I was born and raised a Roman Catholic. I wouldn’t use the word ‘staunch’ or even ‘devout’ to describe my family or my Roman Catholic experience, but my parents, especially my mother, would instil The Fear of God in you with a whip if need be.
My earliest memories of church were sitting next to my father in the pews of Saint Dominic’s Catholic Church, Yaba as the congregation sang the Build for the Lord song (a song which I can still sing perfectly today), and after church was over, waiting for him to buy us banana-flavoured Walls Ice Cream on a wooden stick. Some weekdays after school, we went straight to church—our nanny, my elder brother and I—so my brother could attend his First Holy Communion Catechism classes. As we waited for my brother, my fondest memories were of wandering through the ancient architecture of the quiet church compound, talking to the statues of dead Saints, chasing after lizards and pigeons. I remember sitting on the moss-laden concrete blocks, creating fantasy words and worlds. With the sand as a board and a twig as my chalk I taught an imaginary class lessons on Vocabulary and Addition and Subtraction.
My early years were more an experience of the church than they were of God, of the church as a building than as a people. It was not absolute but it was enough. During those formative years the church was a symbol of peace and goodness, Sunday was a quiet, holy day (even when we didn’t go to church), and God was Our Father up there who watched over us, who we were not to offend by doing anything bad. Bad Things were things like lying, stealing, fighting at school, and being disobedient.
By the time I got to secondary school you were either Roman Catholic or Anglican. If you were Other, you belonged to the Anglicans. I was neither Anglican nor Roman Catholic enough. I didn’t fit in anywhere and it hurt at first. I cried once in my JSS 1 during an October Devotion, as the voices of the students rose in call and response and I could only contribute a few words to the resounding chorus. Never having recited the Rosary and the Litanies much as a child, I found them initially interesting but later mechanical and impassive. There had to be something more to being a Christian than this bipolar denominational take. I saw more of what I wanted in the Anglicans (and Others), so at the end of my secondary school years I attended a Youth Camp with them. After the camp it was just the right thing to do: I became ‘Born Again’.
It was then I felt, okay, right now I really belong to God’s family. But it was far from perfect. The greatest challenge of Christianity is its diversity in doctrine, scriptural interpretation and teaching. But the Word of God remains the one thing that binds us all together, forever. I wasn’t Roman Catholic anymore, neither was I Anglican, I admired Pentecostalism, I attended Deeper Life and Redeemed Christian Church for two semesters each and Christ Embassy for one semester while I was in the university, I’d been to a Jehovah’s Witness conference for two days, I’d been fascinated by the Rosicrucians and the Mormons (who have church premises so neat you could eat off their grounds). Religion-wise, I have been there, done that.
My journey was not that of a confused soul, it was one of a seeking heart. Everything I have experienced, every spiritual journey I have made, has helped to further cement my belief in the God I call my own and in the standards He has called me to live by and uphold. My heart was wide open because I wanted Christianity to mean much more to me than the ritual of church attendance and fellowship; I wanted to really know God. I’m alarmed at this new theory of Christianity not being a religion but a way of life. Christianity is a religion and a way of life. It is a religion because we believe in it; it is a way of life because we live it.
Everything in life points to the existence of a Higher Power, an Intelligent Creator who made all things with such precision and astounding detail. Max Lucado said that, “If a person had nothing but nature then nature is enough to reveal something about God.” I ask myself: What would it cost me not to believe? Or to believe? God’s Word, The Holy Bible, with its origin shrouded in scepticism by some, is still the best of all bestsellers. I like to say that even if it was forged or cooked up, it was a dish so wonderfully prepared, so excellently fabricated, contrived for the benefit of mankind. But we all know good things like the Bible don’t happen by accident. For example, no other definition of love I know can surpass that expressed in the Bible in the first book of Corinthians, Chapter 13. If a person should say I don’t believe in God but lived by the principles in the Bible then they would have lived a good life indeed. The teachings of Christ embody peace, love, unity and purity; I don’t know how I cannot follow this Man who gave His life for me. I don’t know how I cannot believe.
Christianity seems abstract because it’s odd, really, to say that you believe in a God you cannot see. I draw most of my inspiration and strength from intangible things: meditation, belief in a cause, relying on my subconscious. The essence of life, then, in itself is supernatural. The seeming abstractness of Christianity is a beautiful paradox. The Bible says that “it is impossible to please God without faith. Anyone who wants to come to Him must believe that there is a God and that He rewards those who sincerely seek Him.”The same Bible says that if someone says ‘I love God’ but hates a Christian brother or sister that person is a liar. For if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God whom we have not seen? The true measure of spirituality then is not only in how much we love God but in how much we love our fellow men. An honest devotion to God translates into love, acceptance and tolerance of our fellow human beings.
Living out my faith involves sticking to godly principles but also being willing to understand the convictions and the lifestyles of those around me. This used to be quite difficult, learning to assert my beliefs and still give room for differences of opinion.
My friend, Jide, lives in the same estate as I do. We had met during my National Youth Service Corps year and became friends when we found ourselves living in the same area. One evening we met on the streets where I was returning from seeing someone off and he had gone to buy fruits. To break his daily Ramadan fast, he said. That was the day I discovered he was a Muslim, our discussions had always been centred on experiences during our service year and on computers—he was doing a Cisco certification programme. My facial expression revealed my shock. He asked why I was so surprised. I said nothing. He prodded. I told him that he didn’t look or act Muslim, he seemed so . . .
“Gentle?” he said.
I looked away. All Muslim men should have a long beard, wear caps on flowing caftans, speak Hausa or Arabic, and be violent; having encountered so few in my lifetime that was the image I unconsciously carried with me; so Jide couldn’t have been a Muslim.
Later on we began to talk about Islam and the Bible. I wanted to know what the Quran said about Jesus. He told me that Mohammed was the last of all prophets. I told him that Isaac was the child of promise, not Ishmael. He told me there was only one true God, Allah. We talked about Boko Haram, the Jos crisis and Sharia Law, how religion was now being used as a tool for violence. He told me about Yusuf and his twelve brothers; I told him that it was the same story of Joseph in the Bible. We had more in common than I had thought. In the end, we disagreed on the most important things. Jesus Christ is the Son of God, My Lord, My Saviour; Jesus (Isa) to him is a prophet. But we agreed on one point: our humanity, how religion affected us both.
Christianity is summed up thus: You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. A second (commandment) is equally important: Love your neighbour as yourself.
It doesn’t take much to embrace a Faith that encourages me to do the one thing that would make my life, my world, better: to love.