Mary E. Klassen
When Obed and Phena Dashan told students and faculty at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary how they feel God’s love surrounding them in spite of facing death every day in their ministry in Nigeria, the community gathered around them to pray while they also honored them for the faithful ministry.
Both Obed, a 1990 AMBS graduate, and Phena, a 1991 graduate, received the 2015 Alumni Ministry and Service Recognition. During their September 24 and 25 visit to AMBS, they related how challenging life is for Christians in the northern part of Nigeria where Boko Haram is attempting to establish Islamic Sharia law.
Obed, who earned a Master of Divinity at AMBS and a Doctor of Ministry at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, Ill., is a leader in the Church of Christ in Nations. He recounted that as many as 500 Christian churches have been destroyed in northern Nigeria. People are killed daily, and buildings and houses are burned, he said.
“Suicide bombers come to church,” Obed continued. “Every time we leave our houses we are aware that we may not come back. You always budget death when you leave your house and when you come back you are thankful.”
What sustains them in their ministry is the Word of God and prayer, the Dashans emphasized. “We find strength and encouragement in the Word of God.” Obed said several times. He remembers that Willard Swartley, now AMBS professor emeritus of New Testament, encouraged students to memorize Scripture. “I still memorize Scripture every morning, because I find in doing so that I grow and learn every day. I discovered that the understanding of the Word of God comes by studying it and by knowing it and applying it in my own life.”
Prayer also is essential for them. “It is a powerful way of surviving,” Obed said. “When you come before God and cry, and you tell him what is going on and what you’re feeling, definitely he sends help.”
Phena summed up another theme of their lives and ministry when she said, “When you have peace you have everything.”
Jesus’ teaching to love and forgive enemies is the model the Dashans try to follow. In talking about Boko Haram, an Islamic group that has targeted Christians and other Muslims with violence, Obed said, “We continue to love them and pray for them, and in loving them and praying for them we find the inspiration to keep going. We find inspiration also that we are walking in the steps of the Master. We don’t do this by our strength; we find strength in the Word of God. We find strength in the Holy Spirit. We find strength in community of believers, knowing many of you are praying for us.”
Reflecting further, Obed added, ‘Love is not natural; it is supernatural. You would normally want to hit back. That’s the natural response to violence. When the inner being is touched by divine love, your perspective is transformed.”
One way they have worked for peace is by bringing Christians and Muslims together for conversation and working toward common goals. Another is through education.
Phena, whose Master of Arts: Theological Studies degree focused on church history, has been registrar and instructor at a Christian school. Now, as the first woman in Nigeria to head a theological school, she oversees theological education by extension for more than 3,000 students.
“We make sure in the curriculum we have a section about peace—how to approach the conflicting situation we are in, how we can make a difference,” she explained.
In spite of the difficulty of their lives and ministry, both Obed and Phena insisted that others face challenges just as serious. “AMBS prepared us to see that other people faced suffering. What do you think of people in Iran? People in other countries are facing the same thing.”
The AMBS alumni recognition highlighted Phena’s work in theological education as well as her life witness in their context. Sara Wenger Shenk, AMBS president said, “We can’t imagine what it’s like to feel at risk every day, constantly aware that violent persons may kill you or your loved ones and being surrounded by many displaced persons. Yet you talked of how, in the midst of it all, what you feel most is the love surrounding you.”
In honoring Obed, Wenger Shenk said, “As a peacemaker you have chosen to take great risks to calm volatile situations, drawing on the peace study you engaged while here are AMBS. You are a leader among the people who have chosen to stand together, and we are profoundly grateful that we can give you this thanks.”
Each year, the AMBS Alumni Committee selects one or two graduates to receive the Ministry and Service Recognition. This year the group especially wanted the award to be an encouragement for someone ministering in difficult circumstances. Phena concluded, “It is a challenge for me to do better. It is a challenge for me to reach higher, so I say thank you very much.”