When David Sollenberger of North Manchester traveled to Nigeria in early November, he was met with what he calls “horrible stories.”
People told him about armed men coming into their villages, he says, and “randomly shooting people.” They told him of homes and churches burned, of fleeing on foot into the jungle of nearby mountains, leaving everything behind.
“I talked to so many people (who said) that their relatives were shot right before their eyes,” he says. “The only reason seems to be to establish fear.”
Sollenberger was talking to people in northeast Nigeria, a region in the cross hairs of Boko Haram. The radical Islamist group is perhaps best known for kidnapping more than 200 girls from a school in Chibok, Nigeria, last April, according to officials; the girls’ whereabouts remain mostly unknown.
A freelance videographer and former news cameraman, Sollenberger made the trip as a representative of the Church of the Brethren to document conditions in a part of the world where the denomination is the largest Christian body.
Brethren officials plan to use the resulting Sollenberger video, “Crisis in Nigeria: 2015,” to raise $11.2 million over the next five years – $1 million of that by this Easter. The money will support and resettle Boko Haram-displaced people now living in refugee camps in neighboring Cameroon and southern Nigeria, which is considered somewhat safer, Sollenberger says.
Estimates are that Ekklesiyar Yan’uwa Nigeria, or EYN – as the denomination is known in Nigeria – has about 500,000 members, nearly five times more than the U.S.-based membership.
According to some estimates, as many as 1â ¯million people in Nigeria attend the denomination’s Sunday services, Sollenberger says.
The Church of the Brethren claims about 125,000 U.S. members in about 1,000 congregations, including about 8,000 members in northern Indiana.
But now, Sollenberger says, the EYN – which, like in the United States, has been traditionally known as a “peace church,” unequivocally opposed to war – has been shattered.
In October, about three weeks before Sollenberger’s trip, the EYN’s headquarters in Mubi, on the eastern border with Cameroon, was attacked and looted by Boko Haram.
“We’re saying about 8,000 church members have been killed and 70 percent of church congregations have been destroyed or abandoned. We know that they burned about 200 churches,” Sollenberger says of the recent violence.
Meanwhile, he says, people are suffering by the tens of thousands. “So many of them are displaced. That’s the scary thing. We think 150,000 are out of their homes, refugees in their own country.”
Sollenberger was not able to go to Mubi because it was still too dangerous, he says. Instead, he followed displaced EYN leaders as they visited refugee camps and organized food distributions.
People there, he says, were living 12 to 15 people to a room in small concrete houses. “They were not starving, but hungry. They were having only one meal a day,” Sollenberger says.
Meals came mostly from sacks of corn bought by the American Brethren church.
The church has been distributing blankets, sleeping mats and plastic buckets, Sollenberger says. The church is also organizing trauma ministries in the region.
People he met, Sollenberger says, “were kind of shell-shocked.”
He says he talked to one man, U.S. college-educated with a doctorate, who said he was “chased through the mountains by children, 12-year-olds, with AK-47s.” Women told him they were accosted by men with guns, demanding to know where their husbands were.
The tactic seemed to be to round up men and kill them and abduct women as slaves or hostages, he says.
Sollenberger, a member of North Manchester Church of the Brethren, first went to Nigeria to make videos for the church in 1986 and made three trips before October. He says no one knows why the region was attacked.
Muslims live in the area as well as Christians, he says, so religion does not seem the motive.
Indeed, he says, for the past several years, EYN and its members had been working with area followers of Islam on economic development projects to defuse tensions, and the church thought the relationship was good.
“They’ve lived together, they’ve intermarried and worked together, and now, all of a sudden, this new strain (of Islam) has taken root,” Sollenberger says. “There are a lot of Muslims who have also been displaced – if you’re not with them, with their radical jihadist approach to the Muslim faith, they (members of Boko Haram) will just kill them.”
Now, Sollenberger says, the only thing left is to try to help those affected by the crisis to rebuild their lives.
“The church members are not taking up arms and fighting back,” Sollenberger says. “By and large, they’re fleeing. They’re trying to be true to their faith – and save their lives.”