Africa’s two largest Mennonite populations are in Congo and Ethiopia. Although Mennonite Church Nigeria is small by comparison — 18,700 members, according to Mennonite World Conference — UmoAbasi is pouring energy into its growth.
“My vision is for a church that anybody in Nigeria can be proud of, a church that sees the dignity of [the human being], a church [of] integrity, a church that makes people feel like they belong,” UmoAbasi said. “A church like this will go viral.”
UmoAbasi expressed appreciation for his relationship with Mennonite Mission Network and the agency’s director for Africa, Steve Wiebe-Johnson, saying they had opened doors to the worldwide church community.
“They have been powerfully in support of everything that we do, a source of encouragement to the work in Nigeria,” he said. “It is like a family. When it seems like we don’t understand eachother, Bruce [Yoder] tries to figure it out with love,” UmoAbasi said.
Yoder is a mission worker based in Burkina Faso and the most regular MMN contact to Nigeria in the past 12 years.
Mennonite Church Nigeria hasn’t always appreciated the mission agency.
In 1954, MMN predecessor agency Mennonite Board of Missions received a letter from a group of African-Initiated Churches in southeastern Nigeria stating that they wanted to join the denomination.
Ed and Irene Weaver, mission workers sent to assess the situation, determined that there were already so many varieties of churches in this highly Christianized region that working toward church unity and leadership training were higher priorities than adding yet another denomination.
While this decision led MMN into a new mission paradigm of respecting cultural context and working alongside indigenous churches, it didn’t endear them to the Nigerians wanting to become Mennonites. They perceived the resulting actions as abandonment by their North American brothers and sisters.
The exodus of most expatriate Mennonite mission workers from Nigeria at the onset of the Biafran War in 1967 further increased the alienation between Nigerian and North American Mennonites, which continued for more than three decades.
James R. Krabill, MMN’s senior executive for Global Ministries, outlined the history of Mennonite Church Nigeria in three periods — a long birthing process (1954-76), a time of internal leadership struggle (1977-95), and a reconciliation process of binding wounds and healing (1996-2013).
Now we are seeing the beginning of the fourth chapter, Krabill said — the blossoming and growth of Mennonite Church Nigeria.
UmoAbasi and others in church leadership embraced Krabill’s words as prophetic during a seminar with MMN personnel Feb. 22-25.
Signs of growth are evident — a new church headquarters in Ikot Ada Idem with offices and a guest house, a Bible school, renovated church buildings, the Mennonite Star School, a drinking-water bottling project and development projects that include life skills and apprenticeships.
Perhaps the surest indication of all is a committed and dynamic group of young adults.
Psalmist Ekpedeme Jackson, national youth president, said that Mennonite Youth Fellowship Nigeria aims to “bring together all young men and women to focus on preaching Jesus’ gospel of love, peace and progress, as well as encouraging our members to pursue education or embark on a trade.”
Musician Sampson Ukeme Etim is training a 1,500-voice youth choir to do evangelism through song, drama, dance and campaigns. They are also preparing to share the good news of Jesus through agricultural projects and community health initiatives to fight against the spread of HIV/AIDS, malaria and other communicative diseases.
Mennonite Church Nigeria is investing heavily in buildings. According to UmoAbasi, this is a way of showing financial accountability to church members. They have visual proof of how their giving is being used. It is also a form of African hospitality.
“When our church members come to a gathering, we need to accommodate them in a decent [lodging] and feed them and give them a sense of pride,” he said.
Most of all, the buildings are a place of welcome.
“If we are concentrating on building, it is because in the nearest future, Mennonite Church Nigeria will be large in terms of numbers,” he said. “Building in Africa is not an exhibition of wealth. It is [a form] of evangelism.”