A testimony of God’s grace for a marginalized people group

Michael Smith

Former Converge Content Specialist

  • Missions

Opportunities to participate in spiritual and community transformation projects are often found in the most remote and unknown places on earth. This is the story of how the Ndola people of Taraba State, Nigeria, were reached “by the way of faith” as the Apostle Paul encouraged Galatian Christians long ago.

The Galatians sought spiritual transformation with a new outlook on life. The Ndola people struggled to put brutal poverty, disease, hunger and cultural suppression behind them through spiritual enlightenment and by upgrading their worldview in terms of holistic community development initiatives. 

In the process of reaching a remote people group in Taraba State, Nigeria, God’s presence was obvious because it made the whole spiritual and community transformation process a witness of his grace, mercy and love for a marginalized people group.

The initiative to reach the Ndola people with a spiritual and community development message grew gradually through relationships with people from the region who volunteered to work with nongovernment organizations, helping to reduce the impact of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Nigeria. 

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The Gembu Center for HIV/AIDS Advocacy Nigeria (GECHAAN) was founded in 2004 on the Mambilla Plateau in Taraba State, Nigeria. Later the work expanded to eight local government areas (counties), which led to a wider exposure to various people groups living in remote areas below the original setting on the plateau.

Early opposition from village chiefs

The Ndola people group caught the attention of Converge global workers Art and Dorothy Helwig, which created an exciting story of community development, evangelism and church planting ministry. When the GECHAAN ministry was placed into Dan and Tina Gibbs’ care in 2014, Art continued developing a ministry to the Ndola people living in a distant remote region below the northern side of the Mambilla Plateau. 

Initially, village chiefs and their juju (pagan) associates made it clear that attempts to plant churches in their immediate area would not be welcome in some peripheral villages. Other villages deeper into the region objected too but left a bit of hope in that they were open to giving some consideration to the Christian faith. 

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Later a team of young men was assembled and trained to survey the region to discover what they would face throughout the area. The survey was designed to gain information concerning medical facilities, schools, sanitation, available food, and child and maternal health. A few struggling churches were found that were planted by other missionary ministries. Without hesitation, these churches eagerly became part of a new effort to bring spiritual and community transformation to the Ndola people.

The initial review of the survey revealed the magnitude of the challenging task before them. Among 116 villages surveyed, the absence of functional health facilities, schools, adequate sanitation, sources of clean water and job-generating enterprises was hard to comprehend. The thought of growing enough corn to sell as income was possible. But, without roads, the cost of getting a bag of corn to market cost more than it was worth, so farming to meet the family needs was the main goal. 

The goal was to honor God and seek his mind and heart concerning a holistic development to plan a workable approach to meet the gigantic challenges. The main objective was to introduce projects based on truths to gain local leaders’ trust so major improvement projects would be accepted and supported.

Introducing theological education

The introduction of Theological Education by Extension (TEE) played a major role in presenting the gospel in a culturally appropriate way, which made the message of Jesus applicable to their condition. The Africa-oriented programmed instruction textbooks provide on-the-job training for pastors as they complete one lesson per day. By the end of the week, they are well prepared to share what they learned with their congregation.

“I was so pleased when Christians came and exclaimed their joy in learning so much about their faith from their church leaders,” Helwig said.

TEE students in Nigeria

When a course is complete, all pastors are called for a review and final exam. Before a grade is issued, an evangelism practicum is required that entails contacting leaders in remote villages to arrange a visit when they will present the gospel and promote community development.

Although the overwhelming cost of subsidizing books reduced the number of TEE students, more than 100 remain active as pastors, elders, Sunday school teachers and community development leaders. Together the Christian witness impacts many different areas of culture, which strengthens the believers in the faith.

Community development opens the door for gospel conversations

One question that was asked often had to do with why community development was included in efforts to plant and grow churches. The common response included a question to community leaders. If traditional African religion holds that their shrine, a place where pagan rituals are performed, is part of the community, what is the problem in making the church an important part of community development as well?

Finding ways to give people hope while making life a little better for them would open the door for gospel conversations, Helwig thought.    

That is why he and a young African leader, Rev. Joseph Nagombe, helped develop several agricultural economic projects. A herd of cows, a palm tree plantation, a Moringa tree plantation, a coffee plantation and a winged bean plantation give new hope because of the jobs they have created and revenue generated for community development.

“This new reality gives a new perspective on what the gospel can do in people’s lives,” Helwig said. “We’re careful to avoid the association of the gospel to economic privilege. The teaching is that God blesses faithfulness, creativity, hard work and commitment. The fundamental principles of integrity, purpose and love for one another are what matter most.”

A rapid-response church plant

One of the most important church planting promoters was translating the Jesus Film into the Ndola language. After the narration was dubbed into the film by a group of technicians, the film’s showing in outback villages created exciting responses. A church plant usually occurs because the new believers desire to share how the film affected their lives. Every church plant is assigned a TEE student to continue teaching and advising the new believers. As pastors gather to review their work, it generates even more excitement for more outreach opportunities in the future. 

In planning to attend a distant association of churches meeting to encourage the people and teach the TEE students in the area, word came from a village where Helwig wanted to visit to explain more about community development and a TEE student would present a message from the Bible. The message asked them not to come since the local chief and his loyal gospel opposition force were threatening violence if such a plan was to unfold. 

baptism service in Nigeria

About 20 people asked if they would be welcome to attend some of the meetings that Helwig was holding in the nearby village. Of course, they were notified that they would be welcome, and the next day, they all showed up. Without hesitation, TEE students surrounded the visitors, and through their witnessing and sharing, all of them made decisions to follow Jesus. The next morning, they were baptized, and after a wonderful communion service, they planned to return to the village and face the village leaders.  Immediately a TEE student volunteered to accompany them to do discipleship and assist in plans to build a church. 

When the Christians reached the village, the entire population joined together and approached the chief and his associates to let them know that a church was going to be built and it would be in his best interest to cooperate and welcome the development. The new believers testified that God blessed their bold and sincere plan to secure permission to move forward. One year later, the congregation had doubled with plans to expand their facility while participating in exciting community development projects. Life in that village has taken on a new dimension of hope for a better tomorrow. 

A recent report indicates that of the 46 churches that have been planted through the efforts of TEE students, about half of them are planted in neighboring tribal areas since students from other people groups were welcomed into the program. The message of God’s love and grace has gone far beyond what Helwig first anticipated.

“There are still hundreds of villages in the wider region without an active Christian congregation, so let us pray that God will continue to move forward in using the TEE courses to reach out to the people in this part of Taraba State, Nigeria,” he said.

Improving villagers’ quality of life

When the ministry began, the absence of roads presented a major problem. Without roads or even a trail wide enough to facilitate transportation by motorcycle, a trip to visit a clinic or hospital meant a very long walk of one to three days. If a woman in labor experienced serious complications and needed to attend a clinic, you can imagine the dilemma. Often a quickly made stretcher is made, and four strong men will team up to carry a patient to the nearest clinic or hospital. A high percentage of women in this condition die along with their child when looking for help is delayed. 

Now 10 midwives are employed to move among villages in the region to attend to pregnant women. If necessary, they make early arrangements to help women travel to a clinic before an emergency occurs along the way. With an increased number of clinics and improved transportation, the situation has improved significantly.  

Helwig helped build a clinic in the central village that has become a hospital. The governor, who is a Christian, has appointed a doctor and several nurses there. In addition, six clinics have been constructed and staffed throughout the region with a basic staff and regular visits by a doctor to attend to special cases. 

The area-wide plantations that Helwig and his team planted are beginning to generate significant revenue to build schools. The employment opportunities they offer have impacted the entire spiritual dimension of the work as well. Now that the TEE students can find employment, they can purchase their textbooks without help. The cost of reaching out with evangelism campaigns during the practicum programs is still beyond the ministry’s budget. The winged bean project is becoming a major contributor to the development process, especially as individuals take up the challenge of planting their cash crops and learn how to manage them successfully.

The education initiatives have been so encouraging to the people with more schools being built and qualified teachers being willing to come into such a remote and isolated area to stay and teach the children.  With state government subsidies, eight new schools have been constructed and opened in centrally located villages. There are secondary schools being constructed as well.

Efforts to secure safe water sources such as drilling wells or developing effective filtration plants to purify water from streams or rivers are underway. The process of developing better sanitation awareness with steps to implement them successfully will take longer. In some villages, progress is being noticed as the people become aware of health hazards caused by ignoring appropriate sanitation. 

“There’s so much hope now with more development on the horizon,” Helwig said.

“The Africans are not asking me for money. They are only asking that I come once a while to rejoice with them over what they have achieved. Every time there is an opportunity, the conversation confirms that the way of faith made a huge difference, and the progress is attributed to God’s grace and mercy and to him be the glory. The opportunity to return to Nigeria is not possible because of the COVID-19 pandemic and security concerns. When the way is clear, you can be sure I will arrange a trip to review the incredible way of faith the Ndola people are following. 

“This is a testimony of God’s grace for a marginalized people group.”

Is your church interested in joining others in supporting initiatives to reach the world with the gospel? Does your church have a heart for global ministry or ministry to a specific region of the world? Check out how you can team up with other churches to provide prayer support and deploy resources of all kinds to share in the work of the Great Commission.  

Michael Smith, Former Converge Content Specialist

Michael Smith served as a content specialist for Converge from 2018-2021.

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