Five years after Fulani herdsmen destroyed Agatu Methodist Church, Benue State in a raid in a raid in which hundreds were killed, a New York City Pastor and CEO of REDEEM!, a non-governmental organization, William ‘P.B.’ Devlin, has teamed up with Emmanuel Ogebe, an international human rights lawyer from the US-based Nigeria Law Group, to rebuild the church and mend the hurting community.
“Healing and hope: those are two great words that we’ve seen in a very practical way,” Devlin, the missions pastor at Infinity Bible Church in the Bronx, New York, United States of America, said in a recent interview.
Fulani herdsmen burnt the Agatu Methodist Church in February 2016, killed five church members, hundreds of Agatu community members and destroyed over 70 homes.
In October 2020, Devlin visited Agatu and promised the church members that “by faith and by God’s grace and with hope in the Lord Jesus, the church will be completely finished by March 25, and then we will be in the finished church by Resurrection Day Sunday services [on April 4].”
When he visited in October, Devlin said there were goats eating grass in the ruins of the church building where worshipers still met under a canopy of grass to protect them from the sun.
“I looked in [the church] and I saw the goats eating the grass, and I was like, ‘what is this?’ And it just touched my heart…,” he said. “For the past five years, the church has just struggled along.”
Devlin told the church members: “This is now a place for the goats, but God’s going to make it a place for the sheep.”
Devlin returned to the US to raise the $30,000 needed for the reconstruction.
He returned to Nigeria multiple times.
And in December, work on the church began with the help of local labourers who reconstructed the church using the materials Devlin raised money to purchase, which stimulated the local economy.
“Our hope is, as we raise money rebuilding churches destroyed by terrorists that we’re going to use local materials and local labour. And then, it becomes an economic engine,” he explained. “We’re actually decreasing the unemployment rate in these areas as well. … It’s multi-faceted.”
Devlin recalled: “As the construction continued, the congregation continued to multiply, and the excitement spilt over into the community.”
Around 500 people gathered in the church — a building with a blue metal roof and yellow walls — on Easter Sunday for a service that lasted over five hours.
Benue State Governor, Samuel Ortom, who recently survived an assassination attempt, did not attend, but he sent a representative who promised financial investment in the community.
Joseph Odaudu, Ortom’s adviser on special duties, visited the service and commended the congregation for embracing peace despite the destruction.
“There was just a sense of goodwill, of hope, in the midst of all the persecution of our sisters and brothers in Nigeria. There was an injection of hope, of love,” Devlin said. “It was really a message of hope that we wanted to give to our persecuted Nigerian friends.”
He said raising funds to rebuild the church showed Nigeria the persecuted church is not forgotten.
“It’s something practical that we were not only able to provide to the glory of God … and bring hope and healing in the midst of a very murderous regime, but it also gives hope to people here in the U.S. [who are willing to give],” he said.
The Global Terrorism Index ranked Nigeria as the third-most affected country by terrorism and reports over 22,000 killed by acts of terror from 2001 to 2019.
The US Commission on International and Religious Freedom’s 2021 report warned Nigeria “will move relentlessly toward a Christian genocide” if action is not taken.
Islamic extremism in northeast Nigeria has also led to thousands of deaths and millions displaced in recent years.
Nigeria was the first democratic nation to be added to the U.S. State Department’s list of “countries of particular concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act for engaging in “tolerated systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom.”
As for his future of rebuilding destroyed churches, Devlin said there are still several churches in Nigeria in need of rebuilding.
Devlin said he had been approached by several churches destroyed by jihadists in Egypt and Sudan. He previously raised $100,000 to rebuild Zion Evangelical Church in Sri Lanka that was destroyed by jihadis during the Easter Sunday bombings of 2019.