When Joel S. Billi became president of the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria in 2016, the Boko Haram insurgency was beginning to wane. People were returning home to face their losses, including staff displaced from the church headquarters and pastors and congregations who had fled their communities.
Families had lost loved ones. Churches, homes and businesses had been destroyed. Almost everyone had experienced trauma.
Two years later, in November, trauma and crisis continued. Boko Haram — a militant group also known as the Islamic State in West Africa — was attacking and even controlling some northeast areas, and extremist elements among the Fulani cattle herders were carrying out deadly attacks in the central belt.
“The life of a Nigerian today is not worth that of a chicken,” Billi said. He believes it is time for Christians in Nigeria to band together to ask the government to end the violence. Some 1,300 or more soldiers were killed from July to October 2018. Four of the 55 districts of the Ekklesiyar Yan’uwa a Nigeria (EYN, Church of the Brethren in Nigeria) were not functioning because their areas were too dangerous.
Nigerian Brethren have seen little or no benefit from the government’s claim to be rebuilding the northeast, Billi said. Borno State aid helped rebuild 15 EYN churches destroyed by the insurgency. Many more churches received no government aid. State-run facilities like hospitals received little help. Bridges and roads remained in ruins.
The insurgency drastically cut giving, with many Nigerian Brethren displaced, lacking access to income from farms or employment. Returning congregations face the cost of rebuilding their churches. Many people are homeless, and poverty is rampant.
Billi expressed gratitude to the U.S. church for its gifts. “Thanks be to God for the Church of the Brethren, which has stood by EYN,” he said.
Giving to Nigeria by American Brethren has been unprecedented, Billi said, with more than $4 million donated. “For such an amount of money to be gathered up in such a short time, less than five years!” he exclaimed. “It has gone a long way and has touched people’s lives.”
Billi listed successes of the Nigeria Crisis Response, a joint effort of EYN and the Church of the Brethren funded by this giving: support for camps for displaced people, medical care, trauma healing and more. One specific EYN Disaster Ministry program is to rebuild homes, with priority given to widows and the aged.
The task of rebuilding churches has been helped by grants to EYN congregations, also funded by American donors. As of Nov. 2018, 40 EYN congregations each received $5,000, totaling $200,000. Some congregations sent representatives to EYN headquarters to express gratitude with letters and small gifts.
Billi’s next priority is evangelism. The persecution of the church has resulted in growth for EYN, which has been expanding into new areas. “People have fled and have taken the church with them,” he said. “Not too long from now, EYN’s presence will be felt in all of Nigeria.”
EYN has celebrated the “autonomy” or full congregational status of an unprecedented number of churches in the last two years. Before the crisis, EYN welcomed seven or eight new churches each year, but in 2017, 23 were organized. As of November, more than 20 had been organized in 2018, as well as two new districts. In early December, EYN inaugurated a Lagos district. This is significant because Lagos is the largest city in Nigeria, far from EYN’s established territory.
Despite the growth, some church members are looking for more. EYN membership is enthusiastic about evangelism and “some are saying we are slow in church planting; we should move faster.”
Billi celebrates the growth with mixed feelings, because he does not want the daughter church to surpass its parent. He has observed that “the Church of the Brethren is shrinking” and that its unity is threatened by theological differences.
“I always pray that the Church of the Brethren remain as an entity, that EYN remain as an entity,” he said. “We want the Church of the Brethren to be a peace church, to influence all the denominations and attract people to join us.”
This article appears with permission from Messenger magazine, published by the Church of the Brethren. Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford is director of news services for the Church of the Brethren and associate editor of Messenger.