For the child of God engaged in the work of the Kingdom, there is no such thing as coincidence. But there are moments when God’s sovereign plan includes gifts of grace that must be celebrated. This is a story of one of those moments.
If you have been around the Brethren Church for a while, you may be familiar with a sweet lady in my church named Bea Puro, whose name used to be Bea Bischof. Bea and her husband Bob pastored in our church for several years beginning in 1972, but in their younger years, they served as missionaries in Nigeria. Beginning in the 1950s, the Brethren Church assisted the Church of the Brethren in their missions efforts in that country, and Bob and Bea were one of several couples that worked among the Higi tribe in Northeast Nigeria, from 1952-1967. Upon leaving Africa, the Bischofs pastored in several Brethren churches, including ours. After Bob’s death, Bea came back to our church, remarried, and still worships with us each week at 93 years old.
While meeting with a group of local pastors in November, I was introduced to the new Interim Pastor at a Church of the Brethren a few miles south of our church. He introduced himself as Dr. Musa Mambula. He said he had come to the United States a few years ago from Nigeria, and that he had been a leader in the EYN, the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria, for quite some time.
As Musa and I talked, I felt prompted to ask a question that seemed very silly. But I asked anyway, “Musa, did you ever hear of a couple named Bob and Bea Bischof?” What a crazy question! I’ve just asked this guy if he heard of someone who worked 60 years ago in the same region of the densely populated country where he happened to grow up.
Musa’s response floored me- “BOB BISCHOF BAPTIZED ME IN 1959!” I couldn’t believe it! By God’s grace, a man baptized 6,000 miles away by the former pastor of my church, whose widow was still alive and well, was pastoring a church just four miles south of the church where Bob later served, and of the parsonage where I lived and where Bob and Bea had raised their family. What an incredible gift of God’s grace!
We HAD to arrange for Musa and Bea to see each other again, so on March 5th, Musa and his wife Sarah spoke at the Tuesday morning women’s Bible Study that Bea attends at our church. It was a wonderful time of fellowship, and we were each moved by Musa and Sarah’s story of service and faithfulness to the Gospel.
Musa’s father had been an evangelist in Nigeria, living to the age of 107. The Bischofs’ ministry was based in the city of Mbororo. As Musa’s father won people to Christ, he would bring them to Bob to be baptized and discipled. When asked what memories Musa had of the Bischofs, he said he remembers the couple holding hands everywhere they went. (In Nigerian culture, husbands always walked in front of their wives to protect them from attack, so American couples walking side by side and holding hands was a peculiar sight to Musa.) Musa recounted that Bob Bischof baptized him in a small creek. After graduating college, Musa met his wife Sarah in 1972 while doing relief work. After marrying, they came to Chicago, where Musa earned Masters degrees and Sarah completed undergraduate work. They eventually had five children- two sons, and three daughters, one of whom they named…Beatrice.
After several years, they returned to Africa to work in the EYN, to spread the Gospel and to work for peace. The nation had been languishing in violence and civil war because of a military coup in 1967, and persecution of Christians by the Muslim majority was on the rise. Musa eventually earned his doctorate and became a faculty member at a university. When the Muslim terrorist group Boko Haram took control of the region in 2009, persecution of Christians intensified, and Musa was forced into early retirement as an “infidel”. Despite being denied his legally-earned pension, he and Sarah managed to build a house where they planned to spend their retirement. But four days after moving in, they were forced to flee from Boko Haram, who burned their new house to the ground. Having been put on Boko Haram’s “hit list”, Musa and Sarah returned to the United States and became permanent residents in 2015. He has written ten books, including devotionals and works about peacemaking and education.
Perhaps the most moving part of Musa and Sarah’s story is their testimony of God’s power displayed in the midst of suffering. Despite persecution, the Nigerian EYN church has grown exponentially. When the Nigerian government threw all American missionaries out of the country in 1977, the EYN had a membership of around 18,000. Today, that number is about 2 million! But as the church has grown, so has persecution at the hands of the extremist group Boko Haram. Of the 50 church districts recognized by the EYN, 43 have experienced the destruction of churches and families. 423 pastors have been killed. At least 12,000 Brethren have been martyred. And 700,000 members have been displaced. But by God’s grace, the church’s influence grows in the midst of persecution. Members seeking refuge in neighboring countries have taken the Gospel with them, birthing churches in Benin, Togo, Cameroon, Niger, and Chad. The Word of Christ is spreading, despite the onslaught of the enemy.
We will never forget hearing Musa’s story, not simply because of the power of that story, but also because of the sheer unlikelihood, we would get the chance to hear it. Some might call our church connecting with Musa, some 60 years after his baptism by our former pastor, a “coincidence”. Some might say, “It’s a small world, isn’t it?” But I don’t believe in coincidence. I believe in the magnificent poetry of God’s grace. By His grace, Musa and Bea experienced a reunion, and our church was able to connect with a brother with whom we had a common heritage. We were both influenced by Bob and Bea Bischof, certainly. We share a heritage of Brethren belief and practice. But greater still, we share a hope in the living Christ, who has called us to faithful service to reach others with very Good News, whether our backyard is Mbororo, Nigeria, or New Paris, Indiana. We don’t always see the fruit of that service. When we do, it is something to celebrate. And today, our church is celebrating the fruit of faithful ministry by Bob and Bea Bischof, and all of the others who birthed a Brethren witness in Nigeria. And it reminds us, that our faithfulness today will be celebrated tomorrow by others, and God will get all the glory!