Bill and Audrey Cowley are retired Southern Baptist missionaries.
They showed remarkable creativity and courage during a time of tribal genocide in Nigeria in 1966. They also built through steady steps one of Africa’s transformative educational institutions.
Neither story is widely known. Both stories represent the best of the mission enterprise.
The first story is finally getting its due after 50 years in the new documentary, “The Disturbances,” which offers a glimpse of the second story.
In an age of anti-missionary fervor or skepticism about missionaries – both in churches and the secular culture – we need to remember narratives that revitalize the truth.
While one can learn their story of courage in the documentary and book, “The Disturbances,” one ought to hear the other story.
Chicago physician Kanayo Odeluga, a Nigerian, recently told me that “school is the legacy of the church” in Africa.
Baptist High School in Jos, Nigeria, has an extraordinary legacy.
For more than 20 years, Audrey Cowley was both a staff member and faculty member while Bill was the principal. He built classrooms and dormitories, recruited students and secured faculty.
Bill Cowley wrote about an encounter with the widowed mother of a student who had just graduated. She traveled more than 700 miles across three days in bare feet to see her son’s classroom for the first time.
She sat in her son’s desk, running her fingers across the ink spots. She saw where he had studied in the lab. She touched the mattress where he had slept. She looked at where he had eaten and washed tables.
After the tour, she “knelt in the dust and took both my hands in hers,” Cowley wrote. She whispered repeatedly and reverently, “A dupe o. Thank you.”
Nigeria and the global community owe a “thank you” to the Cowleys for what they did at the high school.
“When we started in 1961 … Rev. and Mrs. Cowley … knew the name of every student. I believe they looked at the photograph and just memorized the photograph. When they see you, the first day of school … they call your name,” said graduate Timothy Olagbemiro.
“Thirty of us, and they memorized the name. And every year, they knew the name of every single student. They were involved in our health, in our family life and also in our relation to others. They taught us to go out and do Christian work every week,” he said.
A star soccer player at Stetson University, who earned a doctorate and served as president of the largest Baptist university in Africa, Olagbemiro said, “The school that he established is one of the best schools in Nigeria.”
Another graduate, Jonathon Ikerionwu, earned a doctorate at an American university and teaches in a Nigerian university.
Meeting the Cowleys on his first school day, Ikerionwu recalled, “On that first day, I said, ‘This must be a very peculiar family for them to have left the United States and come to live with us in this society. They must be very unique.’ And throughout my stay in Baptist High School, I found this family to be extraordinarily unique. Fantastic. Loving. Religious. To the core. They brought us up in the Christian way of doing things.”
He said of the pioneering class, “There were 30 of us that were admitted. And all 30 of us lived together as if we were brothers. We did things in unison. We did things in unity. We did things just as if we were brothers.”
Creating brotherhood in a nation of competing tribes was a challenging dynamic. That challenge was reflected in the national anthem: “Though tribe and tongue may differ, In brotherhood we stand.”
The Cowleys built goodwill by choosing Psalm 133:1 as the guiding Bible verse. “Behold, how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.”
And still another graduate is Segun Lawoyin. He went to Yale University School of Medicine and practiced as an internist in Baltimore.
Doctors, governors, generals, business leaders and clergy went through the high school, having immeasurable impact in Nigeria and around the world.
What the Cowleys did was transformative. That is why they are our Baptists of the Year.
For more than a decade, we have made a surprise announcement at the end of the year about our Baptist of the Year.
Don Sewell was EthicsDaily.com’s pick for 2014. He is the director of Faith in Action Initiatives at Baylor Scott and White Health in Dallas, Texas, which ships containers of medical supplies and equipment to trouble zones around the world.
Linda Leathers was our 2013 pick for the work she and The Next Door do to address the needs of incarcerated women and to lower the recidivism rate of those released from the Tennessee Prison for Women.
Glen Stassen was our 2012 Baptist of the Year for his lifetime of work on peacemaking and his focus on the “thick” ethic of Jesus.
Wayne Flynt was named in 2011 for speaking without flinching when Alabama adopted the nation’s meanest anti-immigration law and for working tirelessly on tax reform.
Babs Baugh was named Baptist of the Year for 2010 due to her philanthropic leadership without which many social justice and educational initiatives would not happen.
Other recipients include David Coffey in 2008 for leadership on interfaith dialogue between Baptists and Muslims, Al Gore in 2007 for leadership on the environment, and Paul Montacute in 2005 for being a global Good Samaritan.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics