I flew to Lagos in late May, worried sick about the sermons I knewI would have to preach. Three of us— Levy, a Zambian nurse and youth worker; Ginna, a young American nurse; and me, a Canadian former petroleum explorer—were in Nigeria for 10 days to strengthen Hands at Work’s two youngest projects in Lagos and in the desert region Kano, training pastors, teaching home-based care, ministering to prostitutes, and teaching illiterate women. I sensed something about the trip would drag me to my knees. I thought it would be the preaching. It’s not the first time I’ve been wrong.
It wasn’t the foreign setting that disturbed me. Though in Lagos the air was always hot and heavy and the dusty streets vibrated beneath the rumble of at least a million people on the move at all times. We slept in the home of the Lagos project leader, Pastor Rex. And each morning at 5 am the crackling cry of a prayer call blasted into the rooms from a speaker mounted on the tower of the mosque behind his house.
On the first morning, when it happened, I lay dazed inside my mosquito net, the rhythmic roar of the man’s voice screeching in my ears, and wondered if I were really alive, whether such a thing could actually be happening. And so it continued each day after that. And Kano, despite its history of Christian-Muslim violence, was actually a sleepy place. The electricity surged constantly—on ten minutes, off thirty minutes—all day and night, but our guesthouse was secure and comfortable and the people were friendly.
Even the pastor training and preaching wasn’t so frightening. We spent an entire day teaching men of God about God’s desire for loving thy neighbour and spread throughout four churches in a weekend to preach our message. The people were receptive; activity is stirring everywhere.
And although I was certainly caught off guard by the experience of a feeding program done in narrow canoes on the sea for hundreds living on stilt shacks above the water and by home-based care done in a slum of a hundred thousand along streets lined with garbage and shallow rivers of sewage, the volunteer workers there are so fresh and full of life that, despite the enormity of their work, they display nothing but hope.
Rather, it was several small crowds of powerless women that challenged me the most. Standing in a concrete room in the Sahara desert listening to a group of women and daughters—the most vulnerable people on earth—who couldn’t write their names three months earlier, boast that now they can read the scriptures, newspapers and books, felt like a smack on one side of my face. Then I sat with other women in a small, stone courtyard surrounded by walls dotted with square holes leading into dark, dirty rooms where they sell sex and where their children sometimes stay. Listening to their stories of shame, fear, and desperation to get out and trying to say something to them as a representative of the church, was like a blow to my other side.
Despite the valuable health and education work happening there, the experience of just being among them left me confused and confronted, feeling hypocrisy and shame drip down my back. How do thousands of illiterate women or mothers selling sex exist on the same planet I carry out my life upon?
I don’t know.
But when we left and I had time to think and to pray, I realised that despite past mistakes the place for the church was precisely among these women. If we believe there is any hope for them, in whom else could that hope possibly lie?
Lynn Chotowetz, a Canadian, works with Hands at Work Partner and Project relationships.