What an incredible experience I had in Nigeria! It was my first ever experience to Africa and I was excited to be able to have the chance to go. This short review will let you know of the things that took place and what we were able to accomplish while we were there as well as a few conclusions or things that I am taking away from the trip.
I will start by saying that I wasn’t planning on going on this mission trip. My dad called me in August this year and asked what the possibility of me leaving on a mission trip from December 12th-20th. I said, “Very, very, very slim.” Allison and I just had our second child, Brady, and opened a new church just a few months after having Brady. New church and new baby right around Christmas didn’t really sound practical for me. As I was praying about it, Allison told me it was a great opportunity and she would support whatever I wanted to do. Paul Hoyer said that he could handle the church side of things. But I still didn’t feel right about leaving my wife with our two kids alone for 8 days right before a busy Christmas season. So I called my dad, thanked him for the opportunity, and said that unfortunately it wasn’t good timing for me. The day after I said this, and still feeling unsure about it, my mother-in-law randomly (and not knowing about the mission trip I was pondering) called Allison and said, “I want to come visit my grandkids (and of course you), December 12th-19th. Does that work?” After this happened (I really felt like it was God intervening and telling me it was okay to go) and more conversation with Allison, I finally felt right about it. The church would be okay (I’d been on for 18 straight weeks with not a single day of vacation), and even more importantly my wife would be okay with her mom there helping. Off to Nigeria!
But first, of course, I had to get 6 shots and a couple of prescriptions. Whenever I mentioned I was going to Nigeria, people thought I was crazy! I got to tell many people that I was going to teach and preach about Jesus! I flew from Orlando to Atlanta and met my dad and two women (my Aunt Jeni and her friend Katina). The four of us made up our team. Jeni and Katina are both nurses and were hoping to be used by God to help people feel better, run some tests, give medicines, etc. Right when I got to the counter in Atlanta there was a lot of commotion! Someone had just been tackled to the ground and was in the custody of the police and they drug him onto our plane (an 11 hour plane ride with this person who looked very guilty of something). We found out later he was being deported.
Standing in line to go on the plane to Nigeria, there was a man who told me and my team that we were crazy for going to Nigeria to do mission work. He told us that his father said, “Don’t cast pearls among the swine.” This angered me, because essentially he was calling the Nigerian people swine. He told us to watch our backs.
If anything, these incidents right before I got on the plane reminded me that whenever you go on a mission trip you never know what to expect. This trip really crept up on me and so this just confirmed in my mind that we were doing the right thing and we did in fact need God on our side to not only be safe, but to have great impact! There was much at stake!
Our flight was 11 hours and overnight. Thankfully, it was a direct flight from Atlanta to Lagos, Nigeria. Lagos is 6 hours ahead of us. We arrived at 3PM their time (9AM ours) and were driven to our hotel for the night. Stuff doesn’t quite work the same here as over there. The small (in our estimation) Lagos International Airport took 2.5 hours for our bags to come out. When we got out of the airport we had a couple of government people that Uma Ukpai hired to help us get to our hotel.
Uma Ukpai is a very good friend of my father and he was the one in charge of the pastor’s conference my dad and I were teaching at and the miracle crusades that went on every night. He is an evangelist and holds crusades all over the place. He is an extremely important and respected man not only in church circles, but in government as well. At his discretion, Uma has the ability to make one phone call and talk to the President of Nigeria at anytime. He can also call an airport and have any flight wait for him if he is late (which we found out later on our tripJ).
On the way to the hotel, I saw things that I heard happened in Africa: people carrying everything on their head, kids playing soccer in a nearby field, the season they call “harmiton,” which is a very dusty, sandy look to it. When we got to the hotel we were met at the security gate where they checked our entire car as well as under the car for bombs. Ever had that happen before? At the hotel in Lagos we had a buffet dinner. It featured a lot of Nigerian foods as well as some of the foods that we are more accustomed to. This is the hotel in Lagos that all of the Americans (esp. flight attendants) stay at when they are in town so they had quite a bit of American food on the buffet as well. I did try some Nigerian food though: garri (pounded yam) and Ogbono soup (not a big fan: it was like a beef, with okra, stew). After that, we crashed for the night.
The next day (Wednesday) we were taken by the same government official to the Lagos Domestic airport where we were getting ready to fly from Lagos to Uyo (about a 1 hour flight). The airport was new (built just a couple of years ago) and I saw a KFC right across the street from it. It was the only American restaurant that I noticed the entire time I was there. The flight was uneventful and when we arrived at the Uyo Domestic airport we were the only airplane and the airport was about the size of a large post office here in the USA. We met Uma and were taken to the VIP lounge to wait for our luggage. Uma had a couple of people grab our bags for us and when we had gotten them Uma and his employees took us from the airport to check in at our hotel. Everywhere we drove, we went with Uma’s drivers and usually a police car or two that went with us.
Uyo is in the state of Akwa Ibom which is one of the richer states in Nigeria. That being said, it comes nowhere close to what we have or experience here in the USA. Akwa Ibom is near the state where the majority of oil comes from Nigeria and so they have a number of Exxon/Mobil people who come into their state from time to time. Because of this they built a new hotel in 2008 called Le Meridien and it was here that we stayed. I didn’t know what to expect or where we’d stay when we would be in Africa so to hear that we were in a nice hotel (even according to our standards) that has air conditioning and comfortable beds was a great blessing!
Our days in Uyo were pretty consistent. For three days we would wake up early expecting to be picked up at 730AM to go to the pastor’s conference. To be picked up at 730 each day actually meant they would come anytime between 7 and 9AM to get us. This is just how life is in Nigeria, and from what I understand, most of Africa. At the pastor’s conference, my dad would speak to pastors about leadership. I would speak and teach the young pastors and the youth. I spoke about discipleship and what it meant to be a follower of Jesus. The ladies would help with the medical clinic along with a few local nurses and doctors. My dad’s church was able to give Uma $6000 of which he spent it on drugs for the clinic. Dad and I would teach anywhere from 1 to 2 hours. The people in Nigeria are very linear, take very good notes, and are extremely expressive in how they listen and learn. Many times they would shout back an “Amen,” “Hallelujah,” or “Praise the Lord.” It was quite fun speaking with this audience and very easy to play off of their energy. Speaking to the young pastors/youth was definitely a major highlight of the trip for me.
After the conference, many pastors were blessed and received a certificate saying they had completed the conference. It was quite an honor for these pastors to receive Uma’s blessing. Dad and I got to pray for them and anoint them and ask God to bless their ministries. Afterwards they took pictures with us. It was amazing to see how they treated us. My dad and I were the only white people around and for some reason bringing a white American to your conference somehow validated it. They treated us with great respect and honor…something of which I didn’t feel like I deserved quite honestly!
Uma tells us that when they see a White American they all flock to us because they see every American as a multi-millionaire who buys a new car and after 6 months gets another one and just gives away the old one. Because of that many people want to approach travelling Americans and ask for money or help of some kind. Uma’s people really protected us from this. There was a positive and a negative to this. The positive was that we truly were protected and taken care of. The negative was that we didn’t get too much interaction with the common folk on a one-to-one basis. The most interaction we had was with Uma himself and his employees (the drivers, policemen, government officials who helped us travel, and the people put in control of the conferences/crusades). I’m grateful he did this for us, however, because the one time where we let loose and took pictures with them, they really did swarm us.
After the conference we’d usually get back to the hotel around 1PM and grab lunch. This hotel also had a buffet and we truly ate like kings. Nothing like I thought I would experience! Every meal I would have some sort of rice, fish, bread, and dessert. And of course pineapple. The pineapple was so good there. I thought I would go into the trip and lose a few pounds due to not eating very much, but the opposite was true. I ate more than I normally do here due to the buffet style at every meal! For drinks, we couldn’t drink the water there, so we would have bottled water, Fanta, or Coke.
After lunch, we’d have some quiet time or free time. Of the four days we were there, twice I took long naps, once I played ping-pong at the hotel with one of the drivers who had one of the best serves I’ve ever played against, and once Dad and I got a rare chance to play golf. The hotel we were staying at has the only golf course in the whole state of Akwa Ibom on its grounds. When I went to ask how much it was to golf, the man said, “Free for those staying at the hotel.” At first, Dad and I felt guilty about playing golf on a mission trip, but we quickly got over that. He has been to Africa approximately 20 times and it was the first time we’d ever played golf in Africa. The golf holes are in meters, not yards. We had caddies that helped us with our clubs and being a big fan of golf, it was a really cool, unique experience that I won’t forget. The views on the golf course and of the forest and the palm trees on that course were spectacular. Africa truly is a beautiful place!
One of the afternoons we wanted to go shopping and get souvenirs for our families. We told Uma this and he told us he would get us a couple of drivers. During that morning, he asked the pastors and wives in attendance to give an offering so that we, the Americans, could buy artifacts for our families. I didn’t want him to do this but it’s considered rude to not accept the gift given by grateful and cheerful hearts. They raised 86000 Naira which is roughly $550. When Uma heard this, he asked for another 14000 for a total of 100000 Naira, almost $650. I felt really bad that I had to accept a gift from a group of people that I knew I had way more than. We went shopping and went 100MPH on a one-lane road. It was incredibly scary! But that’s the way they drive there! We bought gifts and had about 75000 Naira left. At the end of the trip, we gave back whatever Nira we had in addition to the 75000 Naira and it totaled almost 100000 Naira. We told Uma we got the gifts we needed and to keep the rest for ministry.
We were told to be ready at 7PM each night to go to the miracle crusades. This of course meant anytime from 6PM to 8PM so we’d always make sure we were ready early. The team got along really great the entire time. There were so many laughs and good times that we had. Not once did anybody feel sick or have a bad attitude. The unity amongst the four of us was a sign that God was with us!
We’d get picked up and taken to the crusades. When we got there, the crusade was already underway. In fact, it started at 5PM. It usually went till 1030-11PM. And it went on for 8 straight days! On arrival, we would be greeted by Uma’s team and they would lead us to our seats. We were on the stage with about 15 others each night. Uma and his wife would sit in the middle, my dad would sit next to Uma, I would sit next to his wife and the girls would be a row behind us. They kept this pattern every night and they told us that the places we were sitting in were places of honor. Next to my dad on the other side would usually be the main speaker for the night. Uma flew in many of the great evangelists/bishops/etc. to be the main speakers. Uma himself led the last two days. On the last day of the crusade the deputy governor (like a vice-governor) came in. This was a huge deal and in fact, his arrival pushed me to the outside of the row. This was the only time that I moved from my seat next to Uma’s wife.
At the crusades, incredible things happened. There was so much worship, dancing, praise, and then there would be a message usually followed by an opportunity to give. Uma himself paid for 250 busses to go all around the state and even neighboring states to pick up people to attend these crusades. Every night there was a huge crowd present. Uma’s people estimated that there were 50,000 present each night. Some of them came every night!
One of the great opportunities was to hear Frank Edwards worship God. He is a young Gospel singer and had one of the best voices I have heard. When people came up to video tape him he politely asked them to go back to their seats and give glory to God, not to him. It was an awesome experience and the presence of God descended upon the place. It was like heaven was opening and descending upon us. It brought tears to my eyes and as I looked over at my dad’s he as well was crying. Uma was lying prostrate on the ground, something which my dad said he had never seen from Uma before.
The speakers were usually very loud, especially with us being on stage. It was funny that they would actually be looking back at us for more than half of the time facing the 15-20 of us on stage rather than the 10000 people in the audience. They said they did that to give Uma respect because they were grateful for the chance to speak. I’ve always been taught not to turn my back to the audience! The speakers all were similar to me. They were very prophetic, very loud, and spoke blessings over the people. Many miracles happened and many people turned or re-dedicated their life to Christ on a nightly basis.
The speakers (especially Uma) were king of the one-liners. It was amazing how these one-liners would get the crowds riled up! Your lamentation will be turned into laughter. Your problems into your promotion. Your setback is just a setup for a comeback. God will trouble your trouble. The stones the enemy is throwing at you will be the foundation of your new house, etc.
The last night of the crusade was a great experience. Uma spoke and there were many people that were healed. Many demons were exorcised. People were rolling on the ground uncontrollably, some of them vomiting, some shrieking. It was both tremendously scary and exhilarating at the same time.
Sunday morning we weren’t told that we were going to do anything. So all of us were planning on sleeping in. At 9AM, I got a knock on my door. I was completely out of it. It was Ben, our driver, telling us that we had to leave right away for church. 10 minutes later all of us were out the door headed to a church where one of the pastors was dedicating their baby. Right when we walked in, Uma was preaching and the very first thing we heard Uma say was, “I’m done now. It’s Mark’s turn to preach.” Dad picked up from there and preached about things that surprise us about God. He did a great job considering he was “on the spot.” This is how it was in Nigeria. You never knew when your name would be called. After the prayer, Uma called my name and said that I was going to bless the pastor’s baby! I prayed for Inny-Eduek Giddel that she be welcomed into the family of God and that she would grow up to be a warrior for God. It was quite a special moment for me and I will continue to pray for Inny-Eduek as often as I can.
Monday we were able to sleep in. Once we got up we had lunch with Uma. From there we went to the airport. There was only one problem. Our flight left at 3PM and we didn’t get there until 250PM. But remember what I said earlier: Uma can stop any plane at anytime in Nigeria. We walked right up with Uma and were given first-class treatment and made our flight! From Uyo, we landed in Lagos, drove over to the International Airport and waited for our flight. Once the flight took off, 13 hours later, we were back in Atlanta, safe and sound, with an incredible story and trip that I will never forget.
One of the things we were hoping to do on the trip was advance our efforts as the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in the Lutheran Malaria Initiative (LMI). Unfortunately this didn’t happen but my dad is going to meet with the President of the Lutheran Church of Nigeria when he comes to visit the USA in February. Hopefully that will materialize and we can figure out a way to help eradicate malaria deaths by 2015.
Here’s a few of my conclusions or observations:
1) How we celebrate Jesus: I love the way they worship and celebrate Jesus. So much dancing, so much singing, so much joy! I wonder why we feel the need to hold back here in America. I want to be a church that embraces people worshipping in different ways. I pray that the Holy Spirit would show up. I don’t want to be afraid of the Holy Spirit’s power. I want to embrace it and call upon it.
2) Always be ready. You never knew when your name would be called in Africa. And even if you did know that you were going to do something, you never knew exactly when because they weren’t focused on time. This taught me to rely on God showing up. He won’t make you look like a fool. When you do something for his glory He will show up.
3) There is a real spiritual battle happening! I saw this firsthand. We don’t see a lot of us the stuff going on in the supernatural realms but it’s real. And many people are oppressed or possessed by demons. We need to regularly pray for these people. We need to get more serious about following God and realize that following Him is a dangerous thing. We need the protection of His angels at all times. The most valuable thing I learned in this respect though is that our God is greater than anything the enemy wants to put in our way! So many people were delivered, healed, and gave their lives over to Christ. He won!
4) I love my church. I missed you guys and being away was not easy. I am grateful that I am a part of a church that embraces missions. It is great to be back and I am excited for the journey we have coming up. I believe that in 2012 God has great things in store for us. I hope we are all ready to jump in even deeper because the more we jump in the greater God will show up.
5) Cherish your spouse. Many of you know that my wife Allison grew up in Africa after she was born in the USA. She lived in Togo, Africa from the age of 1 until she was 12 years old. Nigeria is just a couple of countries to the east of where she grew up. Because she had such a different childhood than I had I didn’t understand some of the things in her past. There are some things on the trip that she’d explained to me in the past that I’d never understood until this trip Going to Africa once gave me a greater appreciation for her and for all of the things she went through and lived with in her life. Africa is a special place for her and I can see why now. This trip has taught me to appreciate her even more and I look forward to the time I can go back and visit Togo with my wife.
Thanks for allowing me the chance to go on this trip. I hope I am a better pastor because of it. I love you.