Sometimes a story is just begging to be told.
This might be because it’s the sort of story that keeps you on the edge of your seat. Or it might be because the story is particularly compelling.
Sometimes, for any number of reasons, the original participants need a voice to be given to their experiences. And some stories bring so much glory to the Lord that they simply must be told – maybe even shouted from the rooftops.
The story recounted in “The Disturbances” needed to be told for all of these reasons.
In 1966, Nigeria endured a genocide that has never been fully acknowledged; indeed, it has rarely even been appropriately named.
Ethnic tensions had long burned between certain tribes, especially the Hausas and Igbos. The collapse of Western colonialism helped create an atmosphere where resentment could boil over into violence.
Tens of thousands of Igbos were massacred, mostly by Hausas, while authorities stood by and sometimes even contributed to the ethnic violence. Sometimes at great risk to themselves, missionaries worked to protect Igbos from violence.
Unfortunately, for five decades, few of these stories were told – until now.
Robert Parham serves as executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics in Nashville, Tennessee.
Parham grew up as a “missionary kid” in Nigeria, where his parents, Bob and Jo Ann, served as missionaries with the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Though they played a crucial part in rescue efforts, the Parhams said little of it in later years, a pattern that was true of most of the missionaries who went through the ordeal.
For that reason, Robert decided to interview missionaries and their adult children, scour archives and read as much as he could about the events of 1966, hoping to bring this story to light.
The result is “The Disturbances,” which serves as a companion book to the documentary of the same name.
The story centers on the city of Jos, located in central Nigeria. The Parhams served in the city, along with fellow Baptist missionaries Bill and Audrey Cowley.
Missionaries from other traditions also worked in and around Jos, including Lutherans, Methodists, Brethren, Reformed and Roman Catholics.
Once the genocide reached Jos, “the disturbances” brought together these missionaries in service to the suffering Igbos in their community.
After it had ended, often with encouragement from mission agencies and, perhaps, out of fear that speaking out would hinder mission efforts, the missionaries were mostly silent about what had happened.
Several things stand out about this remarkable book.
First, it has a play-by-play feel to it as different missionaries recount what they knew, when they knew it and how they responded.
Yet, these different points of view come together in a coherent narrative that moves from rumors of violence in neighboring regions to meetings after the riots to determine how best to move forward.
Second, the story has an ecumenical feel as missionaries from across denominations labored together for the sake of those whom they believed the Lord had called them to minister.
Doing the right thing for those in need transcended traditional theological differences.
Third, this is a raw story that is filled with violence perpetuated by some humans against others – sometimes even by professing Christians.
Nearly all these missionaries actually witnessed people being killed. Others looked on as men and women were beaten savagely.
The missionaries were able to save many by hiding them in closets and in rafters or by arranging for them to be airlifted. Unfortunately, most they weren’t able to save.
Finally, this is a timely story.
As Parham reminds us in his introduction, genocide remains a threat wherever racial hatred is in the air.
Furthermore, we live in a world of wars riven with religious and nationalistic ideologies, with oft-violent oppression because of religion or income or ethnicity or gender, with tensions between superpowers of bygone days and wannabe superpowers with an eye to the future, with dictators real and potential.
What happened in Nigeria in 1966 could happen again. But the more these stories are told, perhaps the better able we are to prevent genocide and push back against the hatreds that fuel it.
“The Disturbances” is both an inspiring story and a sobering reminder.
Pastors, mission leaders and church reading groups should read the book and be encouraged by the faith, hope and love of the missionaries whose stories it tells.
But we should also read this book prayerfully, asking hard questions about how contemporary Christians can be advocates for the oppressed and persecuted in our own day.