Over the past couple of years I’ve twice visited Jos in central Nigeria (here) and (here) and was overwhelmed by the tragedy of a formerly prosperous peaceful city being torn apart by Islamist incursion and violence from the Sharia states to the north. Fear and hostility were endemic; the compassion, courage and vibrancy of the Christians I met was a light in an increasingly fraught dark place.
One source of such light is an orphanage called Lambiri Outreach run by the formidable Mrs Gloria Kwashi, wife of the Anglican Archbishop of Jos, Ben. They have up to 40 (yes forty) children living in their home and in addition she runs a day school with 450 on its roll. I visited the school during my first visit and at the insistence of Mrs Kwashi gave each of the destitute kids their bowl of rice for lunch – the only meal of the day for some she told me – and had one for myself. It was heart-warming and heart-breaking stuff. Normally in Nigeria orphans are looked after by their wider extended family, but many of these are victims of the atrocities and have no other family.
Early last month I attended a Church of Nigeria conference (here) at the impressive national cathedral in Abuja with its extraordinary rotating altar and pulpit. The Church of Nigeria is part of the world-wide Anglican Communion, is rapidly growing with currently some 18 million members and is an example of vitality and commitment to the Gospel that declining Anglican churches in the West would do well to emulate. Nigerian Anglicans make mistakes no doubt and their enthusiastic worship is too loud for restrained English ears, but theirs is the mess and noise of the nursery not the morgue.
I emailed ahead to Mrs Kwashi to enquire if she would welcome supplies from the UK for her orphans – clothes, games, toys and sweets, I thought – as I was coming to Nigeria. “Children’s Christian books,” was the prompt reply. It was a quiet rebuke and reminder: the spiritual is as important as the material even when (especially when) like her you’re on the front line of the battle against poverty and violence. Mrs Kwashi has been horribly assaulted during a Muslim attack on their home yet she radiates joy, laughter – and the freedom that comes from forgiving her attackers.
We rapidly raised funds from fellow members of Highway Church (here), raided the CLC Bookshop near St Paul’s Cathedral and in due course I found myself presenting a suitcase-full of colourful Bible literature to the security scanner at Heathrow’s massive Terminal 5 en route to Abuja. From Abuja the books were couriered 100 miles by road to Jos to be received apparently with joy and gratitude. “I wish you saw (the children’s) excitement,” emailed Mrs Kwashi.
In 2010 after my first visit I helped set up LoveJos (here), an organisation whose prime aim is to raise awareness among Nigerians living in the UK about the Islamist war on the church in northern and central Nigeria. Most Nigerian Christians in Britain come originally from the south and many seem unaware or unconcerned. So as well as prayer meetings, LoveJos has also arranged a conference, organised a vigil outside the Nigerian High Commission, distributed information leaflets and remembered the Nigerian persecuted with the first annual LoveJos carol service earlier this month.
This last was an encouraging affair. Held at St John’s Stratford – the church at the heart of Christian hospitality and outreach during this summer’s Olympics in east London – the service was attended by more than 150 and included videos of Mrs Kwashi’s kids singing carols and reading Bible passages for us in Hausa, the majority language in northern Nigeria. You can watch highlights (here).
The carollers at St Johns were concerned, prayerful and generous, and as a result we were able to transfer £1,000 to Jos. Small beer of course considering the need across northern Nigeria, but hopefully a significant support for Zambiri Outreach children.
Our prayer is that the funds will be used to bring them some joy this Christmas. Faced with the on-going terrorist threat and grief and depravation, there’s not a lot for them to smile about.
Our gifts and books about Jesus will bring some vital love and excitement to their lives no doubt. But for the orphans as for us, real hope and joy are with Christ himself whose birth we celebrate tomorrow.