Unitarianism in Nigeria

On Monday, I wrote a post about new and emerging Unitarian and Universalist congregations in central Africa [link]. Janice Brunson, member of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Phoenix, has given me permission to reprint her account of her recent visit to a 90-year-old Unitarian congregation in Nigeria.

Her (fairly long) story appears after the jump….

Janice Brunson has given me permission to reprint the following report on Unitarian congregations in Nigeria:

Unitarians in Nigeria

So far as I know, I am the first American Unitarian to travel to Lagos, Nigeria, specifically to visit Unitarians in this vast, filthy city of 17.5 million, where nearly everyone is poor or very poor. Other Americans had visited before, during the 1950s, but they were already living and working in the city.

I first heard about Unitarians in Nigeria at a 2005 meeting in Spain of the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists (ICUU). Tantalizing information. What did we know of them? As it turned out, very little. We had not heard from them in years.

A young African from Burundi produced an email. A lively corresondence then ensued between myself and Rev. Taiyewoaiyefuwa “Tai” Olufunmilayo who was thrilled at the prospect of a visit by an American Unitarian. I would stay in his home during the week in Lagos and yes, I would meet all the Unitarians. Months later, just before departing from the U.S., there was news of a second congregation and yes, I would also meet them.

Arrival in Lagos

Rev. Tai was standing outside the airport, patiently waiting for my flight that was three hours late. The air was suffocating, hot, humid and thick with a black sheen of pollution. A driver and car, an enormous expense for any Nigerian, had been hired for this special day.

The drive from the airport took hours, inching along with thousands of cars, vans, motorbikes, bicycles and pedestrians, over decaying roads and rutted bridges that connect islands and the mainland that constitute the greater City of Lagos. We need gas but a government advisory earlier in the day said flows were once again interrupted by insurgents in the south fighting for a greater share of oil wealth for the millions of desperately poor living there. Using the full prestige of his role as a minister, Rev. Tai manages to get some at an inflated price.

Meeting Nigerian Unitarians

Our first stop is the home of a Unitarian family who came upon hard times a decade ago when the head of household died unexpectedly at only 49 years. Now extra rooms in the two-story house are rented to three additional families. A traditional meal of tough beef simmered in spicy tomato stew and served over white rice is graciously served, a few quick words over the grave behind the house and we are off.

Rush hour traffic is thinning somewhat so we make better time getting to the small, modest home of the Bishop, an octogenarian who during the 1980s presented at four International Congresses on Liberal Religion in Europe. He shares his small home with his wife and married children with families. We visit in the dark because there is a sudden electrical blackout. They occur without notice day and night, making water scarce because without electricity water cannot be pumped into holding tanks.

At Rev. Tai’s house

In the days to come my greatest pleasure is bathing from a small plastic pan of cool water and lying on the bed, wet and bare, slowly cooling off from the intense heat and cleaned of the day’s heavy grime, drifting off to sleep amid a cacophany of sounds — the talking, shouting and crying by far too many people living in cramped quarters. Rev. Tai’s house has three bedrooms, packed nightly with his five teen children and additional relatives sleeping on floor mats. We eat once or twice a day, a bowl of powdered milk and slice of bread in the morning and the addicting spicy rice at night.

Folashade, the Reverend’s wife who works two jobs to suppport the family, is principal of a public school and runs an open air grocery until late at night. She works hard because in the 29 years her husband has been a Unitarian minister he has never been paid a salary.

Once, Rev. Tai’s life held great promise. His country was free of British rule and his parents wanted “only what I wanted,” which was to study in England. He spent thee years in Manchester, studying Unitarian theology, returning home well-educated, ready to marry, to raise a family, and to assume his rightful leadership role in Nigeria.

After working under trying conditions without salary for 29 years, he seems exhausted, worn out by many resonsibilities. His family barely scrapes by. His congregation, the Unitarian Brotherhood, is shrinking. His nation, like any African country cursed with diamonds or oil, is ravaged, much worse off than those with no natural resources. By 1998 Nigerian leaders had looted the country of some 25 billion dollars.

The founder of the church

We usually walk because it is cheaper and faster, but today we must pay to ride a crowded van because the church is on the opposite side of Lagos Island from Rev. Tai’s house. The building is a sturdy cement structure, built in 1936 when the growing group of intellectuals who were then members of the Unitarian Brotherhood could not find space to let because of their reputation as “devil worshippers.”

By then, their leader and the founder of Nigerian Unitarianism, Adeniran Adede Isolea, had already been in self-imposed exile for nearly a decade, retreating to his ancestral home in Najakuro after threats of imprisonment and murder. There, he continued to write spiritual verses and hymns in both English and Yoruba until his death in 1954. His writings comprise the major part of all Unitarian services today.

Isolea, considered a very principled man, had left the Anglican Church during a tense political period in 1915 when Nigerians were “no longer loving the British civil servants.” In 1917 he gathered together prominent African leaders for discussion and prayer. This was the beginning of Unitarianism in Nigeria and now 90 years later, Unitarians in Lagos need help. They are under far more threat than years before when Isolea was threatened with prison for “disturbing the peace” because he had introduced traditional drumming into services.

The congregation’s building

The Unitarian Brotherhood church building is not crumbling like others nearby that were built more recently by unscrupulous contractors who, by adding too much sand to the cement, realized bigger profits. Now the new buildings erode, one grain at a time.

After 70 years with little upkeep, the old Unitarian building is in desperate need of care. The old tile roof has leaked for years, rotting the second story ceiling. Windows are broken, shot out by bullets and shattered with rocks during a street riot years before. Electrical wires, cut a decade before when a new company took over, hang dead. Inside and out the building is in desperate need of painting and a thorough cleaning. We discuss the situation and Rev. Tai rues, “I am but one person.” Clearly he is upset by what his guest sees. Worse, in two weeks Rev. Gordon Oliver, president of the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists, will arrive.

Worship with Nigerian Unitarians

Sunday is the one day of the week when traffic thins in Lagos. People spend time with families or attend church, especially one of the rapidly growing Pentacostal churches, with colorful names like “Jesus’ Blood,” that are springing up on virtually every corner. For us, it is an easy ride to the church for morning services. Immediately after there will be a traditional meal provided by the guest and prepared by Rev. Tai’s wife and daughters, and then a discussion.

The church is packed. The service is in Yoruba and everyone is fully engrossed. Then it is time for the guest to speak: I talk about things commonly know by Unitarians and Universalists elsewhere but unknown to our cousins here; the flower and water ceremonies, the UU Partner Church program and the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists, and Unitarians I have visited in Transylvania and India.

I tell them that after Transylvania and Europe, after North America and India, the next oldest group of Unitarians in the world is right here, in this aged church in this blighted city. I look at the poor condition of the church. What can be done, I query. Could the men paint, the women clean? Does anyone know how to repair broken windows or leaking roofs?

Renewed energy

Suddenly, an old woman in colorful Nigerian dress jumps up and addresses the congregation, waving her arms and pointing at both them and the building. People respond, slowly at first and then with gusto. They turn to one another, they talk among themselves, they applaud. Interpretation is unnecessary. This old woman has started the renewal and everyone is excited.

This impoverished, exhausted congregation believes it can renew their building and in so doing, renew themselves and their flagging church.

Excitement continues to grow, reaching a crescendo wilth the arrival of ———, the young, charismatic minister of First Unitarian on mainland Lagos. This congregation was founded 12 years ago and this is the first time Rev. ——— has visited the old church in as many years. Services are over at his church and he has come to greet the visitor. He is known and loved by everyone. They crowd around, hugging him and each other.

Then Rev. Tai has us all hold hands and in loud unison sing favorite hymns in Yoruba, written those many years before by Isolea.

Making repairs

A young man calls out, by next Sunday the old peeling sign will be repainted, with “Unitarian Brotherhood” written in black lustre. But, everyone ponders, how will it look against the stained and discolored outdoor wall. Years of auto exhaust have rendered it dirty and ugly. Women step forward, offering to polish the old wooden pews, scrub the filthy floor and remove the laundry hung out to dry over ceiling railings by squatters. But how will it stay clean with broken windows spewing in dirt from outside and squatters moving in between services? A small, shrunken man whose spine is twisted says he will paint, both inside and out, but he has no paint. Another steps forward: his nephew is an electrician; he can repair the cut wires. Everyone knows that a nephew is like a son and will do without fail whatever is asked of him by an uncle.

So there I stood, flush with American dollars for use during the remainder of my trip, facing enormous and important needs. Paint and polish, glass and electrical wire. What would you have done? I instantly knew what I would do… and I did.

How sweet it is…

I didn’t get to see the restored church. I left for Kenya the day work started. But I have heard since that it is looking good, just in time for Rev. Oliver’s much anticipated arrival, representing the prestigious ICUU.

Congregational energy is renewed. There are plans to re-start a daycare center in the upstairs area where once many years ago such a center thrived, and prayer groups are being planned for both men and women at the church throughout the week. And there is conversation about how to raise money to provide transportation to Sunday services for parishioners who no longer live near and cannot afford the weekly cost.

This is Unitarian renewal at its finest, renewal of a building, of a congregation and of a minister. How sweet it is.

For more information about the Unitarian Brotherhood and First Unitarian congregations in Lagos, contact Janice via email: janicebrunson AT cox DOT net – or — janicebrunson AT yahoo DOT com

If your congregation would like to help support African Unitarian Universalist projects, please contact Janice via email, and she will tell you how to send checks. She reports: “Each African congregation has a banking account that requires two signatures. All contributions will be closely monitored and you will be told exacly what your money buys.”

Janice also points out that “A tour is underway in early fall: ground cost US$1995, includes two UU services, one each in Kenya and Burundi, the Rwanda gorillas, a Kenyan safari and much more.”

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