A few of my friends are mentioned in Robert Parham’s book, “The Disturbances: The Untold Story of How Missionaries Saved Lives in a Time of Tribal Genocide.”
They served as missionaries in Northern Nigeria when the events described here occurred, and one of them, the missionary theologian Harry Boer, plays a key role in the story at several points.
But my friends never talked about these experiences, even though the events described here must have been among the most traumatic experiences in their lives.
At a couple of meetings that the missionary leaders held toward the end of the atrocities, there was some discussion of what had taken place. Otherwise, there was little retelling of the stories.
Indeed, according to several reports here by MKs (“missionary kids”), there was not even much discussion of the events within their own families.
And this is why Parham wrote this important and informative narrative of – to quote from the book’s subtitle – “the untold story” that is now a matter of record in this book.
We are in Parham’s debt for what he has produced, both in this book and a companion documentary video.
A half century later, he has interviewed many members of the missionary families and leaders in the Nigerian churches, as well as searching out whatever survives in written form from that community – correspondence, proceedings of meetings and news reports from that period.
Parham’s account of what happened during tribal conflicts that occurred after a major government coup in 1966 is not easy reading.
The slaughter of thousands of human beings – estimates range from 10,000 to 100,000 – was driven by tribal hatreds among the Hausas, Igbos and Yorubas.
Parham rightly insists that these events must stand alongside of what had happened to the Armenians in Turkey and to the Jews in Nazi Germany, as well as recent mass killings in Biafra and other African settings, as one of the significant genocides of the 20th century.
Why has it taken so long for the missionary version of the story to get told?
There are, of course, the obvious issues connected to the “survivor” syndrome as such. The children of Jewish survivors of the Nazi Holocaust have often reported that their parents have been consistently reluctant to talk about their experiences, and there are clear parallels here.
When asked about what occurred, the missionaries often replied that their experience was “too painful” to describe.
There are, however, factors in this story that tell us some significant things about the missionary subculture.
Those who had served in Nigeria were reluctant to appear to be “sensationalizing” their experiences.
Much of what they could have reported had to do with significant acts of heroism on their own parts, and they had no desire to call special attention to their own efforts in the light of great suffering of the people whom they had been called to serve.
They also knew that by going into any detail they could be jeopardizing the safety of church leaders whom they had left behind.
Now that Parham has told much of the story, we need to learn the important lessons to be learned.
I, personally, was impressed by the “ecumenical” character of the missionary community described here. Baptists, Missouri Synod Lutherans, Church of the Brethren, Wesleyans, Christian Reformed – and Catholics – came together in coordinated efforts at key moments during the atrocities.
Parham emphasizes the fact that none of the missionaries was trained to deal with horrific events of this sort, but they obviously responded with profound humanitarian impulses shaped by their commitment to the cause of the gospel.
This account, then, while deeply disturbing, also provides us with an inspiring glimpse into the lives of missionary families who served the Lord under unimaginably difficult circumstances.
Nor is this merely a story about the past. Timothy Olagbemiro, a Nigerian leader, makes this clear: “What happened in 1966 can still happen at any time.”
Our only hope, he says, is to encourage the kind of “life of sacrifice” that can only come from being given “the mind of Christ.”
The story told in this book is a wonderful example of what a faithful commitment to that “life of sacrifice” can look like.
Richard Mouw is professor of faith and public life at Fuller Theological Seminary.