Partnership plans include expansion of ministry to 52 growth towns
by Tammy Warren | Presbyterian News Service
NEW WILMINGTON, Penn. — The country of Niger in West Africa is only one percent Christian, but “the faithful witness and long-term vision of these believers is great,” said Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) mission co-workers Michael and Rachel Ludwig, who have worked in mission and ministry alongside the Evangelical Church in the Republic of Niger (EERN) for more than four years. The EERN is the largest Protestant denomination in Niger with about 12,000 members.
The Ludwigs were recently in the U.S. for the second annual gathering of the Niger Mission Network of the PC(USA), held in conjunction with the New Wilmington Mission Conference in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania. Nearly 30 people attended the two days of meetings to hear updates from the EERN and Presbyterian World Mission co-workers in person or through video conferencing.
The PC(USA) has been in partnership with the EERN in Niger since about the year 2000, said Debbie Braaksma, Africa area coordinator in Presbyterian World Mission. “Partnering with the EERN in mission in Niger aligns very well with what PC(USA) has felt our priorities are in poverty alleviation, reconciliation and evangelism and discipleship.”
Mission co-worker Michael Ludwig said Niger is an “exciting place to be” with a secular government and an openness to the gospel, which encourages the church to reach out to Nigeriens physically and spiritually through literacy programs and Community Health Evangelism (CHE).
An EERN representative shared, “I became a follower of Christ at the age of 17, when I took a literacy class that Christians were teaching. Education is a big challenge in my country. Only 29 percent of people are able to read and write.”
“Needs are high, there’s no doubt about it,” Braaksma said, referring to Niger’s poverty rate, water and sanitation needs, less than 30 percent literacy rate and population where 50 percent of the people are 15 years of age or younger. “But, I also think the opportunities for mission and ministry are very high at this time because the EERN has worked very hard to have good Christian-Muslim relations.”
Braaksma said a challenge for the mission network is to move from being a “supporter” or “donor” to a “partner” who is involved in “mutual learning.”
She said, “I think we need Niger as much as they need us.”
The EERN has chosen to emphasize initiatives that strengthen their communities, like literacy classes as an effort to bridge relationships between Muslims and Christians. The vision for this long-term strategy, set by the EERN in 2015, seeks to reach people in the 52 new places, which are the equivalent of U.S. county seats, where the country is growing and there is currently no church presence.
The goal is to purchase land, plant churches and build homes for pastors in each of these 52 new places, so evangelists can share God’s love with Christians and Muslims through literacy classes, health or agriculture teachings, or hosting middle school students who come from surrounding villages.
The EERN has already sent 10 new evangelists to various areas of Niger as part of this goal and hopes to send four more this year. Evangelists complete a two- or four-year program at one of the three Bible schools in Niger. The Bible schools are divided into different course levels with beginning discipleship and literacy offered at Guesheme Bible School, intermediate evangelist and pastor training provided at Dogon Gao Bible School, and advanced pastoral studies and a new French curriculum taught at Aguie Bible School. Strengthening the Bible schools is among the EERN’s priorities for 2019–2023.
The mission network learned that EERN has seen more and more pastors, called to go to the farthest and hardest places where there is no Christian presence. One of the evangelists sent in 2016 is working primarily with nomadic people in the northern Saharan desert region of Niger. This evangelist has developed a strong bond with the community by starting three new literacy classes. The church is presently in conversation with a pastor to send him to a city that can only be accessed by camel or airplane.
“It’s through literacy classes that the evangelists can speak out of sincerity and show love and care for the community,” Michael Ludwig said. He added that within the next year, the EERN is also planning to send evangelists to a large city on the pathway for migrants traveling from Africa to Europe through the Sahara Desert. The EERN is also planning to begin a radio ministry.
Highlights of the EERN’s accomplishments in 2017 included building two youth hostels in the Dosso and Maradi regions. These hostels provide a place for students to stay during the week, while they are attending middle school away from their villages.
Without housing assistance students would have to walk several miles to and from middle school, leaving them too tired to focus on their studies. In some cases, Christian students have stayed with Muslim families who try to force them to convert to the Islamic religion. Or, in other situations, especially with girls, sometimes they get discouraged, drop out and get married at young ages.
Presbyterians have sponsored scholarships for 23 children to attend middle school and for four students to attend Dogon Gao and Aguie Bible schools, as well as to support poor families, many of whom are the church’s Muslim neighbors.
Seed and materials for irrigation were provided to the church to assist Dogon Gao Bible school, since they have only two to three months a year for rain. If there is not enough rain, some students have to move back home because there is no food for them.
The EERN has expressed gratitude for the support of some of its new evangelists by PC(USA) congregations such as Hebron and Woodlawn Presbyterian churches in the Richmond, Virginia area. Through this partnership, The EERN has purchased 10 bulls, three carts and six plows. The evangelists use the bulls, carts and plows to farm, carry their crops, transport sick people to the clinic or to earn income by providing a taxi service.
The EERN has also been able to purchase land recently to build churches and build pastor’s houses in five regions: Dosso, Maradi, Zinder, Agadez and Tahoua.
In addition to their original focus on literacy training, the Ludwigs also resource and support the EERN’s Community Health Evangelism (CHE) program. This involves working closely with mission co-workers Jim and Jodi McGill on projects involving water and sanitation and public health initiatives. So far about 50 pastors in two regions have completed CHE training. They’ve learned to ask questions, and what questions to ask, of their communities to learn what people really care about. Through this questioning and telling thought-provoking stories, they’ve learned how to help the community address issues that are important to the local community with locally available resources. Then they model how to use these types of local solutions to increase the total health and well-being of their own homes.
“We’re greatly encouraged that our partners in the Evangelical Church in the Republic of Niger (EERN) are on the same page, forming a strategic vision for how to reach their culture and country,” the Ludwigs wrote in one of their recent mission update letters. “Rather than being satisfied with how they’ve always done things, the EERN is now formulating answers to two big questions: What forms of service can Christians champion to make a distinctive difference in their culture? And, in what areas of the country can they make the biggest impact with the gospel? We’re very excited about some of the EERN’s answers, like the rickshaw [three wheeled motorcycle taxis] operation that can provide ongoing employment for youth and income to buy property where new evangelists can be established.”
To support the ministry of Michael and Rachel Ludwig in Niger: pcusa.org/donate/E200513
To support the ministry of Jim and Jodi McGill in Niger and South Sudan: pcusa.org/donate/E200385
To support the work of the Evangelical Church in the Republic of Niger (EERN): pcusa.org/donate/E051746
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