A Discussion with Nathan Hosler, Director of the Office of Public Witness, Church of the Brethren
January 10, 2018
Background: Nathan Hosler has focused on the active work of the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria for nearly a decade. He is involved in wide-ranging issues (he is currently based in Washington DC), including advocacy for action on Nigeria. That includes the Chibok girls (who were kidnapped from a school started by Church of the Brethren). As part of the WFDD review of faith-inspired peace and development work in Nigeria, he spoke with Katherine Marshall on January 10 about how the Church is involved in deliberate peace-building work, emphasizing community-based outreach and development of curricula to support the work of pastors in conflict-affected regions. He discusses the history of the Church of the Brethren from the 1700s, its move to the US, and especially the 90-year history of the Nigerian Church, Ekklesiyar Yan'uwa a Nigeria, which has been deeply affected by the conflict in northeast Nigeria and upheavals linked to the Boko Haram insurgency.
Can you give us some background on the Church of the Brethren, and how you are involved?
The Church of the Brethren is one of the three traditional peace churches. The Church usually is put with the Mennonites and Quakers but we are closer ecclesiastically to the Mennonites. It started in the early 1700s, 1708 to be precise, influenced by the Anabaptists and radical Pietists in Germany (radical Pietists were a bit like Quakers but the German variety). At the start, several people essentially baptized themselves, which put them at odds with the state church. Within about twenty years, most, if not all, of them were in Pennsylvania, in and around Philadelphia.
So there was a mass exodus?
Yes, and pretty quickly. In the U.S., traditionally we were agrarian and have tended to remain so. The community settled in Pennsylvania originally because of religious freedom but also good farming there. There is a strong concentration still in central Pennsylvania, the Lancaster area, which is where I’m from, the Shenandoah Valley, and Indiana, with clusters of churches in California. In the U.S., there are about a thousand churches and congregations at this point and around a hundred thousand members.
And why Nigeria?
In the 1920s, missionaries went to Nigeria; that’s how we got connected and established there. In Garkida there is a plaque under a tamarind tree that syas, “At this spot in 1923, the first worship service was held.” Since then, the Church, known in Nigeria as Ekklesiyar Yan'uwa a Nigeria (EYN), has grown, rapidly at various points. As in the U.S., it has focused on health, education, and some agricultural development type work. For example, Lassa fever was discovered by a Church of the Brethren person; the first recorded death was a US missionary who got in contact with us in the Lassa area; Lassa is near Chibok, maybe 40 to 45 minutes from the Church of Brethren headquarters, still very much a Church of the Brethren area.
I’m not sure why the first missionaries went to Nigeria. At the time missionaries were going to various places, including India, and now there are small denominations in various places, including Dominican Republic, Haiti, Spain, Brazil, and India. Nigeria is by far the largest, with about a million members. Most congregations in India have been incorporated into the Church of North India but still identify as Church of the Brethren. There are several congregations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Rwanda, and Burundi, with some projects there connected to those relationships. We also have a long-term engagement with South Sudan through the South Sudan Council Churches and Reconcile, which is a Presbyterian peacebuilding organization. We do some, but not much, translation work; some Brethren did some translating in the 1980s based either in South Sudan or Kenya.
Are any Church of the Brethren congregations left in Europe?
For many years, no. But people from the Dominican Church immigrated to Spain for work. They started churches there; then some people from Spain moved to London and started the Church in London. So, the Church of the Brethren is back in Europe, non-continuously, but they have now returned.
Do you trace your family back to the beginning?
I don’t know my genealogy, but I go back at least a few generations. I’m from Lancaster county and my grandparents, both sides, were Church of the Brethren. They were conscientious objectors and did alternative service. At least some of my great-grandparents were, as well.
What about your own trajectory? How did you come to your current role?
After high school, I went with an Eastern Mennonite mission to Baltimore, then Germany, and back to Baltimore (I had few clues as to what I wanted to do at that stage). During that time, I felt a call to ministry and decided I’ll go to college. Before that I didn’t really know people that had gone to college and had assumed the path went straight from high school to business. I didn’t think that was what I should or wanted to do. I ended up studying at Moody Bible Institute, an evangelical school in downtown Chicago. I wanted to be in a city and to study for international ministry. I was a biblical language major. We had to do what’s called a Practical Christian Ministry and so I did homeless ministries once a week for two years, then tutored refugees, where I got to know Somali refugees. I got to know a lot of homeless folks on Michigan Avenue and started thinking about what I would call structural violence. There were a few Mennonites and Quakers on my floor, and we started talking more about peacemaking.
I grew up assuming you didn’t participate in war, thinking that our faith wasn’t a part of it. Gradually, this call to ministry, the background of service, doing disaster ministry work, and then this understanding of being opposed to war morphed into more active thinking about peacemaking. I wanted to study international relations focusing on religion and peacebuilding. My wife at that point was studying community psychology, also focusing on peacebuilding. We met some Brethren folks who were about to start a project in South Sudan. They recruited us, so decided to pause with graduate studies to go with them. But the project fell apart. We were then asked to go to a young adult Brethren conference in Nigeria as representatives of the U.S. Church and met the new executive director of international ministries. He put us in touch with people in Nigeria and within about three months we were on the move to Nigeria. The first Boko Haram attacks happened while we were working on visas. In September 2009, we arrived to help expand their peacebuilding work.
Where were you in Nigeria?
We were in the Northeast, about five or ten miles from Mubi, which was in sight of the Mandara Mountains and an hour and a half from Gwoza (Gwoza is still inaccessible because of Boko Haram). We were there for two years.
We returned to the U.S. because my wife wanted to come back to do her Ph.D. studies and kept getting sick. Right around this time, a job in D.C. with the Church of the Brethren was opening up so we came here. I direct what’s called the Office of Public Witness, which is an office of the denomination of the Church of the Brethren. The Church itself is based outside of Chicago. I am denominational staff.
What does your current work involve?
It involves a range of activities. Traditionally, we work in advocacy with the interfaith and ecumenical communities here in D.C., on particular topics and in working groups. The Washington Interreligious Staff Community includes something like 75 similar offices. We have joint working groups. For example, we started a working group on drone warfare a few years ago with someone from the Friends Committee on National Legislation. I represent us on a number of boards, for example, with Christian Peacemaker Teams and others. I chair the board of Churches for Middle East Peace. I convene the working group on Nigeria, made up of a range of NGOs from humanitarian, like Mercy Corps, to human rights, like Amnesty International and Search for Common Ground. Broadly, the idea is to help the Church of the Brethren do peacebuilding and advocacy work. Yesterday, I met with Ambassador Mozena and a number of staff on Nigeria, briefing them on my trip to Nigeria. Some work involves supporting our international partners in peacebuilding work. When I was in Nigeria I did some workshops with the Female Theologians Conference to help work with their center, where I developed curriculum and taught peacebuilding practice and theology. We helped start an interfaith project called Christians and Muslims for Peace Initiative in Mubi in 2010 and try to find ways to support that work.
Do you spend a lot of time on the Hill? Or is the focus more on trying to shape ideas?
We are on the Hill on some issues. I have one staff person who participates in some working groups there. We keep track of what certain working groups are doing, plugging in when we can. There is an Interfaith Immigration Coalition. We are at the State Department from time to time on Nigeria issues. We have done several congressional briefings focusing on northeast Nigeria. In all our work, we respond to developments wherever we’re working and see where we have connections or places to push. With the new administration, many relationships have changed as have the assumptions of how we work. In this uncertain time, we are focusing on building up the working group’s capacity. We are not building an institution proper but essentially building capacity so that we have more connections and more ability to shape the discussion.
The EYN Church had built the school in Chibok where the girls were abducted. The majority of the girls were Church of the Brethren. The situation is of course bad generally, but particularly bad for our people. I’ve talked to Pam Pryor (Senior Advisor to the President on Religion or Faith), who was really interested. It is obviously related to issues she was concerned about on human trafficking.
It’s hard to know what effect this work has but it raises awareness and maybe helps to shape how people are thinking about an issue and responding to it. We would argue that, yes, security is an important thing, but you cannot just bomb your way out. For the Chibok girls, we want them free, but a military response is not the answer. There are many issues in the Northeast and more generally in Nigeria, that go much deeper and are much longer term. We need to craft responses that account for that so that if we get all the girls back, we (the Church and Nigeria) are in a better spot generally.
You are also working on your Ph.D. What is the focus?
It is from the University of the Western Cape in South Africa. I heard about the school and applied when I was in Nigeria. I’ve submitted my final draft and am waiting for a response back from the examiners. The topic is the work of Stanley Hauerwas on peacemaking and how it can potentially be used in the formation of foreign policy, particularly engaging on issues of religion. I hope to graduate in April.
Let’s focus now on Nigeria. What was the focus of your work there?
They brought us on to develop a peace program. In the early 2000s, Rev. Dr. Toma Ragnjiya, president of Nigeria denomination, had a new realization, after a pastor he had posted was killed during one of the riots, that they needed to focus specifically on peacemaking. It was always understood to be a part of their identity and healthcare work was a sort of extension of this. But they did not have an explicit peace-building program. He came and studied at Eastern Mennonite University and then at Ashland Theological Seminary, focusing on peace. He came back as the peace coordinator, mostly focusing on seminars at either the church or the district level. Around the time we came, they wanted to expand that to a more substantial peace-building program. Jenn was primarily working with him to expand this program and focused on the Christian and Muslim peace-building initiative, which came out of an interfaith conference in January of 2010. We started by organizing materials, helping write pamphlets, working to get them translated, helping to establish a peace-building office, and working with the group, which then had some trainings/dialogues in Mubi. That happened in 2011. The elections took place around that time, and Mubi was one of the few places that did not have explicit violence. They wanted to build relationships before intercommunity violence or distrust built up.
I was primarily developing curriculum and teaching at Kulp Bible College on peacebuilding, theology, and practice. I helped to start a peace club there with the students. They essentially moved as cohorts for their diplomas in theology, so for a whole year they had all the same classes. Peacebuilding was added to every class and program, basically one hour a week, a one-credit course essentially. They put it in every class for every year, so some classes I would have every semester I was there. I kept building on the program, getting more detail, getting more in depth in the broad range of theology—biblical studies and practice. We studied mediation in relation to peace and politics, for the environment and peace, communication, and how that relates to peacemaking, and clusters of topics broadly on peace-building theology and practice.
Were you focused exclusively on that region of Nigeria? What was the conflict situation then?
Yes. We were based in Kulp Bible College, which was about ten kilometers from Mubi, also ten to twenty miles from the Cameroon border. During our time there, tensions in Jos got worse. It was nine hours away, not that close, but my sense is that troubles there affected how people were viewing each other. The complicated conflict centered around local politics but was divided along religious lines. That shaded how people elsewhere understood themselves as being in conflict. There were random attacks here or there or responses to them. A pool table, for example, was burned somewhere; I forget which side was involved or how it happened. But then either Christians or Muslims burned a church or a mosque (that time it was burning churches). They didn’t know who burned it. This sort of thing was happening more regularly. Then after about a year Boko Haram started resurging, making travelling less easy. Then there were very heavily armed robberies happening pretty close to us. The elections of 2011 were pretty violent. When we had to go to Mubi, we were watching our backs as we came out. A lot of people were robbed leaving the bank; they were followed out of the bank and then robbed. By the end we weren’t moving much at all. We returned to the US in December of 2011.
When did violence escalate further? When did the Chibok abductions take place?
The girls were abducted in April 2014. In October 2014, the Church of the Brethren headquarters and the seminary were overrun. They all fled. Very few people had come back by 2016 because it was still considered held territory at that point. When I went back in 2016 to Mubi, that was the furthest north that any US Brethren had gone and the longest anyone had stayed until that point. In November 2017, we stayed for four or five nights, the longest again, any U.S. Brethren had stayed.
How normal did things seem in November?
I would say it feels fairly normal at this point. When I went in early 2016, it felt quite normal, but pretty much every day there was an attack within an hour of where I was. It wasn’t held territory so it was less generally risky, but it was still not really certain. Michika town center hasn’t had an attack for a while, but twenty minutes out attacks happen fairly regularly. Forty minutes up the road is pretty much a no-go area. The situation is uncertain because the territory is so large and the group doing the violence is so dispersed and so small. Nothing ever is really safe but it’s also not consistently dangerous.
What is the Washington-based group working on Nigeria and what is its main focus?
There are about 20 groups connected to the Nigeria Working Group in some way and engaged. Ten people come to a typical meeting. The focus is primarily, almost solely, on the Northeast though most of the groups work on other parts of Nigeria as well. For example, there was a large proposed aircraft sale a year or so ago. Along with Amnesty International, because they’ve documented human rights abuses and lack of accountability by the military, we’ve been raising concerns about this sale, strategically, morally, but also practically, as to what this means and how the accountability should be addressed. Two different letters have been drafted by Amnesty or the other group, which people have signed on to and sent to Secretary Tillerson. A handful of us met with Senator Booker’s staff in the spring letting them know this is happening. Along with Senator Paul’s office, they jointly sent a letter to Tillerson raising concerns around accountability. Last summer we organized a meeting with the senior coordinator on Boko Haram and a number of staff, raising concerns on two clusters of issues: the humanitarian response generally, and accountability. We asked that the sale not go through unless progress was made on accountability. In a follow-up meeting, the Ambassador wanted to talk about third-generation DDR (disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration), involving Search for Common Ground, Mercy Corps, my office, and others.
Third generation DDR? What is that?
It is not exactly defined but essentially refers to reintegration while a conflict is still happening. DDR originally focused on post-conflict demobilizing and disarming. DDR third generation would involve an active conflict and include non-state actors, particularly reintegration of former Boko Haram fighters; we would not work on that but would join discussions. Similar topics could be reintegration of people who have been abducted, who face a fair amount of stigma. We have not done much direct work on that but have discussed with the Church on how this relates. We have done some trauma healing trainings.
Which groups are most active in Washington on Nigeria issues?
Search for Common Ground and Mercy Corps. Mercy Corps has not been as active in the working group recently but are active on the ground. CIVIC (Center for Civilians in Conflict) is involved especially with civilian protection; they work directly with the military primarily, so they do less publicly with us, but contribute to discussions. The 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative has been active in the working group. They focus on religious freedom issues and advocacy, but do not have people on the ground. Nathan Wineinger has been very active. Amnesty has been active in the group as has the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC).
Any Catholic groups?
We just started discussing with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops but they haven’t been involved until now. I’m not sure that they will, but I work with some of their people. They are involved with Churches for Middle East Peace.
Do you encounter concerns about proselytism in Nigeria as a source of conflict? How does it affect the Church of the Brethren?
The Church of the Brethren has been and is being displaced by Boko Haram, and, especially at the beginning, was explicitly targeted. More recently they are broadly hitting everyone but at first the violence was focused on churches, particularly EYN (Ekklesiyar Yan'uwa a Nigeria) because they were present in critical areas. There is a great deal of distrust, the result of feeling that their Muslim neighbors either participated or stood by. In the case of the seminary, they were run out of the seminary by Boko Haram. But sometimes we hear that it wasn’t Boko Haram that ransacked their homes; it was essentially their neighbors. I don’t know why they think that or how far that is verified, but, whatever the case, that’s their feeling and it generates distrust. My mission was to help support the interfaith peace-building work to build those relationships, thus working to differentiate between Boko Haram and the broader community. Certainly proselytism would be a big concern and some people would say a lot of the distrust started there. I asked specifically about this during my last trip. People would always say, “We were friends and neighbors but then trust broke down”.
Some people, or one person who I trust, said that he felt that in the late 1980s and early 1990s the preaching often changed so people on both sides became more aggressive. People became more exclusive in how they preached and this then created divisions that hadn’t been there previously.
The British Colonial government made it difficult for Christian churches to operate in the North. How did the Church of the Brethren come to have such a prominent role in the northern region?
As I understand it, the missionaries worked together, agreeing to go to places that are not already Muslim. They went primarily to areas where traditional religions were strong. I don’t know the process of how the Brethren got there, but they arrived in the 1920s. As the Church records it, they went by boat, then train, then ended up by bicycle. I have not dug around on how the colonial administration affected the history and location.
In parts of the north Christian presence is linked to migration but in the area where EYN is active, that seems less a factor.
They’re all Northerners. They are predominately from ethnic groups like Margi and Kamwe, and so they wouldn’t be proper Hausa. Hausa-Hausa would be focused in Kano, Kaduna, and Sokoto and those were the traditional places where Islam has been for a thousand years. In the Northeast, in places like Adamawa state, for example, the religious breakdown would be 50/50. Everyone speaks Hausa but it’s essentially the language of the street. It wouldn’t typically be studied in school and families would not traditionally have spoken it. Traditional Church of the Brethren languages would be Bura, Margi, and Kamwe.
What language do you speak?
Hausa. Everyone’s common functioning languages would be Hausa and English. The classes were in English; that’s the only official overall language and most schools would function in English. It was officially our policy to teach in English, but many students would come from places where English wasn’t as strong. It was important to strengthen their English so if they worked in a city, for example, they could function.
Are any of the newer evangelical churches active in the area?
There are some. Especially in Jos, ECWA (Evangelical Church Winning All) would be very strong. They are an older evangelical church. There are some Pentecostals, for example Upper Room Chapel. I’m not sure how strong it is in terms of numbers. Their founder, who is part of the Adamawa Peacemakers Initiative, is connected to American University. I met Bishop Peter Makanto last November and we communicate with some regularity; he is Pentecostal, which would be a subset of Evangelical. He is very involved in interfaith peacemaking.
Looking back, what seems to be the most important areas for action on peacebuilding? What makes the most impact?
Two things I think are probably are most significant or most important. The first is local peace work, with Christians and Muslims working for peace, through CAMPI (Christian and Muslim Peace Initiative). This is so important because of the narrative that we can’t trust any Muslims. The work then becomes a direct rebuttal to that. It is also fairly public as a lot of people know about it and their leadership are very proud of it. CAMPI is a subset of the EYN peace program but not quite owned by it; their coordinator helps run it, but it’s owned by the group in each town and is essentially a local association. CAMPI got an award from the German Mennonites and it has expanded now to Yola and has gotten some broader community attention. I was there for the opening of the Borno State executive branch which is in Maiduguri. It’s valuable in building relationships and capacity. It also has become something that EYN identifies with, that challenges the narrative that we can’t trust any Muslims or we can’t live together, which adds practical value and a broader internal public relations value. It helps them more closely identify with being a peace church.
What do you mean by identifying as a peace church?
EYN is part of the Church of the Brethren, and thus a peace church in the same way as Church of the Brethren. Historically they did not participate in the military. But although they would say they are a peace church, they might not have translated that into practice (and I would say the same for the Church of the Brethren), even though this is our official position and this is what we focus on and are known for. There are Church of the Brethren folks who wouldn’t support this or think that they should be opposed to war or be engaged in peacemaking. The work helps to shape the narrative of who they are and what their ministry is in that context. Given the deep distrust in those areas, it is important work.
The second important area would be the curriculum. We made relatively detailed lecture notes, in part to help bridge the language gaps between our accents and Nigerian English. This was to give to our students, but we bound them and left them there. They’re still used as the curriculum. This is important because pastors are so involved and churches are such an essential part of community life, so for pastors to have this basic understanding and skills on peacebuilding and theology has, at least, the potential to have a very long term and deep impact.
With CAMPI and some pastors with this background, hopefully this starts shaping how people think about engaging with their neighbors, how they think about evangelism, how they think about talking about other religions. Not that they will stop doing evangelism, but it will be done in peaceful ways, ways that don’t demonize, ways that fit in that broader framework of peace.
How does this help address the larger challenges facing the region?
This has traditionally been an abandoned, neglected area. Evenbefore Boko Haram. The roads weren’t great, the schools weren’t great, healthcare wasn’t great even before the current conflicts. It is in a spot that doesn’t have a significant resource. It’s fairly isolated. If you think of the North and the elites of the North, you think of Kano, Kaduna, Sokoto. It’s very far from any of those. Especially with the coming of oil, essentially all industries collapsed. If you separate out the Northeast and treated it as a country, it would be at the very bottom of most development indicators. Agriculture is the traditional core of life. A recent Search for Common Ground article noted that overall rainfall has decreased by thirty percent since the 1960s. Lake Chad is dramatically reduced in size. Generally, the desert is moving south, in part due to deforestation and over grazing, in part related to climate change. Around Kulp Bible College, someone said that around ten years before we were there, in the early 2000s or late 1990s it was thick forest, but when we were there it had primarily been turned into farming land with a few trees that were gradually being cut down for firewood.
Is millet the staple crop? Are there many livestock? Export crops?
Yes, and a lot of groundnuts and maize. The Fulani have herds around there and pass through after the harvest. Some of them are fairly settled; there is a permanent Fulani village maybe a quarter mile from Bible College with some cattle, but bigger herds would also come through. This has been part of the expanding conflicts: where and how they graze. Are there tracks they can pass through and not disturb the communities or come at the wrong time? When we were there, the librarian’s kid tried to chase cows off the field during the harvest, and he got cut by a machete. He survived but these conflicts are common.
Some people sell extra crops for school fees at the local market, but few have any capacity to store. If they stored they often lose some to termites. Market are flooded with all the same thing at the same time. Through the Global Food Initiative, a Church of the Brethren grant-giving body, a soybean project aimed to build some infrastructure and capacity for developing an export crop to build a cash-crop capacity. Some vegetables are grown but pretty much for local consumption.
So there is really not much to build on.
No. When I was there in November, the roads, at least to Yola, were being repaired but the road into Mubi was atrocious. It was actually much worse than just the dirt, and much worse than a pot-holed blacktop road. Getting anywhere is really difficult and now much (especially bridges) have been destroyed. Repairs are precarious looking. You certainly couldn’t do any massive exporting out of there.
What role does the Church of the Brethren play in the health system? Are there government clinics? Other churches? And what about education?
EYN runs rural health clinics, which we helped to start initially. They provide very basic healthcare; typically, they are places that don’t even have electricity, so vaccines would be a problem. The Church leadership sees these services as a way of peacemaking because anyone in the community is welcome to come. They were proud of that and it is a good sign generally. I met an EYN guy on a flight who painted a very grim picture of what was basically the collapse of the healthcare system. He teaches at the University of Maiduguri and is doing his Ph.D. dissertation on the primary health system in Gombe State. In many places, all clinics, government or private, do not have money to run or they have been destroyed, and don’t have money to repair what had been destroyed.
I think the schools function a bit better. I understand that before Boko Haram there were something like 8.2 million kids not in school in the Northeast alone. The Church has some secondary schools, primary schools, nursery schools, and primary schools tied to actual congregations, but I don’t know the numbers. When I was there in early 2016, I got to Lassa; it’s near Chibok, in the same area. There, about a thousand kids were meeting in a destroyed police officer barracks, taught by 15 volunteer teachers who didn’t have any text books, maybe some chalk for the chalk boards on the walls. It’s pretty rough.
How far do the polarized politics of the North, the corruption issues, the military, play roles?
There is not much to grab in the Northeast. Overall, my feeling is that people are pretty pessimistic or perhaps they have lower standards as to what they expect on issues of accountability. They assume that this is a sort of thing that happens. When they speak positively, it’s hard to know if it is an actual positive or if it’s because they expect total neglect from the government so any action seems good. If they don’t deliver humanitarian aid, people expect to manage on their own.
The government in Borno State has rebuilt a few EYN churches, in part to appear equitable among communities. EYN’s leadership spoke with the governor saying, “You’re the governor for all of us. You can’t just rebuild mosques and not churches.” So they rebuilt a few churches, but there is still discrimination against Christians. All public schools have religious studies and actually they are all pretty confessional. In Borno State, at least, the assumption is that all people working on education are Muslim, so Islam is taught as if it’s true. They’ll say things like, the so-called this or that of Christians. People do express concerns about the general feelings of marginalization, particularly in Borno State. Adamawa State is more divided. In the northern part of the state, there are greater concentrations of Muslim communities, but even in Michika, it’s still majority Christian. They feel they are not being taken care of by their government.
How is EYN/the Church of the Brethren organized in Nigeria?
Similar to us they have an annual conference called Majalisa. In their case, only pastors come and vote on policy. That’s where they make policy. In our case, we send delegates from congregations and it is not necessarily a pastor.
How many pastors would there be?
Definitely hundreds, probably thousands.
They have headquarters staff, and a president who is voted in (which we do not have). They have a president, vice president, general secretary and all sorts of other staff, at national, district, and local levels (DCC and LCC). The LCCs are basically local congregations. The DCC is a cluster, for example with congregations in the Michika district. The national headquarters is in Kwarhi, which is near Mubi. They run several programs: an agricultural program, an integrated community development program which would include healthcare and HIV programs, a women’s ministry that’s pretty new, and the peace program. Unlike the U.S. Church, they appoint pastors to each congregation, so the leadership gathers every year and each pastor moves about every five years. They must have some elaborate system where there is list of each person that needs to go to different places and each place that needs different pastors. I’ve never been involved in that granular detail. The Nigeria Church is by far the largest Church of the Brethren in the world, with over a million members.
Are there congregations in all the states or just in the Northeast?
Most are in the Northeast. There are a few congregations in Abuja and a sprinkling in other places, mostly people from the north who have travelled. Most would still be Hausa-speaking, as well as English.
What has been the effect of the conflicts and Boko Haram?
At the height of Boko Haram, 70 percent of their people were displaced. About 10,000 to 15,000 were killed, and several hundred abducted. Seventy percent of their churches were destroyed. In Michika, only one of the 16 churches made it through without being destroyed. In the first attack in 2009, their largest church, which was in Maiduguri, was destroyed. There are still 17,000 members in Cameroon who can’t return to the Gwoza area. It’s a very bad situation.
The populations that are likely to be displaced for the longest periods are from the outskirts of Maiduguri. The IDPs in Maiduguri are entirely dependent on external support and the security outside of Maiduguri is still so bad that the likelihood of them going back anytime soon is pretty minimal. The same is true in the Gwoza area, which has much fewer people but still pretty substantial. Those two spots, for me, are where there will be the most long-term displacement. A “benefit” of the place being so neglected is that everyone is used to managing on their own, so they’re better at getting back. They don’t have the resiliency of background resources available. However, they are used to subsistence farming so when they can get somewhere they can function as they used to. It’s not like it is back to normal, but they can manage more on their own than an urban population. That would not be the case in Maiduguri. It’s hard to escape.
What has been the effect of the Chibok girls crisis? How far are you involved in the advocacy efforts?
We are quite involved. One of our congressional briefings focused on that, and we’ve done some events here in D.C. We’ve done internal stuff. Right after the abductions, for example, our headquarters divided up the list of names and sent one name to each congregation in the US and asked them to pray for this girl. My parents hosted a girl who was in the US for a few weeks. We’ve been engaged in those sorts of ways. When I’m in Abuja I usually go to the daily vigil. It was the 1,330th day since the abductions when I was there this time. The EYN hasn’t been a driving force in the organizing, and we haven’t been a driving force of that particular piece here in Washington. They were too isolated and there wasn’t the capacity, or much awareness or engagement on things like advocacy. This last trip made a lot of progress on making some connections and that feels like it will empower them. When EYN’s leaders were in town last year, I took them around to USIP and a few different places. But they themselves are displaced and were worrying about surviving so they weren’t involved in much extra.
We work with Dr. Rebecca Dali, whose organization is Center for Caring, Empowerment and Peace Initiatives. She has been collecting names during her humanitarian and trauma healing response, a lot in Michika areas and Chibok areas. She has names, locations, and dates of 4,000 people who have been abducted. And she has the names, dates, and locations of 48,000 people killed, which is from a fairly limited place. She was getting this information from people after giving support, so it’s not guesses. It pushes the numbers of those affected far higher than what’s being reported.
We are concerned about the Chibok girls but hope to use the special interest to raise awareness on other things. Even with Congresswoman Wilson, who is vocal on this topic, we are trying to get her to pick up on broader themes beyond these girls, to the much broader trend of abductions and suffering.
Of all the peace-building work you know about in Nigeria, what do you admire most, or what do you think has the most promise?
There are a lot of initiatives happening but not a clear sense of how they relate and their impact. The imam and the pastor are great. But often when I tell people I worked in Nigeria, they assume the imam and pastor are active in my area of the Northeast. But they are far away. Much of the work on peacebuilding is too little tied to resilience and long-lasting institutions. In Nigeria, schools would be one such place. Churches and mosques are other places where there is a lot of capacity, where people gather, and where there is a lot of institutional space. Having that become more ingrained is a high priority and it is exciting to see places where that’s continuing to develop.
I was excited to learn during this trip that TEKAN, an association of northern churches, had asked for our curriculum so that they could use that in all their seminaries. I wasn’t quite sure that they should use it as is, but we sent it to them so they could work with it. So, some of the ideas are connected. We also developed an outline of a master's program in peacebuilding at a consultation last October. The proposal is to incorporate peace studies of some sort in all the main seminaries. EYN has their main one, which is called Bible College and there are other bible schools which have lower-level diplomas.
I don’t know if all of these churches are going to incorporate peace studies in all of the institutions of theological education or just in the main ones. They’ve essentially mandated it, working to develop it in more detail. They’re calling it Peace and Conflict Management Studies. In some way, it will be formally included in all of the institutions, whether by class or having the degree. That’s a pretty exciting development. That was part of the impetus of the EYN initially. Not only the experience of this one pastor and leader, but a lot of the churches, as conflict started becoming more normal, led a number of churches to turn to the EYN as a peace church. Having this be picked up by this broader ecumenical body and other churches was significant. Of course, it doesn’t get to everything that’s happened but it’s further entrenching, focusing on multiple levels. The theological college in northern Nigeria in Jos is the main, big seminary. They run through graduate level, though I don’t think they do Ph.D. work. They have master's work, at least, so EYN pastors who have done advanced studies have gone there.
How much resonance did you find in discussing women working for peace?
In November 2016, Jenn and I did a three-hour workshop with Bible College, broadly on peacebuilding, but focusing on Jenn’s community psychology, which we called community research and action, and then advocacy. The first hour was theology, then community research and action, and advocacy. I gave the narrative of this development and pulled out some themes: cooperation across NGOs and churches ecumenically, etc. After this, the provost of the college asked us to come back to do a week-long seminar, which we haven’t been able to do yet. The vice provost, who is the coordinator of the EYN female theologians group, asked us to lead the entire female theologians conference in November. She invited us because she heard us talk and had interest in expanding their efforts in peacebuilding and advocacy. One of our colleagues is meeting with female theologians and women’s ministry. Some of the interest is around humanitarian or education issues, and the women theologians are broadly concerned with this. Most of them would like to be ordained but EYN doesn’t ordain women, but these are all women who have had theological education. They were also interested in thinking about how to organize themselves both for community needs but also as part of this goal to be ordained and become pastors. I did two sessions with them and another expat worker from Mission 21.