In Middle Eastern churches and the Christian communities of northern Nigeria, our brothers and sisters are suffering. To most of us in other parts of the world, and especially in the West, it is almost unimaginable.
The largest Church of the Brethren fellowship in the world is in Nigeria. Its membership is reported as somewhere between 160,000 and 350,000. Last fall, MWR reported 96,000 of these members had been displaced by violence. Many thousands have been killed.
Incredible suffering lies beneath these cold statistics.
One of the most heart-wrenching stories comes from Wagga, Nigeria. “Sarah,” a single mother of a 13-year-old mentally challenged daughter, fled for her life to the mountains last July with many others. There she discovered to her horror that her daughter had been left behind.
Should she return to seek her daughter? Was it even possible that she was still alive? Sarah had no way of knowing.
She returned, and there she was reunited with her daughter, who had been brutally raped by the militants of Boko Haram. The few remaining Christian women in the town made pacts with neighbor Muslim men to live together, not as married couples but as cover from the marauders. Whenever the men were gone, the women met for prayer: “God, how can I escape to the mountains?”
The Church of the Brethren then reported that Sarah had a vision at Christmas and once again escaped but had to leave her daughter behind. She was reunited with her two younger children in Jos, but carries again the agonizing question, “Is my daughter still alive?”
The story ends there, at least for now. But for her and thousands of others, the agony continues. Mennonite World Conference leaders are pleading for an outpouring of prayer and financial assistance for this sister Anabaptist church, which is committed to the way of peace in the midst of indescribable, overwhelming suffering.
The only way I can begin to picture it is to imagine this: Half the Anabaptist church members of North America are driven from our homes, with tens of thousands of our brothers and sisters killed. The devastation is greatest in our traditional centers such as Lancaster, Pa.; Elkhart, Ind.; Newton, Kan.; and Winnipeg, Man. Those who remain live in daily fear for our lives. Half of our conferences are closed, and across the continent our buildings have been destroyed. Provisional refugee centers in Texas and Mexico struggle to accommodate 200,000 of us.
How shall we respond?
In Egypt, Christian brothers and sisters are mourning the deaths of 21 Coptic Christians at the hands of the Islamic State. A brother of two of the martyrs called in to a Christian television program, celebrating their faithfulness unto death.
“Our mother is more than 60 years old,” he said to the British satellite network Sat-7. “She is an uneducated village woman. I asked her what she would do if she met one of the men who killed her two sons. ‘I would invite them into my home,’ she said. ‘I have forgiven them. I pray that their eyes will be opened to the truth.’ ”
Overwhelming, unspeakable suffering. Astounding, forgiving love.
For us as followers of Jesus, there can scarcely be more significant international news than this. It will only be the last, piercing trumpet call from the skies, announcing the return of Jesus, that should supplant it at the top of the news.
Until then, how shall we respond?
Richard Showalter, currently in Nairobi, Kenya, is chair of Mennonite World Conference’s Mission Commission.