Nigeria: Joyfully Serving in Hostile Territory

Future Witchdoctor

Elijah was an unlikely candidate for a minister of the gospel. He was born into a polygamous family in Nigeria that practiced idol worship, and his grandfather was the village witchdoctor. Though in line to inherit his grandfather’s priestly duties, Elijah injured his shoulder as a boy, preventing him from lifting the heavy stone idols. From then on, his half-brother was assigned the ritual of sacrificing to the family gods. Elijah now credits his shoulder injury with helping him leave the village, avoid polygamous marriages and stop worshiping idols.

Elijah and Felicia_Yobe
Elijah and Felicia have suffered health problems caused by the difficult environment where they minister.

After coming of age, Elijah left the village and traveled throughout Nigeria, using his training as an electrician to support himself. By the early 1990s, he had gotten married and settled in the central Nigerian city of Jos. In 1995, he began to dream of a frightening, dark figure. The dreams were so vivid that he feared going to sleep. Then, in one of his dreams, he received a Bible that he used to slay the dark figure, and he was never troubled by dreams of the frightening figure again. “That was when I discovered I was supposed to change my ways and totally surrender my life to Christ,” Elijah said.


Sometime later, he sensed God’s call to attend seminary and after seminary, he felt God’s call to go to a very unlikely place. 

Sent into Danger

God sent Elijah straight into the heart of Boko Haram territory, a part of northern Nigeria where the militant Islamist group has wreaked havoc for about 15 years. At the time Elijah served there, Boko Haram, which had pledged allegiance to the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS), carried out almost daily attacks on Christians and government entities. The Lord directed Elijah to a town called Gashua, in the Sahara Desert near the border with Niger. It was 250 miles away from his family’s home in Jos, and the rough car ride took him at least six hours each way over potholed and dangerous roads.


In 2017, Elijah and his wife, Felicia, moved to Gashua with their 11-year-old son, leaving their other children with adult siblings in Jos so they could continue their studies. “When I told my children we were moving, it was a big challenge,” Elijah said tearfully. “Two days before we left, my second daughter said, ‘Daddy, are you leaving us?’ I said, ‘Yes, we will leave … If God wants me to leave, I will.”


The Ogunyi family served at a church that had been established years earlier and had once had 100 members. By the time Elijah arrived, however, there were only five men, three women and five young people in the church. The other members had been frightened away by a large-scale 2011 Boko Haram attack and ongoing violence in Yobe state. “After the church was attacked, the people locked the place up and ran away,” Elijah said.   

Daily tasks like grocery shopping can be burdensome when Muslim vendors charge Christians double the normal price for basic goods.

Elijah decided to focus his ministry work on young people, who are at risk because of the region’s extreme poverty and are targeted for recruitment by local Islamists. Christian youth in Gashua are so poor that many struggle to afford food and water. Elijah said boys are lured with gifts, and Christian girls are frequently kidnapped, drugged and forced to marry Muslim men. “Instead of us winning them, they are winning our children,” he said.


The area is 99 percent Muslim, and many people are hostile to Christians. Market vendors often shamelessly charge Felicia double what they charge others. 


The almajiri, Muslim children who help sustain mosques through begging and are given to the mosque for education, used to throw stones at Elijah and his family and call them infidels, but Elijah learned to keep a pack of cookies with him to give to the hungry children. During the Muslim fasting season, he gives them water, and he has brought small gifts to those at his neighborhood mosque. Now, the children look out for Elijah and guard his house when he is gone. “They started loving us,” Elijah said. 


Elijah’s church has been burglarized twice. After the second incident, the local Muslim leader chastised the offenders and promised Elijah it would not happen again. “I have forgiven all those who persecute me,” Elijah said, “because God teaches us to forgive. If I see them, I will share the gospel with them. 

Ongoing Threats

Though Elijah has won the friendship of many Muslim neighbors, he lives with the ever-present threat of a Boko Haram attack. A neighboring village 12 miles away has suffered recurring attacks by the Islamists, but so far God has protected Elijah and his family from harm. “When we hear that Boko Haram is coming, we run,” Elijah laughed. But beneath his good humor, the fear is real. “We are afraid … because we know they will look for pastors first,” he said. “Persecution is a part of Christian life. If truly we pastors are called by God, we should expect persecution.”

Elijah's family_Yobe
Elijah’s adult children live in Jos, a treacherous six-hour drive from Gashua.

While Elijah fully expects to suffer persecution, his family’s greatest challenge has come from Gashua’s natural environment. They struggle with malaria, typhoid and kidney problems because of the poor water. Both Elijah and Felicia have chronic eye problems caused by the pervasive dust. And because of the desert heat and unreliability of electricity, it is difficult to keep medications at the required temperature.


“I have never seen a place that has as many mosquitoes as Gashua,” Elijah said. “They fill your house … when you open the windows. When you spray insecticide, they die and cover the ground like ants, but they come back again after three hours. Before you can get treatment for malaria, another mosquito bites you. It makes it difficult to be healthy. [But] we thank God that we are still alive until today.”  


After living in Gashua for more than four years, the couple decided they needed to be based in Jos because of the decline in Felicia’s health. They remain committed to their work in Gashua, however, so Elijah travels back and forth to maintain his ministry. “We have made up our minds that it is better to die in battle for God than to die as a coward,” Elijah said. “I thank God for my wife, who is always supportive. She would rather die than leave God’s will.” 


Having experienced God’s hand guiding him to Gashua, Elijah is committed to staying until God leads him elsewhere. In fact, he was asked to pastor another church but declined the offer because he did not sense God leading him to take it. “We will continue until we die,” he said. “Unless I hear His voice saying it is time for us to leave, we will continue.”