Recently I had the opportunity to visit a borough of Jos, Nigeria called Jenta. The apparent reason for my going was simple enough, to deliver a donation of books to a local library. But over the course of my six day visit, the real reasons for being there became apparent. God has opened up new relationships and new opportunities in His kingdom that are sure to continue far into the future. I know that’s a bold statement, but when you hear the story, I think you will agree.
That week was “a very important story because it shows how all the comings and goings between our own world and the land of Jenta first began.”
– The Magician’s Nephew by C. S. Lewis
An Unlikely Friendship
C. S. Lewis has been an profound influence in my walk with Jesus. His book Mere Christianity was an instrumental part of my wife’s coming to Jesus, as it was for many of our friends. Our home has been permeated by The Chronicles of Narnia, The Great Divorce, and so many more. So it is no surprise that I have been a member of a C. S. Lewis discussion group on Facebook for several years. Starting about a year ago I began to see these posts in the group that were so good I thought, “Who is this person? I would love to get connected.” For example, here is an excerpt from an amazing post entitled, “A Letter to Uncle Lewis,” which is an expression of gratitude for the great service the author has been to so many.
All that we chase here becomes dust when we appear at the feet of the Master. Heaven is the climax of all that is good. The glory of being a bestselling author or renowned apologist disappears when compared to the Glory of being in the presence of the Most High. Oh! Such a glory I hope to behold.
It’s turns out that the writer of these posts was a 20 year old kid from Jos, Nigeria named Lengdung Tungchamma. Partly because this was so unexpected to me, and partly because our family loves international connections, I sent him a friend request. We got connected and began to converse. Over the subsequent months we chatted often about Jesus, life, family, struggles, and more. It became virtual discipleship.
Many of you know that I work with Brother Yun and Back to Jerusalem (or BTJ, the name of the missionary vision of the Chinese underground church), so as a good BTJ ambassador, I asked Lengdung if he had ever read The Heavenly Man, by Brother Yun. He hadn’t, and he couldn’t find it, so I bought him an eBook copy and sent it to him through Facebook. He quickly read it, was blown away, and wrote a beautiful letter to Brother Yun which I shared with him last October. I then asked, “Are there any other books you wished you could get?” He said, “Yes, there are many, but I don’t want to tell you because of what you would do next.” This statement proved to me his integrity and his motives. Lengdung is a man who wants to trust God for all that he needs, instead of trusting in rich Americans.
Jenta Reads Community Initiative
Through Lengdung I learned that he and his friends had started a library in their community. But it is more than a library, it is the core of an effort to “change the narrative” of Jenta, which is a byword for bad things in the city of Jos. Just like in Jesus’ time, people ask, “Can anything good come out of Jenta?” The library is one part of the larger Jenta Reads Community Initiative, through which they are already bringing change to Jenta. These young people are looking for ways to tangibly express the love of Jesus. As I told one group, these guys are not demanding their rights. Instead they are asking God, “What can we do to help?” The Jenta Reads team members are actionists, not activists. Some examples include volunteer road repair projects, and since there is no running water in the community, a water delivery project. Of course the library itself is transformative, introducing people to good books, which are windows into the world and sources of new ideas. All of these initiatives are grass roots efforts of about 15 young people ages 18 to 35, and Lengdung is a humble yet dynamic driving force.
As I got to know Lengdung more, and how much he loves Jesus, we began to talk about more amazing books like The Heavenly Man. He read a PDF copy of God’s Smuggler by Brother Andrew and said, “Why didn’t you tell me about this before?!” I told him, “There are so many good stories like that! I have an entire wall of books that I call, ‘The continuing chapters of The Book of Acts.’” The idea began to form in my mind of sending a selection of these books to the Jenta Reads Community Library. After all…
You Are What You Read
What you read affects you profoundly. Of all the millions of books in the world, the Jenta Reads team have chosen (or have been Directed to) books that have led them to deeper life in Jesus. They have a profound intellectual understanding of faith through writers like C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, Ravi Zacharias, and more. They have deep devotional lives through writers such as A. W. Tozer, Andrew Murray, etc. While the Jenta Reads team have been discipled by many wonderful people in their community (many of whom I got to meet), they have also been discipled by these great mentors through their books.
Following the Jenta Reads pages on Facebook, I saw appeals for book donations, so we began to put together a special selection of books to send. I packed a 33 pound box with the books you see in the picture (plus a few more) and began to research shipping options. The UPS store quoted $830 to send the box to Nigeria! It turns out an airline ticket was $930, and that includes two 50 pound pieces of luggage. It seemed like a no-brainer. If I delivered the books in person, not only could I take three times as many, but I would get to meet these people.
Erika and I have such a wonderful life partnership. If my many “once in a lifetime opportunity” dreams are like kites, then Erika is the kite string. She tethers the kites to the ground, which is good because without the string, the kites will fly away and crash. In order to fly at all, a dream must be tethered into reality. Not knowing what we were getting into by going to Nigeria, we asked God for a test. If He would provide the funds for the travel apart from our regular income, then we would know it was His idea. Upon returning from a visit to Erika’s parents in California, we found an unasked for check for $1,000, enough for airfare for one person. We had confirmation! I put out a call to friends and family for more books, not just any books, but life changing books. Soon we had 100 pounds ready to go to the Jenta Reads Community Library.
I flew into the capital city of Abuja on a Wednesday afternoon and was met at the airport by Lengdung and a hired driver friend. Lengdung seemed to be in a state of disbelief. This day represented many firsts for him, first time to the capital, first time to an airport, first time in a hotel, and certainly the first time to personally host a foreigner. To avoid driving at night, we stayed in a Catholic guest house which was set up much like a hotel, and left for Jos early the next morning. The pictures below show, in the briefest overview, the capital city (and the main mosque), the Nigerian countryside, and finally…Jenta.
Jenta, or specifically the part of Jenta called Jenta Mangoro where my friends live, is a borough of Jos, the capital of Plateau State. It is situated on several rocky hills with streams and mango trees. The somewhat unified architecture and color schemes, and how the buildings are nestled into and around giant boulders, make it a strikingly beautiful place. True, if one looks closely, there are ugly things such as garbage in the streets (which are utterly ruined by erosion and neglect) and there are many that live in great poverty. But the overall impression is one of beauty, especially when you meet the people.
Lengdung’s “aunt” and two of her children, who are also his next door neighbors, hosted me in their home. Her son Goma (their surname), a professional football (soccer) player, gave up his room for me, and her daughter Zingit (whom I called Martha for all her constant hard work) cooked and cleaned for us all. Their home is part of a larger walled and gated compound with outbuildings, a well, and three rental units. Their well is one of only a few in the area, so they share it with their neighbors. A key feature of the compound is the mango tree, under which we sat many mornings and evenings talking with dozens of different young people about walking with Jesus. It was also the source of tasty snacks. Anyone wanting a ripe mango could just whack the branches with a stick and dislodge one. I will forever have wonderful memories of sitting and talking under that mango tree.
The primary reason I came to Nigeria was to deliver two boxes of books to the Jenta Reads Community Library. So after a few introductions, our first activity was to go to the library and unpack the boxes. I was bursting with excitement to show them title by title what I had brought. The library itself is a single room with a low ceiling. It is a tiny spare room on a friend’s house, but it has two openable windows that let in fresh air and light, and it is free to use. There are a few tables on which books are neatly stacked. Chairs along one wall allow patrons to sit and browse. When I was there during library hours, the chairs were filled with silent awe-filled children, pouring through picture books. It was a beautiful sight.
This is the only public library in a city of almost one million people.
Lengdung and I unpacked the boxes with a small audience. We had discussed many of the books before I came, so it was as if he was welcoming new friends as each new title emerged. One young man who was watching literally trembled with excitement when The Everlasting Man by G. K. Chesterton came out. He said, “I have been wanting to read this for so long!” It is truly a good book, but who has heard of it? I would be hard pressed to find a twenty-something in Colorado who not only knew of it, but had been desiring to read it. This was the first of many events that reshaped my expectations of this visit and why God had brought it about.
One of the books I pulled out of the box is very special, hence the photo on the right. The book Robert Falconer, by George MacDonald, is one of his Scottish novels. The story takes place in 19th century Scotland and so all the dialogue is in a Scottish dialect called Doric. While resembling English, the language is still a barrier to English speakers. This volume is the first product of a Scottish man (who lives in Scotland) named David Jack who has translated the Doric and has created, with the English translation, a parallel version of all the dialogue. Why is this is important to the Nigerian story? Because David Jack is the one who started the discussion group on Facebook where Lengdung and I met. He was delighted to see his book in Nigeria, and has been praying for the Jenta Reads projects. David also allowed me to make an appeal for books to the group, which resulted in many great donations for the Jenta Reads Library. It’s crazy how global the connections are behind this simple photo of two guys and a book.
Book Delivery Is Great But…
It quickly became apparent that the real reason I came to Nigeria was to meet and work alongside these guys and their friends. It was so freeing to be in a servant position with them. I was not in Nigeria for my own ministry or for any Western missions organization or any NGO. I had no agenda other than to rally behind what God is already doing through these dear guys and their Jenta Reads Community Initiative.
In the photo on the right (which is under the mango tree) Lengdung Tungchamma is in the middle. Philip Dimka, or PhiDims, is on the right. These two were my constant companions. Lengdung is 20 years old and was my “manager.” He was always on the phone scheduling the next event or visit to some friend or mentor of theirs. Lengdung is humble, soft spoken, and prefers to be in the background (except when he is a fiery gospel preacher). Philip is a 29 year old clinical psychologist who most often acted as the Jenta Reads spokesman and MC at speaking events. He is also an astonishingly beautiful singer. Philip was the one who introduced Lengdung to C. S. Lewis and also the one who added Lengdung to the Facebook discussion group where we met. Finally, he is the one who first floated the idea of a community library as a way to bring positive change to Jenta.
Jesus commanded us to go and make disciples. What does that look like? What is discipleship? In the Scriptures we see Jesus as the teacher and His disciples as the students, and I see two parts to this student/teacher “discipleship” process. First the Teacher conveys truth through statements, stories, and metaphor. Then as the teacher and the students live life together, the students witness how these truths are lived out and proved practically. I once learned some woodworking skills from an old English woodcarver. He said, “When chopping out the mortise, you must hold the chisel with the flat side against the working piece.” Then he demonstrated what he meant by this cryptic statement. This is discipleship.
If that was how it worked for Jesus and the original disciples, how does it work for us twenty centuries on? How do we “go and make disciples?” Like this… In the context of a trusting relationship we point people to Jesus and His teachings in the Scriptures. It is there that people can encounter Jesus and become His students. It is there that they can learn about prayer and the Holy Spirit through which they can encounter the risen Christ Himself.
If the Scriptures are where the Source is found, what then is our role in making disciples beyond pointing to that source? Our role is the second part of the picture, the practical part. In the Scriptures we encounter the teachings of Jesus, which at first can seem confusing, or too idealistic, too theoretical. For example, “Do not be anxious for your life, as to what you shall eat, or what you shall drink,” or “Do not resist an evil person.” It is discipleship to share stories of how these statements really are truths we can stand on. These stories are told through the action of walking alongside each other in obedience, they are told through reading great books, they are told through personal testimonies.
This “discipleship through stories” is why God took me to Nigeria. Under the mango tree, around the breakfast table, walking the streets, sitting in homes, or speaking to groups, I shared story after story from Corrie ten Boom, Brother Yun, Brother Andrew, Bruce Olsen, Richard Wurmbrandt, C. S. Lewis, David Wilkerson, and more, including my own stories and those of my friends and family. I had come to deliver a collection of excellent testimonies in books, but I was also a book myself. I came with concrete, irrefutable stories to testify that Jesus is the Living and Loving God, that He is Lord, and that we can truly rest in Him as we abide in the Vine.
On my second full day in Jenta, the guys took me to a place they call “The Jungle.” This is the place of which Nigeria thinks when they speak of Jenta, with its reputation for drugs, idleness, and vice. It is the place where many a prodigal is wasting his father’s inheritance.
We walked around the area, going into every saloon and smoke house, inviting the people to a meeting the following evening. At first it was all a blur, and I was just going where I was told. But then one of the Jenta Reads guys said something that brought it all into perspective. He said, “We grew up with these guys. We were children together. They are our friends, and now they are in bondage in The Jungle. We want to set them free.” It was this place that inspired the Jenta Reads Community Initiative. It is this place that keeps the Jenta team on their knees before God, pleading for the revolution of hearts. I was now walking on holy ground because I could see that God has claimed it for Himself by raising up these young intercessors.
While only a few from The Jungle came to the meeting the next night, I could see that this is a long term battle. It was an honor to walk alongside these guys and others who are in the trenches day and night, sending salvo after salvo of God’s love, launched by prayer and delivered in myriad ways. Please pray for Ezekiel, who is a youth pastor working in the church right next to The Jungle. He was so happy that I had come, not that I had anything special to say, but that I was a novelty and another voice saying the same things, pointing to the same Jesus.
Practically every moment that we weren’t actively engaged in an activity, we were walking around Jenta Mangoro visiting people. Lengdung reminded me that I had told him “I want to meet your people,” and he took that seriously! There is no way I can remember the names or even many of the faces, but the repetition served to show me how many people have loved and mentored Lengdung and the team. At almost every house, Lengdung would say something like, “This is one of my mothers. She is not just a woman of faith, she is a giant of faith!”
The man in the hat in this picture is the Jenta community leader. He expressed what almost every other person echoed. First, that they didn’t really believe Lengdung when he said I was coming, and second, that they were shocked I was staying in Jenta. The fact that I was there living among them, as one of them, was a deep blessing. Not only did I get to spend every waking moment fruitfully engaged in conversation (instead of alone in a hotel), but I earned the respect of the community.
We also visited quite a few places in and around the city. One day a young man named John, who is the son of a philosophy and logic professor, drove us around to various engagements Lengdung had arranged. John and I sat in the front seats of the car and we promptly ignored the other passengers. He had such amazing questions and a deep yearning in his heart to know God. We talked all day, non-stop. Lengdung pretended to be offended, but then he declared in all seriousness that God had arranged the day for John’s sake. Later we had the honor of being hosted by his family for a fancy Nigerian dinner, which…was…amazing.
The Power of Good Books
Lengdung arranged a speaking engagement at least once every day, and the talk I gave was an adaptation of something my wife Erika wrote entitled “The Power of Good Books.” Seeing as how I was in Nigeria because of a library, and I was helping the Jenta Reads team to promote the library, then it made sense to talk about books. The talk was adapted to each location, but consisted of three basic themes, finding adventure and heroes through books, learning skills through books, and knowing God through The Book. During the third part, after introducing the Bible, I took a tangent about stories and fairy tales and their ability to get inside you. Jesus was a story teller, and He used them powerfully to convey truth. I proposed a hypothetical situation. Imagine if Jesus, in a sterile voice and with a deadpan expression said, “God wants to forgive sin.” It’s a true statement, but it may only get into your ears. Instead, Jesus told us a wonderful story. Then I told the audience a highly colorful rendition of “The Parable of The Prodigal Son,” where the son takes his money and spends it all in The Jungle. Just as I am sure the audience was powerfully moved when Jesus told that story, the Jenta audiences were too. There were expressions of surprise and then recognition when they heard about The Jungle, and the truth of God’s desire to forgive sin went directly into their hearts, without ever being explicitly stated.
For the sake of my reader, I will not detail every event of every day. But there are four more things I want to cover; The Politician, The Church, Story Time With Jeremy’s Dad, and The School.
Lengdung has a friend who teaches leadership training conferences, and who also is running for political office. We visited this very nice man and his staff in his Jos office on my second day in Nigeria. A few days later, he and his entourage came to Jenta to visit the library for the first time. There were many carefully staged photographs taken, including one with lots of children and the white guy.
But the most amazing thing about his visit was what didn’t happen. In the third photo below, we are all packed into the tiny and hot library. The politician stated the obvious and said (in essence), “Tomorrow I will come back to Jenta and we will find a three bedroom house to rent for the library. Imagine what you could do with so much space! We will do this tomorrow and I will pay for it.” At first I was so excited for the Jenta Reads team, and I was (somewhat proudly) thinking of all the great things that were resulting from my short visit. But Lengdung didn’t look happy. He listened respectfully and said thank you, then he turned down the offer.
The Jenta Reads team is a praying team. One morning all the team members gathered under the mango tree. Lengdung informed me that it was a business meeting and that I should take a moment to rest, which was very welcome. After a while I came out of my room to use the restroom and found the group deep in prayer together. It was so sweet and encouraging to see. One of the resolutions born out of prayer was that the library should have no political affiliations. To do so could be limiting, and would have strings attached. Instead Philip told me that they want to trust God for the perfect place and for all of their needs, just like George Müller! This is uncommon thinking in any country.
Before I talk about the church, I have to mention that God arranged a wonderful connection with an American couple who have lived in Jos for 12 years. God used email exchanges with Bob to help me see past the bad news headlines about Nigeria and have peace about the trip. On a Saturday Bob took nine of us out to a long lunch filled with good food and sweet fellowship.
Bob often works with one of the large denominations in Nigeria. He described the church as a thousand miles wide and an inch deep. Months ago Lengdung lamented that everyone around him is a Christian, but there are very few that walk daily with Jesus and trust Him for everything. Jos is in the Nigerian bible belt, so cultural Christianity is everywhere, from the names of almost every business and taxi, to a sign on nearly every corner advertising some charismatic person’s great healing or wealth or power ministry.
I had the honor of speaking in the neighborhood church which was large and ornate though still under construction. The music and people were so beautiful that I had to keep blinking back tears. There were some announcements, I spoke for about 15 minutes, the reverend spoke for about 5 minutes, and the rest of the service was a series of offerings. I don’t know if it was a special giving Sunday, but in total there were nine offerings, each taking up to five minutes of singing and dancing past the offering basket.
I tell all of this to show a contrast. Religion is alive and well in Jenta, and so is The Jungle. The guys in the Jenta Reads team were very respectful of their elders, and as I said before they have some amazing mentors in the Lord, but they would often cast down their eyes or make a few disparaging comments about all the showy religion. Indeed, the contrast between religion and the life in Jesus shown in the Christian Scriptures is plain for anyone to see. The guys in the Jenta Reads team have simple faith in Jesus and His teachings, which they want to take at face value. They have been emboldened in this by all the amazing books they have read. I even dare to say they have been discipled through them. When challenged with the Scriptural statements like, “Don’t be anxious for…” they have asked, “How? Who has done this apart from the apostles?” and because of great books, they have answered, “George Müller, Hudson Taylor, Brother Yun, Brother Andrew, and many more.”
Story Time With Jeremy’s Dad
For several months before my trip to Nigeria, Lengdung and I had been discussing good books and how they show God’s living and active role in the life of the Christian. Inspired by this, I did a small study of the Books of Acts, where I went through the book and listed every major event. I then selected key events and correlated them to excerpts from some of these amazing missionary biographies and stories. A few weeks before my travels, I had the opportunity to present this study as a talk to my son Jeremy’s college group. Instead of a bible study, it was actually “story time with Jeremy’s dad.” I wanted to introduce these students to some good books, so I read long passages from several. It could have been really boring, but the audience was riveted and greatly encouraged. Good discussion followed about the trustworthiness of the “words of life” and their Author. The study is an eye opening and heart filling proof that we are living in the unfinished Book of Acts. I wonder what chapter we’re on by now?
Lengdung latched onto that colloquial title, so he actually, hilariously advertised the event as “Story Time With Jeremy’s Dad” (whoever Jeremy is), and we had a similarly sized audience, who were also enrapt with the stories. It was so great to hold up a book such as Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place, and be able to say that the copy in my hands belongs to the Jenta Reads Community Library. Lengdung reported after my return the US, that there were waiting lists at least ten deep for every book mentioned in the talk.
The talk was to the Jenta Reads team and whomever else they thought would enjoy it. It was so sweet to spend time with the core team, including the man, Kop (pictured on the right), who invited me to Nigeria. (All visa applications require a national sponsor and a copy of his/her passport.) While there is much shallow religion in Nigeria, there are also examples of the exact opposite. Kop is an evangelist and discipler who works in the areas of Nigeria controlled by the infamous Islamist group, Boko Haram. The love of Jesus compels him to return time and again to bring the joy and peace of salvation to the oppressed and broken hearted. Just look at the Joy on his face! Before I had arrived I asked Lengdung if I would get to meet Kop, to which he said yes, provided he was still alive. He was one of several that I met who reminded me by their testimony that my life is embarrassingly comfortable and safe, and that the gentle ridicule I receive as a Christian from “enlightened” American atheists and agnostics, is not persecution.
The final place we visited was the All Nations Academy boarding school where Lengdung had lived for six years. Wow, what a glorious place! After only a few minutes with the principal I realized how much Lengdung was formed by godly mentors like this. What a joy it was when I found out that we were to eat a meal with the principal and his family, who live in the dormitories with the students. We bonded like long lost brothers as we encouraged each other in Jesus.
The school took the rest of the day off so that we could speak to the teachers and then to the students. Lengdung stood up in front of the teachers and, with powerful eloquence and emotion, thanked them for all they did for him and all they were doing still. It was amazing. Some of the teachers looked a little beaten down when we gathered. But after the speech, they were visibly encouraged. The principal was beside himself with happiness for this blessing on the teachers.
Then the principal, Lengdung, and I all addressed the students. I gave my final rendition of “The Power of Good Books,” pointing the students to Jesus. The guys said it was the best yet. Praise God!
Until Next Time
The rest of the time was a blur. I gave some cool scripture gifts (from my great friends at ScriptureType) to the Jenta Reads team members. The community gave a wonderful farewell party with children doing traditional dances. We took hundreds of pictures. My new friends gave custom tailored Nigerian clothing to me and Erika. A small party of seven accompanied me on the four hour drive to the airport the next day. We had such wonderful conversation and mutually enjoyed Christafari (Christian Reggae music) over the taxi’s sound system. The only hitch was when the taxi was impounded by the police…with us in it! It was an opportunity to say, “Well, I am excited to see how God gets us out of this.” He did, and we were at the airport in plenty of time.
Thank you Jesus for your Body/Kingdom/Family!
Oh, one more thing. The name Lengdung means, “thinks deeply.”