African lady with child
Nigeria map

In 1965, the Apostolic Lutheran Church of America received a call from people with Lutheran backgrounds in Nigeria to bring the Gospel to the Efic people in Akwa Ibom state in southeastern Nigeria. That area is part of the least developed in Nigeria, and most were still living in villages in mud houses as their ancestors before them had lived. There were few paved roads, and electricity was not available outside of the cities and towns. Most families earned a living by harvesting and selling coconut fruit, from which coconut oil is produced, and they grew pineapple, yams, and garrey, a root which is ground into flour and is the main staple in their diet. This area is close to the equator and there are two seasons: a rainy season where it will rain on and off every day and there is much flooding, and a non-rainy season, where it doesn’t rain every day, but the weather can be very hot and humid. In the 1960’s yellow fever and malaria were epidemic.

Rev. Andrew Mickelson, led by the Spirit of God, responded to this call. He traveled to Nigeria to be with those who were seeking “the way, the truth, and the life,” equipped with the Gospel and the love of Christ. Pastor Essien, the writer of the request, and himself a Lutheran pastor, met him in Lagos, the Nigerian capital at that time. The journey by car from Lagos to Akwa Ibom state today would be difficult, but in the 1960’s there were no paved roads in many parts and washouts were common. There were no bridges over the large rivers and cars had to be ferried across. Today we can fly from Lagos to Calabar, and then travel by auto a little less than two hours to Uyo, the capital of Akwa Ibom state.

The people gathered by the hundreds to hear Rev. Mickelson proclaim God’s Word. Many of the services were held outside in the hot sun. The living Word touched many hearts, and by the light of it, many found themselves as lost sinners and needed forgiveness that they heard was offered so fully and freely. Rev. Mickelson related at some of the services that hundreds came forward and asked if their sins could be forgiven. He blessed those seekers and assured them to believe in the name of Jesus and by His shed blood that all their sins were forgiven. Many joyfully received and believed.

Upon returning to the USA, Rev. Mickelsen related how God had so wondrously worked in the hearts of so many of the Nigerian brethren. There was apprehension among some who heard the account, since there had not been any outreach by the ALC either in the USA or other lands to people of other cultures or color, especially Africans. Pastor Essien visited the USA, and with Rev. Mickelson, many congregations were visited by them.

Rev. Mickelson made three other trips to Nigeria to water the seed that had been planted and to encourage those who believed. He could see the necessity of a resident missionary who could teach and consistently feed the previous lambs and sheep of Jesus. Philip Johnson and his wife Naomi, Rev. Mickelson’s daughter, along with their young family, responded to this call and moved to Nigeria in May 1966, believing and trusting that He who has called will also equip and provide all things for this endeavor. A mission house was built as a headquarters for the mission effort and as a home for the Johnson family. Today, that mission house is used as a school for preschool and elementary children of the church.

The clouds of war were fast approaching in southeastern Nigeria, and there was a movement to separate that area from Nigeria and form a new country. When the Biafran civil war broke out, Philip feared for the safety of his wife and family, but also felt compelled to care for this infant church and its people. It was decided that Philip would drive his family to Lagos in order to fly back to the USA and Philip would remain in Nigeria with the church until it was safe for his family to return. On the trip to Lagos, there was a tragic accident and Philip was taken home to be with the Lord. The rest of the family escaped serious injury and returned home.

The war raged through that area. Planes even dropped bombs on Uyo, and many had to seek refuge in the jungles. There were fierce battles fought between the government troops and the rebels. God safely kept and watched over his precious flock. Finally the civil war ended after three years of fighting, and peace agreements were reached. More churches were added. Because of the lack of transportation, some of the churches are less than 10 miles apart to allow the people to walk from the villages to the church. Many of the early church buildings were very humble shelters that allowed the hearers to worship, protected from the rain and hot sun. During that 10-year period since the Johnson family returned to the USA, many prayers were sent to the throne of God asking that He would care and provide so the church would not die in its infancy. Visas for visits to Nigeria were not granted during these 10 years.

It was put on the heart of some in the USA to provide scholarships to allow men from the Nigerian church to attend the Inter-Lutheran Seminary in Minneapolis, MN in the 1970’s. Two men attended and returned to Nigeria.

In 1976, God called Pastor Elmer Yliniemi and his wife Miriam, together with their young family, to serve as missionaries in Nigeria. Pastor Elmer and Miriam continued in the work that Philip and Naomi Johnson had begun, along with the rebuilding of the mission house and taking care of the neglected things within the church. More congregations were established. Elmer had early morning instruction classes in congregations each weekday on the Catechism and Biblical instruction on marriage, etc. He also had weekly classes for the preachers and trained Sunday school workers in the use of Sunday school materials. His goal, in addition to preaching the Gospel and teaching pastors, preachers, and church leaders, was to establish the churches so they would be self-supporting. When the Yliniemi’s left Nigeria, there were 25 congregations with about 2500 members.

A daughter was born to the Yliniemi’s while they were in Nigeria. Due to the very primitive living conditions, Elmer came down with a severe illness, probably caused by malaria, and was bedridden for almost two months. The Lord was gracious and he sur¬vived the ordeal and was able to continue working. The Yliniemi’s returned to the USA in November 1977.

The newly-formed Foreign Mission Board sent Pastors James Johnson and Bob Maki to Nigeria in 1999 to attend their annual convention. It was a joyful reunion. The fruits of living faith were clearly evident. Many desired to hear assurance that all their sins were forgiven in Jesus’ name and blood. Pastor James Johnson could clearly see that the seeds that were sown by his brother Philip, Pastor Mickelson, and Pastor Yliniemi so many years before, along with the watering, had borne much fruit. The work and sacrifice was not in vain.

There are still many struggles as there are many winds of doctrine in the world. The enemy is always out to destroy living faith within the heart of a believer. The struggles in Nigeria are not much different than we have in the USA or any other place in the world where there is living faith. When the church is founded upon the solid rock, which is Jesus Christ, the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

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