June 1, 2018

Samuel Sarpiya Planter, pastor, peacemaker

Samuel Kefas Sarpiya starts things.

  • A Community Empowerment Center in Jeffreys Bay, South Africa.
  • The Youth with a Mission (YWAM) School of Humanities and Science from a Christian Perspective.
  • An information technology company.
  • A movie business.

In spite of many years of ministry and innovation, however, he never considered working within the church context until a pastor friend told him, “I think you would be a better church planter.” His initial response was, “No, never!”

A Nigerian proverb says, “It is one word of advice that one needs to give to a wise man, and that word keeps multiplying in his mind.”

Over time, “I decided to search what it was to be a church planter,” Sarpiya says. “I sent an email to the Baptists. I am still waiting for a reply 10 years later.”

He discovered the church planting website of Illinois and Wisconsin District and filled out the church planter profile assessment. Within an hour he received an email response. He soon discovered the connection to Ekklesiyar Yan’uwa a Nigeria (EYN, the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria), which he had encountered in the city of Jos, Nigeria.

“EYN was hospitable to my ministry in Nigeria more than my own church. EYN displayed what it means to be compassionate followers of Jesus,” he says.

Sarpiya also had connected with Hillcrest School in Jos, even taking high schoolers on mission trips out of the country.

“It’s kind of coming back home for me,” Sarpiya says. “All along I have been Brethren, but I just didn’t know it yet!”

Within a few months of making contact with Illinois and Wisconsin District, the district flew him and his wife, Gretchen, to Wisconsin for an in-person church planter assessment. Shortly thereafter, in February 2009, the Sarpiya family moved from Hawaii to Rockford, Ill., in the middle of an extremely cold, snowy winter.

Now he is a church planter, and much more, including moderator of the Church of the Brethren’s 2018 Annual Conference. As co-founder of Rockford Community Church of the Brethren, Sarpiya has continued to start things—the Center for Nonviolence and Conflict Transformation and Mobile Lab Rockford.But it wasn’t his energy, imagination, or even self-described “crazy personality” that led him to become a church planter. It was the words of someone who knew him. It was a call.

Samuel’s journey “back” to the Church of the Brethren went through three continents, many countries, and even an island or two. He grew up in Jos, where his mother and siblings still live. After graduating from the University of Jos with a degree in social work, he worked with Urban Frontiers Mission, traveling across West Africa, preaching and raising awareness. He describes it as a “Pauline journey— I go where I’m invited.” He spent time in Togo, Benin, Liberia, Niger, Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, and Cameroon.

What sticks with him about this experience, 20 years later? “The world is continuing to migrate to the cities,” he says. “It’s fascinating how it’s exploding. So the church needs to be aware of what’s happening in the cities.”

Next, Sarpiya traveled to Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, primarily working with African immigrants. “We never used the term ‘modern-day slavery,’ but African immigrants were promised a better career, then trafficked to Europe to be used as prostitutes and drug peddlers. My work was to help them to be reconciled to God and then back to their countries.”

While in Amsterdam, Sarpiya worked with people from YWAM, which led him to the Discipleship Training School in South Africa (where he met his wife, Gretchen). The training took place in Jeffreys Bay, a small coastal town reeling from the history of apartheid. By the end of his time there, he was doing reconciliation work among different races of South Africans, along with teaching computer skills.

The Community Empowerment Center became a lifeline. Then-Vice President Jacob Zuma visited the project; Sarpiya traveled with him, showing that “it’s possible to change a community,” he remembers.

The center took on a life of its own, and the Sarpiyas moved to Cape Town, then to the YWAM center in Kona, Hawaii. While in Kona, the Sarpiyas did community outreach on the Big Island with a “really marginalized community.” At the same time, Sarpiya pioneered the YWAM School of Humanities and Science from a Christian Perspective outside of Geneva, Switzerland. He would go to Switzerland for three weeks at a time. Also during this same period, he was appointed YWAM delegate to the United Nations, so he commuted to New York as well.

“This commuting life,” Sarpiya says, laughing. “Here I am as the moderator doing the same thing!”

He credits Gretchen for making it all possible. She provides stability for their three girls and holds the church in “behind-the-scenes ways nobody sees,” he says. The entire family works together on community outreach projects. “This is what we do as a family and as a church,” Sarpiya says.

Gretchen’s family in South Africa, along with Samuel’s family in Nigeria, provided the initial funding for their work in Rockford. “When we first came here, the district didn’t have resources to pay church planters,” Sarpiya says. “So we did fundraising in Nigeria and South Africa to be missionaries here.”

Sarpiya’s story challenges assumptions church members in the US may have. Are American Brethren the givers and senders or the recipients of outreach work? Are immigrants people to learn from or “takers” in need of assistance?

In 2015, there were 3.8 million black immigrants living in the US, according to Pew Research Center analysis—more than 4 times as many as in 1980. The largest number from African countries were Nigerian: 226,000. Almost 60 percent of them had a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with 33 percent of the general US population.

This year, Sarpiya earned a doctor of ministry in “Semiotics, Church, and Culture” from George Fox University in Portland, Ore., joining the four percent of the US Nigerianborn population with doctorates. By comparison, one percent of the general US population have doctoral degrees.

Semiotics is “meaning-making, rather than letting the world define the church,” as Sarpiya describes it. “If we can stop pursuing our human agenda and letting the world define the church, we will see the impact God is longing to do through ordinary people from the Church of the Brethren,” he says.

“Sometimes we are lacking in passion for the consequential faith we have inherited from our founders, standing outside of society in opposition to the status quo.”

His message for the church? “God is bigger than our agenda.”

Jan Fischer Bachman is the web producer for the Church of the Brethren and web editor of Messenger.