Throughout the course of this year, we at Freedom to Lead will be intermittently featuring segments called “These Are Their Stories.” We will be telling stories of men and women throughout Asia and Africa who have been impacted by God’s work in their lives and leadership through Freedom to Lead.
In our first edition we heard from “Owen” in Zimbabwe. This week we hear the story of “Stephen” from Nigeria. Stephen just started participating in Freedom to Lead’s The Garden Project. He is the husband of one, father of two. Stephen works as a church planter among his people in Nigeria.
After spending a few hours that morning discussing Leadership for a Healthy Church through stories, images and music, Stephen leaned over the table to me and said with light in his eyes,
“I have been craving for something like this! Something that I can take back to my people. I’m just getting started in my ministry and this will be very helpful.”
He went on to share his story with me.
Like many places in Africa, Nigeria operates regionally by tribe. There are “Muslim” tribes and there are “Christian” tribes. Whoever is dominant in that region maintains the power. Stephen was born in the north where the power belongs to the Muslims. That means that the Muslims have a say in what kind of job one is allowed to have once he reaches age. Stephen grew up with a military father and an Anglican mother. From the time he was young he knew he wanted to help people. He thought that meant he would become a doctor someday. However, the Muslims in his area would not allow Christians to have “professional” jobs. Not sure of the options that he had, he discovered that he had an uncle living in the south. His uncle took him under his care and became Stephen’s guardian. Stephen was able to get an education in the south. His uncle’s Christian influence encouraged Stephen to walk away from medicine and begin a journey toward studying to be an Anglican priest.
But Stephen began to discover that he had different giftings from formal priesthood. People would come to his room at school for bible study. And then more people would come. And the next week even more people would come. From a young age he was planting a church without realizing that’s what he was doing. The school didn’t like what was happening and told him to stop. He tried to stop, but the people kept coming. One day he met someone from the Church of the Nazarene. Different from his Anglican upbringing, there was something appealing to him about the Nazarenes.
The story from here gets a little confusing. Stephen was out of school at this point and was pastoring a church of his own. Keep in mind he was now in the “Christian” south of Nigeria. Perhaps Christian in name only, the chief of the town began to get agitated with Stephen and his church. Then people from another “church” went to the chief of the town and collaborated together with members of the military. In the middle of the night they came to Stephen’s house and beat him and tortured him. He spent three days in the hospital recovering from his wounds. He has scars on his back today as a testament. But this did not stop Stephen from pastoring his flock. He remains there to this day.
I should probably point out that when this all got back to his military father he was not too happy. Let’s just say that he had a “word” with the chief of the town and they haven’t bothered Stephen much since.
We Have a Lot to Learn
As Stephen finished his story he said, “what you are doing in the west is very important to bring these materials for us because we have a lot to learn from the western church.” I took that opportunity to say with utmost sincerity, “No, Stephen, we have a lot to learn from YOU. At the beginning of this week remember how we counted around the room and to discover that a total of 620 years of ministry experience are represented among the leaders here? 620 years! And your story, Stephen? It needs to be told. Much of the American church is in decline. We need to learn from leaders like you who serve in the Global South. Freedom to Lead is not here in Dakar just to give you materials to take back to your churches. We are asking you to be contributors as well. No, Stephen…we have a lot to learn from you.”
He looked at me with tears in his eyes when he told me that nobody had said it that way before. To be told that he is not just a receiver, but a contributor moved him greatly.
We hear a lot in the news about Nigeria these days. We’ve been hearing stories lately of fundamentalist Muslims ransacking Christian villages and churches and killing the people. What neglects to be mentioned is that “Christians” are also beating their own. We put the face of Stephen as the poster child for the persecuted church. We should certainly be invited to pray for Christians in Nigeria. But after meeting Stephen this week, “the persecuted church” is not ALL that he is. That’s not all of his identity. Stephen is a man full of joy in the Lord. He is a man who delights in his children. He is animated as he tells stories and role plays dramas. He is a deep thinker and passionate follower of Jesus. He doesn’t’ shy away from the hard questions. He has a true desire to learn what it means to be a Christ-centered leader.
We talked with Stephen again last week. He said to us,
“I am putting plans together to begin (FTL) conferences to spread the word across my country beginning this month. I am blessed to have been associated with this. You are changing the world for Christ.”
We have a lot to learn from our brother Stephen.