Potluck | June 27, 2023

History handling

Sign that says "Church of the Brethren" in the midst of a huge crowd in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC.
Brethren at the 1963 March on Washington

Here’s a question that came up for the Messenger editorial team about details of the founding of Ekklesiyar Yan’uwa a Nigeria 100 years ago.

EYN identifies its founding event as a worship service under a tamarind tree in the village of Garkida on March 17, 1923, led by American Brethren mission workers H. Stover Kulp and Albert D. Helser. However, letters and articles from the time reveal discrepancies.

Kulp and Helser held at least two worship services in other places in Nigeria, prior to March 17 that year. On Jan. 21, 1923, the first Church of the Brethren worship service in Nigeria was held in Jos after the Americans traveled by train from their first stop in Lagos. In that service they were joined by three men they hired to help with language translation and housekeeping tasks: Garba from Zaria, John from the Igbo tribe in the southeast, and Mr. Danboyi of the Pabir people. Another worship service was held at some point on the next leg of their long trek by foot from Jos to Gombe—with the 30 Nigerians who carried their luggage and supplies in attendance.

The event in Garkida may not have been a worship service but a groundbreaking for the first mission house, with scripture reading and prayer. Then again, that may be when Kulp preached the first sermon in Garkida.

And there are reasons to ask if the event was held under the tamarind tree, or just nearby.

Why is it the March 17 event that is important, rather than the previous ones?

Is it because Garkida became the place where the first Brethren mission families settled, and thus the headquarters of the mission?

Is it because the previous services were “on the road,” and only intermediate points on the journey?

Is it because, like George Washington’s (mythical) cherry tree that symbolizes the integrity of the first US president, the tamarind tree is a winsome symbol of a Nigerian church that values its mission roots even while it has grown into the largest Church of the Brethren body in the world?

Maybe none of these answers to the question are true, but maybe they all are, and perhaps there are additional answers.

In any case, it is EYN’s question to answer—and only if Nigerian Brethren consider it important.

This historical uncertainty leads me to do some wondering about my own Church of the Brethren in the US—not about details like dates and places, but about foundational values.

What stories have helped create my own faith identity, and are there historical discrepancies?

I identify with the Church of the Brethren as a peace church. I take pride in the first Brethren who chose to follow the Prince of Peace despite persecution.

But the Brethren who fled from Europe to the American colonies, more than 300 years ago, also benefited from the violent subjugation of indigenous peoples and the theft of their land.

It was my father’s choice to be a conscientious objector during the Korean War that solidified my own pacifism.

But other Brethren of his generation went to war.

An iconic sign carried by Church of the Brethren leaders at peace demonstrations, from the 1960s to the 1980s or so, is a powerful symbol for me. I am inspired by those who visibly supported the anti-war and anti-nuclear movements, civil rights and the Black community.

But when Messenger editors put Martin Luther King Jr. on the cover, after his assassination, the letters column received horrific expressions of racism.

How do I handle this history? Can tension between stories that shaped my faith and a closer examination of the historical record lead me into a stronger, more radical discipleship to Jesus Christ?

Scripture offers reassurance: “If you indeed cry out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures—then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God. . . . Then you will understand righteousness and justice and equity, every good path, for wisdom will come into your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul
(Proverbs 2:3-5, 9-10).

Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford is director of News Services for the Church of the Brethren, and associate editor for Messenger. She also is an ordained minister and a graduate of Bethany Seminary and the University of La Verne, Calif.