In early September, by the grace of God, we paid a pastoral visit to the Republic of Benin.
Arriving in Cotonou, the largest city of the country, we met with the local priests and discussed the various issues of the parishes and particularly the ever-surging challenges they encounter due to several Pentecostal- Charismatic movements that are rapidly growing in this country.
The next day and after a 4-hour trip, we arrived in the town of Abomey, which was the capital of the historic kingdom of Dahomey for centuries. There the French colonialists faced stiff resistance until they arrested, exiled and killed the ruler of the region..
In this city there used to be an orthodox sacred church dedicated to the Nativity of Christ and to St. Moses the Black. The priest Fr. Moses, married clergyman and professor of History in a local college, worked with great patience and prayer for the creation of small parish communities in neighboring villages. Noteworthy is the enthusiastic participation of a sufficient number of educated young people who thirst for deeper acquaintance with the Orthodox spirituality and for the incorporation of the Orthodox tradition into the local culture. That is to say, they long for the embodiment of the Gospel at the historic moment, in the here and now, which is the aim of genuine Church Mission.
On Saturday, 5th September in this very church we conducted the funeral service of the Mother of Fr. Timothy, Vicar of Benin, with the participation of all clergy and large groups of faithful, who filled both church and courtyard. Particularly important was the presence of many academics, as Fr. Timothy himself is a professor of Law at the University of Cotonou.
The next day, which was a Sunday, we made our way to the small parish community of the Nativity of the Theotokos and of St Porphyrios of Gaza. We prayed along with the little flock of the region and discussed at length issues on faith. What we considered very important was the narration of their own experiences regarding the presence of God in their lives. Among the various accounts, we heard attentively and with a lot of admiration the testimonies concerning the miraculous presence of Saints Spyridon and Porphyrios in many cases of infertility. One of them was the amazing testimony of a mother about the treatment of her daughter, who had been handicapped for 7 years, through the intercession of the Saint! This incident led the powerful men of the region, most of whom are pagans, to the eviction of this small parish community from their village, as once Jesus was expelled from the country of the Gadarenes. Now our community has found hospitality in the neighboring village.
The next day, we took our way back home filled with experiences and strength, glorifying the name of the Triune God and praying for the continuation of His blessings upon the efforts of His laborers, clergy and laity in the beautiful country of Benin.
The Holy Diocese of Nigeria, in its effort to provide free education to poor children, started erecting a kindergarten and a primary school at Karmem village in Benue state, in Central Nigeria. The school has started operating in grass thatched huts and accomodates 186 students. The total amount of operational expenses is covered by the Metropolis itself.
The Orthodox Church decided to erect the school buildings on land offered by the local authorities. However, the limited financial capability are restricted. The total amount needed for the construction comes to 39,000 euros. Let’s all help to roof the future of our children.
A Mission team from the Metropolis of Nigeria visited the green hills of central Nigeria, Benue State, the Tiv tribe after Easter. The team consisted of Metropolitan Alexander, archimandrite Cornelius and the indigenous priest-monks f. Nephon and f. Andrew as well as presbyter f. Christian.
The Orthodox presence here started 7 years ago with the strange ways of God, which reveal His wish to unveil the fullness of His Truth, wherever, whenever and however He pleases and thinks fit. Then two young men, being well-educated and having special spiritual and social concerns, joined our Orthodox family and became heralds of its message, initially to their own people, their families.
It took big efforts and plenty of time for them to face all the challenges, but their zeal was fervent, their faith, patience and perseverance big, and their prayer ardent. Those benevolent young men of yesterday are our priests today, f. Christian and f. Nephon. It is them that later on f. Andrew joined.
The region is tough and problematic with a large percentage of illiteracy, lack of basic infrastructure in education and health, tragic shortage of drinkable water, absence of road network, polygamy, paganism, unemployment and of course, absence of hope and vision for the majority of youth.
On Saturday morning 18th May in Adikpo village was the inauguration of the Holy Church of Saint Charalambos, the first Orthodox Church in the region, while on the noon of the same day was the christening of about 50 children and adults. On Sunday 19th May, the first Divine Liturgy was celebrated with the participation of a few dozens of faithful as well as local rulers. At the end of the Divine Liturgy the Bishop honored several laypersons, men and women, for their contribution to the work of the local church. The first permanent parish priest of the region, priest-monk f. Andrew, received a very warm welcome by the flock, as he was called to undertake a particularly difficult task.
The next day and after a tiring and eventful journey, the team reached the village of Karmek, at the parish of Christ. Absolute poverty!! The residents’ houses, huts made from mud and straw. The Holy Church was only wooden poles with a thatched roof. So was the school. The pupils were hungry, barefoot children in torn, shabby clothes. Lots of them with serious bowel diseases and typhus due to lack of drinkable water. It was in an emotionally atmosphere that the foundation stone for the school was laid -God only knows how and when it will be built. What followed was a gathering in the Church, where words of hope and consolation were said, an icon of Christ in their hands and a cross around their neck, their Bishop’s blessing. Present were lots of the village people as well, elders, women, men and children, who left behind their work in the fields in order to come, see and listen.
After a long stay there, the Mission moved to another place of absolute, abject poverty and wretchedness, the newly established community of the Holy Cross. Underneath some huge trees that lovingly offer their shadow to the faithful, assembled a few dozens of people, especially young ones, in order to listen to their priests, receive their blessing and pray with them. Faces furrowed by the sun, tired from hardships and privation, hardened hands, calloused by the daily toil on the land. The hard work for a single plate of food that has to be shared by the family, the life in the mud huts, without drinkable water or electricity, without medication. There in the most fertile part of the country, with a huge food production, these people are victims of unacceptable economic systems and social structures.
Two more days full of reverence were spent in that region with gatherings of catechists and parish councils, followed by a march to east Nigeria, where most of our Orthodox parishes are.
Everyone’s prayer in the Orthodox Church of Nigeria is that the Grace of God may cover and protect the new charismatic priest-monk of the region, f. Andrew, support and strengthen our brothers in the distress and hardships they go through daily.
May His Grace give strength and courage to all of us in order to walk forward “even when the doors are shut” and carry the message of the Resurrection, the hope for the new world of the Kingdom of God.
With a grateful heart and blessings Metropolitan Alexander of Nigeria