20 September 2017

Forerunners

Mission Africa: 125 years of sharing the love of Jesus with the people of Africa

ra“They were the best days of our lives. We had the most unbelievable experiences which really changed us forever,” recalled Bill and Maureen Johnston from Comber, Co Down. Now in their eighties, they fondly remember the nine years they spent in Nigeria with, what was then, the Qua Iboe Mission, today known as Mission Africa, Bill as a schoolteacher and Maureen working as an administrator.

Back in the sixties the Nigerian coast was a three-week boat journey away for the Johnstons. In those days missionaries had to use plenty of ingenuity and imagination to get things done. Bill remembers using a lead from a pencil he had in his pocket to restart his broken down car engine while stuck on a dusty road in the middle of nowhere. They were also times of relying completely on God.

“I was preaching in church one Sunday night, and thought I’d have to stop because a heavy thunderstorm was approaching,” recounted Bill.

“You wouldn’t have been able to hear anything with the rain pounding on the tin roof. So some people prayed, while I continued preaching. The dark clouds drew nearer and nearer. The teeming rain reached as close as the building next door and then suddenly moved off in a different direction. The meeting wasn’t disrupted, and when I’d finished, seven local people came and asked to receive Christ into their lives. God had his hand on the situation.”

Another missionary, Jean Garland from Belfast, who served as a nurse in Nigeria almost two decades after the Johnstons, said that it was a huge undertaking to go to Africa in those early days.

“Venturing into what was once called ‘the white man’s grave’ seemed foolish. However, the missionaries didn’t look at their work in human terms, but as service to God. Even today they are still spoken about affectionately in Nigeria for what they achieved. Individuals, families and communities were changed by the good news of the Christian message.”

Jean and her husband, Sid, have been with Mission Africa/Qua Iboe Fellowship for the past twenty-five years, ministering in theological education, HIV/AIDS prevention, and Christian literature distribution.

Together with the Johnstons, they are just some of the hundreds of missionaries, many from Northern Ireland, who obeyed God’s call on their lives over the decades and went to Africa as teachers, doctors, nurses, midwives, pharmacists, preachers, Bible teachers and builders – all of them following in the footsteps of the mission’s founder, Samuel Bill. In 1887, when he left his native east Belfast and set sail for Nigeria, he wouldn’t have had the slightest inkling that the mission he was to establish would still be doing God’s work 125 years later. Raised in Ballymacarrett Presbyterian Church, Bill was closely connected to Island Street Belfast City Mission Hall. While a student at Harley Missionary College, London, he was deeply challenged by a letter from Africa, which was read out by the college Principal who later inquired: “It’s a treacherous, fever-ridden climate. You would have no Mission behind you, but will one of you young men offer to go?” Bill readily responded and journeyed by boat to Nigeria. The night before docking he was filled with uncertainty. He penned: “I feel rather downcast and helpless, as I draw near the place in which it is probable I shall have a hard struggle to obtain a footing. However, ‘He who is in me is more than all they who can be against me.’ I need grace to depend entirely on Him, that I may be faithful in the great work to which He has called me.”

Bill began working among the Ibeno people on the banks of the Qua Iboe River, which is how the mission got its original name. The Qua Iboe Mission later became one of the largest and most successful missions in the UK, and the church that Bill founded in Nigeria, the Qua Iboe Church, has grown considerably, numbering at least 2 million in 2007.

Today Mission Africa has expanded its work from Nigeria, to Chad, Burkina Faso and Kenya, while still maintaining its headquarters in Belfast. An international team of around thirty missionaries is involved in evangelism, theological education, medical, practical and compassionate ministries. Mission Africa’s Chief Executive, Rev Paul Bailie said that while times have changed, the challenge remains the same: “The difficulties that we face are of a different type to those faced by Samuel Bill, but no less challenging,” he confessed. “Our 125th year is a time when we look back in profound gratitude to God for what He has accomplished through the mission. We are still amazed at the boldness with which He filled the young Samuel Bill, and His care over the other pioneer missionaries.”

“But we’re also acutely aware of the way in which God is blessing us in the present day. God is calling many new people into full-time missionary service.

Mission Africa Today:

Through evangelism Mission Africa focuses on reaching unengaged nomadic people, groups such as the Dagari in Burkina Fasoand the Fulani in Nigeria. Increasing numbers of Fulani are coming to faith, including some high and middle ranking tribal chiefs, who are openly following Christ and urging others to embrace Christianity. In Chad and Nigeria, Mission Africa missionaries provide direct medical care for the sick and needy in rural clinics, and help run an HIV clinic and community centre – a powerful witness to the love of Christ.

The most strategic work that Mission Africa is engaged in is that of theological education. In providing missionary lecturers for theological colleges in Nigeria, it facilitates and enables the training of a new generation of leaders for some of the fastest growing churches in the world. Mission Africa works to alleviate the suffering of street children and orphans in Nigeria, where it also runs an outreach to prostitutes and vulnerable women. It is involved in a ground-breaking peace and reconciliation programme in the inner city, and organises a project to help over 200 village children with nutrition, school fees and spiritual support.

The ministry of African Christian Textbooks continues to thrive, providing quality Christian academic books for church leaders and Bible students in Nigeria and Kenya, and publishing books written by African authors.

WORDS Darren Vaughan

For more information contact: Mission Africa,14 Glencregagh Court, Belfast, BT6 0PA t: 028 9040 2850 e: info@missionafrica.org.uk w: www.missionafrica.org.uk