An interview with Archbishop Ben Kwashi of Nigeria
(This is an edited version of Hugh Palmer’s interview with Archbishop Ben Kwashi of Nigeria at New World Alive in 2011)
HP: Tell us about the beginning of your Christian life?
BK: I came from a Christian background. A missionary called Max Warren came to Nigeria in 1928. My father was ostracised for accepting the gospel. But Max Warren ensured that my father got all the education he needed. My father passed on that education, which included the 1662 Prayer Book, Hymns Ancient & Modern and all that. So I grew up saying, ‘Thou knowest, thou wentest…’ and all those things.
By the age of 17 I wanted my freedom. So I left. I was now fed up with Christianity. I did not know that I was not a Christian. Two years down the road in 1976 I met someone on the streets of Lagos who was handing out tracts. I knew my Bible so I thought I would put him off. I said to him: ‘You are wasting your time. Jesus wants only 144,000 people in heaven; so only two from Nigeria will qualify!’ He said ‘no’, and gently, with certainty and conviction, led me through John 10.10, ‘I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full’. He assured me that God loved me. I went back to my room and for the first time I saw that it was filthy. I started crying. That began a journey, and I have never looked back since.
HP: You don’t become an archbishop overnight. What happened?
BK: I was in the Nigerian Army. But then things changed. The OM ship, the Logos, was in Lagos harbour. I was taken there by someone following me up. We bought books and got groomed for ministry. God called me. But I didn’t want to go into ministry. All the ministers I knew looked unhappy and church was boring. But it was through this that God spoke clearly. I was to go back and help build up the young people in his church.
I went to seminary. Then after four years I was ordained and went to St. Andrew’s Church as the first black pastor. There I got married. But in three and a half years we grew from 60 people to 400. I was then given a leadership role in rural areas and we grew from 30 to 70 congregations in a short time.
HP: You became a bishop. How did you cope with all the committees?
BK: I abolished them all! As a bishop I am a missionary. By my third year we had grown from 85 to 190 congregations and I appointed leaders in the different areas. In another 8 years we were up to 315 congregations. People are perishing so we push on with the work. As we do that I find gifted young people who want to serve the kingdom of God.
Also I came to the conclusion that it was not good for them to be trained in the West, especially because of the suffering situation in northern Nigeria. If they come to the UK for three years of electricity, running water and no persecution, when they return to Nigeria they would be like fish out of water. So we do our own training.
HP: The Muslim / Christian divide in Nigeria runs deep. Is it just a geographic thing?
BK: No. Being born in the north, my first education as a little boy was in the Qur’an. My father was an education officer in the north. So we lived and grew up with Muslims. I still have many Muslim friends. The divide that has come in is something new. It began in the early 1980s, largely through the teachings of the late Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran.
1987 was the beginning for me. We were only about four or five years married. I was sitting in my living room, my wife was away, and some security officers came to my home and said I must be evacuated. They had information that I was about to be killed. I thought it was a joke. But the following day I found that both my church and my house had been burnt down. From 1987 on we have seen the steady rise in the killing of Christians. It is not all Muslims who are like that. Governments across the world have failed to identify this strand of violent Islam and they are now armed right across the world.
HP: Jos seems to be at the front line and it is often reported that both sides are attacking each other.
BK: No. Jos is a wonderful, fertile, welcoming place which attracts people from many nations, Christians and non-Muslims. There are HQs of many mission organisations in Jos. But next door there are shari’a states. So any dissatisfied Islamic group can decide to come into Jos and foment trouble. It got to the point where Christians were asking if they should defend themselves. I think none of the violence has ever been started by Christians or by non-Muslims. The non-Muslims (pagan, rural people, etc.) retaliate and are classified by the international media as ‘Christians’. So the church is paying twice. We are paying for persecution and for the sins of non-Muslims.
In my heart it is settled. I have forgiven. I am not going to retaliate ever in my life. I have seen the power of God to save me in difficult times. Whatever happens I will just keep forgiving.
HP: How many times have you and your wife, Gloria, been attacked?
BK: Specifically three times. In the first one I have already mentioned I received encouragement from Gloria. She was away and heard of the trouble, so she got a taxi. I took her to the house. There were many things stored there from our wedding and gifts I had brought back from the US. Now it was all burned. I was scared about how she would feel. But when she came she put her arms around me and said: ‘Ben, you preach that heaven and earth will pass away. If that doesn’t start with you, people will not believe’. I was blessed by that. The Lord seemed to say to me that after March 12 1987 every other day was extra time.
The second attack was like this. I was in England. The attackers somehow knew when I was due to return. For some reason I postponed my return. The evening I had been due back they came in after midnight. The mob was more than 40 people. They ransacked the house thinking I was there hiding somewhere. They tortured Gloria in unspeakable ways. She was left half dead, completely blind and with broken legs. It took nearly nine months, but, with some special treatment in the US, praise God she is now fully recovered.
Exactly a year later they came back. Again it was a huge crowd, this time prepared with a sledgehammer to break in. I told Gloria: ‘I think my time is up’. I asked God that they take me and nobody else. They took me out into the compound. They did not beat me. They said: ‘Man of God we are going to kill you’. I said: ‘Please let me pray’. One said: ‘Let’s kill him upstairs in the presence of his wife’. So we went back upstairs. They allowed me to pray. I got down on the floor and was praying. A few moments later I felt cold hands around me. I opened my eyes. It was Gloria. I said: ‘What are you doing there?’ She said: ‘Pray on Ben’, and we prayed. A few moments later my son came in. He said: ‘Daddy, they’re gone’. Now, what they saw, why they didn’t carry out their plan, only eternity will reveal.
HP: Ben, you have visited Britain. You know the culture is getting more hostile. What would you say to us in the UK?
BK: Listen to the Word of God. You must carry the gospel with your whole heart to your children, your relatives and friends. We must agonise in prayer and share the gospel. Inevitably, whether you do this or not, suffering will come your way. It is better to suffer for the gospel than to suffer for no gospel. Whatever is happening by way of Christians suffering around the world, do not think you will be insulated from it. This is going to come with time.
This interview is used with permission of the organisers of New Word Alive.