The last of our faculty travel highlights this week is actually the first: Dr. John Nordling, professor and Greek instructor for many of our summer Greek students, who taught beginning New Testament Greek in Nigeria for five weeks this past spring. His travels began before the end of our last academic year, from March 4–April 5.
Greek classes at the Jonathan Ekong Memorial Lutheran Seminary (JEMLS) in Obot Idim Ibesikpo, Uyo, AKWA Ibom State, Nigeria, began at 8 a.m., broke for chapel at 10 a.m. (Dr. Nordling also served daily as preacher for four out of the five weeks), and resumed until noon. Dr. Nordling taught a class of 50-60 students, in English. Though Nigerians know and speak dozens of tribal languages, English serves as the country’s unifying tongue.
In the afternoon, he taught a New Testament elective to a much smaller class of 15 or 20 second- and third-years. “The first one was Romans: very important for any Lutheran pastor,” Dr. Nordling said. “Then the pastoral epistles, Timothy and Titus. I gave lectures based on the Greek text. The third one was the Gospel of Matthew. I quizzed them to keep them honest. I’m a big one for quizzing, even here. That’s the only way to make sure that students are with you and engaged. I’m a great respecter of the Old Adam. Every day is a test.”
The seminary is located in a developing urban setting on the southeast corner of Nigeria, a part of the infamous Slave Coast, close to the ocean and the equator. Hazy with heat, humidity, and pollution, the large classroom was an open air room with no panes in the windows, located next door to a canal and noisy brick factory. Out the windows, factory workers shoveled sand in 90 degree weather. In the large room, many of the students couldn’t see the whiteboard, the inked words faint and far away. Dry-erase pens dried out quickly. “I became very covetous of markers,” Dr. Nordling admitted.
Outside of class, study at home was difficult due to a lack of electricity. “This is right on the equator. The sun comes down at 6 p.m. and goes down in an instant.” Without dependable lights, “It gets dark real quick.” To get the printouts he needed for each class, Dr. Nordling depended on Seminary Rector Dr. Michael Adoga, an old student and friend (“I was his doctoral father 8-9 years ago,” he explained), who would run to the print shop down the road each day. Dr. Nordling preached his chapel sermons directly from his computer to cut down on these runs.
Though daily Greek classes were composed of approximately 50 or 60 students, Dr. Nordling technically taught Greek to 80 students. Some of the missing were pastors who had to prioritize their pastoral responsibilities over study; others cut class as needed for travel back home on the weekends, though there was a cultural aspect to that as well. “Everything was kind of looser,” Dr. Nordling explained. “Education is not as intense there as I was making it. Part of the problem was me. The students were more laid back. Some of them just hadn’t had to learn the way I was trying to get them to learn. There was no flippancy, no disrespect, nothing like that; I didn’t have discipline problems. They respect authority. Every morning when I’d come in at 8 a.m., they’d all stand.” It was simply a matter of different cultural expectations.
He also began each Greek class by having the class sing the Lord’s Prayer. “They loved that, and were very good at it. They sang like only Africans can sing. The guys at the brick factory would sometimes look over.”
JEMLS is the seminary of the Lutheran Church of Nigeria (LCN), an LCMS partner church and member of the International Lutheran Council, an association of confessional Lutheran church bodies. Begun in a rural clan in 1936, the LCN now has approximately 80,000 baptized members (50,000 communicant members), served by 72 active pastors. The president of the synod, called an archbishop, is The Most Rev. Christian Ekong, a descendant of the pioneering father of the LCN after whom the Jonathan Ekong Memorial Lutheran Seminary was named.
JEMLS is also located in what Dr. Nordling called the Christian part of the country, with very little Muslim influence. The story is different in the north. During those few times Dr. Nordling watched local television (his hosts put him up at a hotel with three generators, and though power cut off frequently it came back quickly), he heard reports of Christians killed by Muslim marauders. “You have Christian farmers up there,” he said, describing the tensions in the region. “It’s kind of like the range wars in the Wild West. They’re more nomads. They would break into the farms and sometimes they would kill people. They had herds and stuff. They were kind of competing for land.”
One of the common complaints among the Christian community in Nigeria is the underreporting of the violence. “I saw stuff on Facebook that wasn’t in the news,” he said. “I think there were several hundred people killed while I was there. It’s like it didn’t even happen. It’s just a common thing.”
CTSFW’s connection with JEMLS is through her loyal sons, one of whom is the Rev. Charles Wokoma, LCMS Missionary to West Africa. Born in Africa, Rev. Wokoma received his MDiv from CTSFW in 1997 and has since served in both nations. In September of 2013 he accepted a call to Africa as a theological educator. He works tirelessly at JEMLS, and teaches and preaches at local congregations each week.
“He’s very supportive of confessional Lutheranism, liturgical Lutheranism,” Dr. Nordling said of Rev. Wokoma. Christianity in Africa tends toward Pentecostalism, which emphasizes the importance of personal and spiritual experiences over the centrality of God’s promises in His Word (promises which are kept regardless of personal feelings). Speaking in tongues and faith healing are commonly associated with the experience-based movement. Rev. Wokoma is ashamed of the troublesome theology that plagues the nation, and determined to train pastors who are loyal to the confessions. In chapel services he insists on serving as the celebrant so that he can demonstrate and teach the blessings of closed communion and the importance of fellowship under the same confession.
Rev. Wokoma also assisted in Dr. Nordling’s class nearly every day, helping to keep the students focused and engaged. And when Dr. Nordling worried that he was not reaching his students as well as he did with his summer Greek students here in Fort Wayne, Rev. Wokoma was quick to reassure him. The students had already learned a lot more Greek from this class than they had in the entire history of JEMLS.
There were also the exceptional students, who thrived on the Greek training and went above and beyond both in and out of class. Several of the fourth-year students helped Dr. Nordling call on students for translation and composition; another, Rev. David Imuk, was the reason that he even came to teach at JEMLS in the first place.
In 2015, Dr. Nordling came to Nigeria for the first time to teach a very small class of about ten laymen—successful businessmen wondering if they ought to become pastors. He also met a bright, young pastor named Rev. Imuk, who he discovered had learned Greek on his own. His questions about the text were pointed and clear. During his second trip to Nigeria in 2016, Dr. Nordling asked Rev. Imuk if he would like to study Greek at CTSFW. “I asked him if he wanted to come and his eyes lit up.”
Through donations, they gathered enough money to bring Rev. Imuk to America for summer or fall Greek. However, the US embassy rejected his applications for a visa twice, for no discernible reason. Dr. Nordling wrote letters, to no avail. With only the fees for the failed attempts to show for it, they decided they were not defeated, though perhaps redirected. “I talked to the archbishop, Rev. Christian Ekong,” Dr. Nordling continued. “’If Mohammad can’t come to the mountain, then the mountain has to come to Mohammad.’” Since Rev. Imuk couldn’t come to America, Dr. Nordling asked if he could come to Nigeria instead.
Archbishop Ekong made it happen, carving out the time in the seminary’s schedule. Instead of coming for 10 weeks at a time, they decided to schedule Dr. Nordling for two trips: five weeks for this trip (his third time in the country), then another five in the spring of 2020. As to Rev. Imuk: “He became my grader and daily tutor—and so probably ended up learning Greek far better by my coming to Nigeria than if he had had the opportunity to study with me in Fort Wayne.”
Rev. Imuk plans to continue working with students on vocabulary during the intervening year, in preparation for Dr. Nordling’s return next spring. CTSFW assisted by sending blank flashcards to JEMLS through Rev. Wokoma, when he came to the LCMS Convention in July.
“All said, it was very rewarding. I’m glad I did it,” Dr. Nordling concluded. He admitted that it was both the hardest he has ever worked as a pastor, but also the most rewarding—made possible by many, from Archbishop Ekong, Dr. Adoga, missionary Rev. Wokoma, to Rev. Imuk, to name only a few. Deep thanks are also due to the donor who sent the mountain to the West African coast: Mr. Gerald Schultz of Rathdrum, Idaho, whose material support brought this intensive Greek course to pastors and seminarians in Nigeria.
Thanks be to God for His generous gifts, for the confession we share with our brothers and sisters in Christ overseas, for His promises to every nation and generation. May He continue to bless those seminaries built on the rock of His firm and unchangeable Word, as they work in Christ to train pastors to serve as undershepherds for His flock, and deaconesses to serve as His hands of mercy.
While [Jesus] was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. But he replied to the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”