Praying for the Sick

Having written about Umayyatu, and prayer for her parents, I should say a few words about that first visit to our partners’ village.

I had been told that the Fulbe were cattle herdsmen, so I preached a sermon on John 10, talking about Jesus the Good Shepherd. This was my first experience preaching through a translator, as well as the first time I have ever preached “in the round.” That is to say, the people were all sitting down in a semi-circle, with me more or less in the middle. Not knowing the custom, I stood to speak, and Aminu, my translator stood beside me. (These days I know better, and will remain seated when I wish to speak there.)

Anyway, as I recall, the sermon was not great (or even that good, if the truth be told). Nothing really new there.

But I did have the thought (thinking here along the lines of 2 Thessalonians 1.11-12), before I left our house in Gembu, that the folks in this village were a long way from any medical services, and that it might be good to take along a little bit of cooking oil just in case there were a need to use it there.

So after speaking in the service I asked Pastor Aminu if he thought it would be a good thing to offer prayer for the sick with the anointing of oil. He said it would be a good idea, and he translated my offer to the people.

As it turns out, there were many sick people in the little hamlet, hidden away in multiple compounds. The Wakili – the spiritual leader who, along with Aminu, had invited me there – asked me to come to his own compound first; one of his wives and his youngest daughter were both ill and had not attended the service.

With Pastor Aminu translating, I explained that what I was about to do was not a kind of magic; there was nothing special about the cooking oil. The power to heal rested in God himself; we were simply obeying him when we prayed and anointed people in his name (cf. James 5.13-16). Having said that I put a little dab of oil on my thumb and made the sign of the cross on Fadima’s forehead, praying in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for her healing. I was then taken to Jamilatu’s room and did the same for her.

While there was no visible result from these prayers, the effect on the people was striking. Suddenly we were beset by requests from many of the other folks there, asking us to come and pray for sick loved ones. Others simply wanted us to come and pray for God’s blessing on their compounds. So we trekked from compound to compound, anointing with oil, praying for healing and well-being. We must have gone into about a dozen or homes in that space of time – there were not many that we missed.

At one point two little boys were brought to us, and I asked my son Robert if he would anoint and pray for them, which he did. I must confess, that was a proud moment for me.

The ride home after all that was terrible. Feeling an emotion that Elijah would probably identify with, all I wished to do was crawl under the nearest rock big enough to hide me. All I could think of was those poor people behind us, suffering from all manner of disease, and who knew what would happen to them now. If God did not hear and answer our prayers, what would become of them – and their faith?

When we arrived home I found myself a solitary place and prayed long and hard once more, for God to hear our prayers, glorify himself, and have mercy on these poor people.

It was another two weeks or so before I had any word from Pastor Aminu. I tentatively asked him how things were in the village (“Lord, I believe, but help Thou my unbelief!”), along with those for whom we had prayed. He reported that all was well in the village, and – to my great relief – said those we had prayed were all doing well.

I had no great faith in myself or my prayers during that trip; but am happy to say that God once more proved himself faithful. He is a loving and powerful God, and I am glad to serve him.

Ummayyatu’s Story

At about the age of three, my little friend Ummayyatu already has a story to tell. As with any three year old, however, the story begins with her parents.

I met Iliyasu and Asma’u on my very first trip out to their village. I had not been in the country very long (maybe two weeks or so), and I had been invited to come preach there by the Wakili and Pastor Aminu, who I had met earlier that week. It was a Wednesday – I remember because Wednesdays are when they have their longer worship service, since Sunday is a market day for them.

I preached a very poor sermon on Jesus being the good shepherd (because my friends back in Gembu had said that the Fulbe were herders and this would be a good passage to preach on), and then asked my friend Aminu if any sick people in the village would like to anointed with oil and prayed over (I had brought a little vial of cooking oil with me). He said that would be a good idea, and so we began.

One couple we prayed for was Iliyasu and Asma’u. They had been married for about ten years at that point, but had no children – and for them, as Christians in that culture, this was a terrible thing – akin to having the curse of God upon you (or, at least, that is what others might think of them). I anointed them both with oil, prayed in the name of the triune God, then continued on.

About a year later, on my last trip to the village, they had still not conceived. As I was readying to leave, Asma’u caught me and, in very halting English, pled with me not to forget to pray for her in her plight. I promised her I would not, and when I got back to Canada I enlisted the ladies from our home church, Elim Baptist in Manitoba, to remember her in prayer, while Sonya and I continued to pray for her as well.

About a year later we heard the good news that Asma’u had become pregnant, and we were filled with joy and anticipation. That feeling turned to dust in our mouths, however, as the little boy was stillborn. I was heartbroken over that, and could not imagine how Asma’u and her husband Iliyasu felt. Nor could I find out for another year, when I finally went back to visit.

On that visit, in 2012, I was told by Pastor Aminu that the death of the baby was most likely preventable, but that the young couple had been let down by the medical staff there. When I finally met them in their compound they were stoic (as Fulbe traditionally are, in fact), and Iliyasu explained to me that, after all, “this was the will of God and we must accept it.”

I was horrified by that thought. As people coming out of Islam, all Christian Fulbe will be subject to the danger of a fatalist theology – the idea that everything that happens, good or bad, does so because God had ordained it. So over a lunch of jallof rice and tea I began to share with them a more Christian understanding of the ways of God.

I reminded them of the OT prophets, who they were familiar with; men who spoke for God to proclaim that the way things were was not what God had willed. All over the place, people were doing things that we all knew was not according to the will of God. Furthermore, I told them, God was not in the business of taking babies. He receives them to himself, yes, but he does not take them.

All during my talk their eyes steadily widened, and at the end they looked at each other with palpable relief and gladness. They had accepted their “fate,” but with sad and burdened hearts. Now that they had heard the truth they were freed from the lie of Islam and fatalism, and knew their grief had not been brought to them by God’s hand. (I decided I ought to preach that message to the larger body of Fulbe believers, and was met with the same reaction wherever I spoke on it.)

The next year or so we heard the news that Asma’u had conceived once again. Our happiness was tinged with great concern this time, but in the end our joy was crowned with the birth of a little baby girl.

When it came time for the naming ceremony, about a month or so after the birth, I suppose the name just came naturally to her parents. They named her Ummayyatu – “Mother of a Tribe.” They explained to me that they named her that because so many people came to the naming ceremony of this little miracle, including relatives they had not seen in many years, that it was as though she had given birth to a whole tribe.

It was a long while before I was able to visit the little miracle girl. My friend Jim Black was there before me, and he says she would not stop screaming when she saw him – he reminded her of the white doctor who had given her shots at the hospital (Dr. Jim Smith in Banyo, Cameroon – really, a wonderful man). So when I knew I would be able to get back to the village I told Iliyasu he needed to show her pictures of me, and tell her, “So baajo am, Jeff” – “This is our friend, Jeff.”

It worked. Like most Fulbe children, Ummayyatu was shy, but not afraid, when she met me, and I am glad to say we got along pretty well.

Thanks so much for your prayers for this precious little miracle girl. She and her little sister(!), Hawwa’u, had been suffering from malaria, but now they are well again. Praise God.

Widows’ Housing

In Acts 6.1-7 a problem developed in the early church over the treatment of some of the widows under their care. After they had successfully solved the problem by ensuring the widows were all taken care of equally, Luke reports that the word of God spread, the number of disciples increased rapidly, including a significant number of priests – and the way he says it leads us to believe that it was how they treated the widows that had a direct bearing on the willingness of these people to give the gospel a hearing.

Among the Christian Fulbe a problem with the widows has also been noticed, though it is not of their doing. Older Christian women who have lost their husbands will normally live in the same village as their grown sons. However, if their sons are Muslim – which many of them are – it is often the case that the Christ-following mothers are neglected and ostracized in their communities.

Our brothers and sisters have decided that they need to do something about this. They have so far built two very modest homes (basically multi-plexes, with four and eight women in a structure, each woman having just one room) in their villages and  have taken some of these women in.

The strategy is two-fold. First, it gives these women a place to live, and be, where they are loved and cared for, and are able to practise their Christian faith without fear of hindrance. Second, it makes for an evangelistic opportunity. A Muslim son can ignore his mother when he lives next door to her, but when she moves away he is obligated by custom to go out of his way to visit her. So these Muslim family members (because not just sons will be obligated to visit) will come to these Christian villages, meet followers of Jesus, see how everyone – including their relatives – live, and will even attend worship services there.

When I was in our partner village last year at this time I lived beside Gogo for about a week. Gogo (which means “Auntie”) was one of these Christian widows languishing in her own village before our Christian partners took her to live with them. She was about eighty years old, in good health (since then she has had a mild stroke, but has mostly recovered), and very cheerful.

You had to go out of your way to visit her, but she seemed to have visitors very often: old people, children, middle aged men and women. I asked her how her life had changed since she has come to live in the village. I thought her smile was as big as it could be, but when I asked her that it grew even larger.

“Just happiness – joy and happiness all the time,” she told me. She praised God for bringing her to such a place where the love of Jesus was so evident.

Our church has been blessed to be a part of the building of these homes, as have a few others. To me, this is what partnership is all about: helping our partners’ vision be fulfilled and seeing the fruit of the gospel for the Kingdom.

A Woman to Celebrate

Here is a woman to celebrate on International Women’s Day: my good friend Bilkisu.

This young woman is a daughter, a sister, an auntie, a wife, a mother (seen here with her little guy), and – you guessed it – a student presently studying Law at a university in Taraba State. She is extremely intelligent and gifted, and though her education to this point (i.e. her elementary and high school) has not been of the highest quality, she is putting her talents to good use and is engaged on a program of studies designed to help all of her people.

Why the law? Here in Canada and the US we have funny jokes about lawyers – and over in Nigeria they always get the joke! But the study of law is still important for Christians and especially for women.

In Manitoba when we got home from Nigeria in 2008 we discovered that our church had been shafted – literally! There was a huge hole in our foyer floor that was built for an elevator shaft, but with no elevator to go in it, because the contractor had not fulfilled his part of the contract. I decided that it was in line with our Christian ethos to contact a lawyer (a good guy, living in Winnipeg), and he was able to help us out of the jam post-haste.

In Nigeria almost the first thing I heard from my Fulbe friends was the need for “Human rights.” Not just Fulbe people, but people from all different people groups there regularly have their legal rights trampled upon – as I also did on some of my trips through the country. This is able to happen because people are ignorant of the law, and have no idea what their “rights” really are.

This is especially true for women there, who are less well-educated, and are often the target of unscrupulous villains (I am not exaggerating here, but do not have time to elaborate).

Bilkisu wants to change that.

Her great dream is to become a full-fledged lawyer, and help her people through the legal process there. It is questionable whether she will be able to realize that particular dream – the issue of resources is standing in her way. My wife and I have been helping her a bit through school, but the costs for law school are inordinate obstacles to her, and our, resources. So she is earning her law diploma for now, learning the rudiments of Nigerian Law, so that she can go back to her communities and talk to the women there (as no male lawyer ever could), and educate them in their rights and freedoms in the country.

Bilkisu starts eight days of exam writing tomorrow (March 8th). Say a little prayer for her, if you will, that she will be able to articulate well the things she has learned, and will do well in coming days. Circumstances dictate that she is sacrificing time with her family while she studies (during the school year she lives in a city in the north, while they are further south in a small village), so pray too that she will not be lonely or discouraged during this time. If you would like to know you can help her out financially, send me a note and I will let you know.

The Alhaji’s Widows

An Alhaji is a person who has made the haj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca, one of the Islamic holy places. My friend the Alhaji Guni made the pilgrimage earlier in his life.

When I met him in 2008 he was already an older man, very well-respected, old-fashioned, and set in his ways. He was a Muslim, but open to hearing about the Christian claims about Jesus. When our friends had been made refugees back in 2002 he was the one who arranged for them to come and settle back on the Mambilla Plateau, where they are now.goliath-alhaji-wakili

I think it was the second or third time I came to preach at the village that the Alhaji Guni was there to hear me (he is the middle one in the picture here). Afterwards he did not have too much to say about what I actually said, but he did note that I had used my Bible while I was preaching. “We do not allow that here,” he told me. You can use notes to preach with, but not books – either the Bible or the Koran – because books had caused too much violence and hatred.

I told him I respected his position, and since the “word has been hid in my heart” I could easily comply with his request. Since then I do not use a book when I preach in the Fulbe communities, or when I preach in front of Muslims generally.

The Alhaji and I became friends, and I visited him in his home several times. When I brought my two youngest children, Cari and Daniel, to the village he wanted us all to come to his home and meet his family, including his wives. I had never met his wives before, and this was a big honor for us. We did not meet them in the parlour where we normally visited, however. To see his wives we had to go back into the recesses of the compound, to the women’s quarters – because they were not allowed to venture outside that area when strangers were there.

Alhaji Guni became a Christian a few years ago, and his life underwent a dramatic change. Whereas before he would not allow his daughters to go to school to be educated (and discouraged others from allowing their daughters also), now he confessed that he had been wrong about that, and encouraged his and others’ daughters to get all the schooling they could.

The last time I saw him at his home, his wives were outside in the front – a huge change. We went in to visit in the parlour and sat all together. They were not exactly happy, though, because my friend was failing in his health, and it was clear he was not well.

I was just told that he died this past Wednesday, so I am grieving his loss today. He was a good man, and was becoming a good Christian leader. He was what we might call a “man of peace” in his community.

It is with the events surrounding his widows that we are now concerned. I do not know all of the traditions surrounding funeral and mourning ceremonies among the Fulbe; my friend Aminu says it would be too hard to teach me over the phone. He did say a few things though. The widows of my friend (he had four wives) will not be able to leave their compound for forty days. In the meantime they will have many visitors come to condole with them – with the problem that these friends and family members will literally eat them out of house and home.

Long story short – all of the traditional Fulbe customs surrounding the condolence period will bring hardship to these poor women now, and the Christian leaders are looking at ways that they can carefully navigate change so that the hardship can be lessened as much as possible. My friend Aminu will begin, on his part, by not coming to condole with them in the first several weeks; rather, he will wait and then bring a gift to them when he arrives (two new procedures).

A couple of posts ago  I wrote about some of the early NAB missionaries in Cameroon and Nigeria: Carl Bender, Paul Gebauer, and George Dunger. They did not want to come and bring NA culture to a place where culture and civilization already existed. They just wanted to bring Jesus – knowing that with him whatever change is needed will come on its own.

That is basically what is happening here. Our Christian brethren are in the process of looking critically at their own culture (pulaaku is what it is called), and seeing how the presence of Christ urges them to change it for the benefit of the people.