We will persevere as people of faith. We will continue in God’s shalom,’ ” Noffsinger said. “For me, the ray of hope is they understand their role in spiritual life as they engage violence.”
Noffsinger said EYN is committed to working toward a solution through interfaith circles.
“EYN has individuals [who] have lived in and among Muslim-Christian communities, and they want to restore what has been traditional, they want to restore the relationship with their neighbors,” Noffsinger said. “Where there are opportunities to work together as Christian and Muslim for the well-being of the community, they are engaging those opportunities.”
On the North American side, Brethren advocacy efforts have reached out to members of Congress to seek a peaceful solution. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said May 14 U.S. forces were using surveillance drones and a piloted reconnaissance plane to search for the girls. Some politicians have called for more direct military actions.
The U.S. Church of the Brethren has contributed $100,000 to help EYN support refugees that have fled Nigeria. Noffsinger said about 5,000 EYN members are refugees outside Nigeria. An additional $15,000 in grants have been given to support peace initiatives and a water project — both as they relate to refugees — and more continues to come in.
Though a plan is not in place to support refugees long-term, Noffsinger said the Brethren will respond, just as in the past.
“We’ve worked for the resettling of tens of thousands of refugees in our history,” he said, “and if we need to respond to that, we will.”