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Ayo Ladigbolu is a Methodist Bishop in Nigeria. He was born into a royal family which embraced Islam. Through the ministry of a British Methodist missionary, he accepted Christ as his Savior, which led to four years of exile from his family.
The event of my addressing this Convocation on World Mission and Evangelism is another major link in a surprising chain of events which began more than two decades ago in the royal courts of the Alaafin of Oyo, King of the Yoruba race, and paramount ruler of the extensive ancient Yoruba Empire. The old Oyo Empire boasted a population of more than 12 million people before it was broken into four states.
The Alaafin of Oyo was King and Commander-in-Chief of the Yoruba army. He signed the Peace Treaty with the British Government on July 23, 1888 in Oyo.
The Jihad (holy war) of Islam led by Uthman Dan Fodio towards the end of the 18th century and the subsequent spread of Islam to the Oyo Empire culminated in the royal family's embracing the Islamic religion. Islam became, in a sense, the state religion of the Oyo Yoruban Kingdom.
I was born into this royal family in 1938, and like all other children of the family the best education available was Islamic education. As the first male child from my father's side of the family, I had the very best Islamic teachers to teach me the Quran. I became well-versed in the Quran and the tenets of the religion of Islam. I very quickly rose to become an assistant to one of the most prominent Muslim scholars and evangelists in Yorubaland.
I was allowed to attend private tuition English education from about the age of 10, in addition to my Quaranic education. By age 14 I was proficient in the Quran and the Hadith. I also had the advantage of being able to read and write in the local vernacular and the English language.
My master was an itinerant preacher, and I went everywhere with him. My close association with this popular Muslim evangelist not only enhanced the people's respect for me as a prince, it also endeared me to many of my people as a crusader for the expansion of Islam.
My master did a lot of market-square public preaching and disputations. Whenever the Christian preachers came to debate with us, I was always reading the Bible passages to attack the Christian faith.
We argued and debated many issues with Christians. Many times we just searched the Bible for passages or sentences or words that proved suitable for our use. We even forced ideas to suit our Bible references. Some of the Christian groups would try to prove how smart they were during the debates. Whenever this happened, we had no problem inciting the largely Muslim crowd to shout at them as infidels (Kafir) or stone them. Many times I joined in the shouting, abusing and stoning of those Christians.
My popularity among the people grew, and many of them openly prayed for the day when the old king would pass away, and I would become their king and champion of the cause of Islam. They said this to me in public and private. My ascending the throne of Oyo was to usher in a golden age of enlightened leadership for the people, coupled with a burning zeal for Islam. This dream was never to come true.
As a Muslim, I worshipped Allah, who is a benevolent god to all who fear and honor him. I also feared him as the almighty and ferocious judge, who keeps a minute-by-minute record of all my wrongs in thoughts, words and deeds - bringing me to judgment by weighing my evil and good deeds on a scale. If the bad outweighs the good, then I will go to Ja-a-nama or hell fire. Much as I tried to please, and sometimes bribe, Allah with my ritual prayers five times daily, fasting before and during Ramadan (the month in which the first passages of the Quran were revealed to Mohammed) and giving alms to the poor, I still found that deep down in my heart I could not satisfy the demands of Allah. Because wine and alcoholic drinks were freely used in the palace (though it is forbidden in Islam), I got used to drinking at an early age. Also, because of my popularity all over the Kingdom, I was always taking liberties with girls without any intention of marrying them. Since I knew that there was no way of salvation or escape for me, and I did not know how I could be freed from my wayward and sinful ways, I lived in day-to-day fear of dying and having to face the judgment seat of Allah, whom I had come to perceive as a ferocious judge. My quiet cry then was, "Who will deliver me from this burden of sin?"
I continued to travel far and wide with my master and became well known to many high-ranking Muslim leaders in many parts of Nigeria. By virtue of my popularity among Muslims, and notoriety among Christians, Christians were always afraid to come near me.
However, in 1960 two members of the Jehovah Witnesses approached me. They were the first "Christian" group ever to come to me. These men took a great risk in approaching me. They realized that I could get them arrested, tortured or imprisoned if I so desired, but they dared the consequences and came. All they asked was that I read the Bible with them. We read many of the Old Testament stories, Proverbs and the Psalms. It was fun reading the Bible passages with them because most of the Old Testament stories are also contained in the Quran, though in incomplete or adulterated forms.
These Jehovah Witnesses kept coming to me for about a year. Sometimes we just read and discussed the stories. Sometimes we argued over the meaning of the passages, especially if their interpretation was different from the meaning in the Quran. As I went from the Old Testament to the New Testament, I found that there were matters, statements and claims about which I needed to ask questions - particularly about Jesus the Son of Mary. These people did not give me any satisfactory answer to these questions.
Having been exposed to Western education, I was permitted to go to a Secondary Modern School outside the palace. In all my years of getting this education I devoted myself to studying more about Islam. At the same time I became more curious about the Bible and read it over and over without fully understanding all I was reading, except the familiar Old Testament portions.
After my Secondary Modern School education, I went to teach in a primary school in a village about 90 miles from Oyo, where I met my first real Christian brother and friend. He is still a member of the Methodist Church. He noticed that I was interested in reading the Bible. He also knew about my fame as a preacher and prince.
One day he came to me. After some time he suddenly called me by my first name and said, "Ayo, I know you are religious, and you are seeking for God, but you need one thing."
I said, "What do I need? I need nothing that you can offer."
He replied, "What you need is the way to God."
I retorted quickly, "I believe in the One God and in Mohammed his prophet. I need nothing more."
"Ayo, you need the peace and joy which faith in Jesus alone can give you." Before I could say a word, he continued, "Do you know that Jesus is the mediator between man and God, and all the sins that we have committed, God has laid upon Jesus? If we are willing to confess our sins and put them upon Jesus, God will overlook them."
I continued to ponder these things in my mind and kept on reading the Gospels as my friend advised.
One thing that emerged later was that my friend and many other Christians were praying for me as I struggled with the truth of the Word of God and the claims of Jesus as the Savior of all mankind. Would he agree to take away my sin and all guilt feelings? Can Jesus work it out with God so that I will not have to pay the penalty for all my sins? Will I have to stop depending upon my good works to please or bribe God? These things seemed strange and unbelievable to me. But my Christian friend kept saying to me that these things were possible. They were true in his own experience, and I could not deny the extreme radiance of his life and the contagious joy and assurance that exuded from his face, walk and talk. He even told me that if I accepted Jesus I would no longer be a slave or servant of God, I would become a prince - royalty in the Kingdom of Almighty God - able to talk directly with God and hear him speak to me. This experience I also desired much, because in Islam God is so High and Above that no man can know him, not to speak of talking directly with him.
The beauty of my friend's Christian life, and the certainty and assurance evident in his witnessing, convinced me that I too needed this Jesus if he could set me free from the burden of my sin and my fear of death and judgment, and further enhance my prestige by making me a prince in the royal courts of heaven.
But as I contemplated this dangerous venture, I also considered the respect and honor I had established among my people. What would my friends think? How would I face
my thousands of admirers? The prospects of my ascending the exalted throne of my fathers were very bright, given my education and popularity. All my people were Muslims. The Kingmakers were all Muslims. Most of the young people in Oyo were Muslims and they looked up to me for leadership. No, I could not give all this up to become a follower of Jesus. No, I just could not!
But my friend persisted and the army of prayer warriors kept lifting me up to the Throne of Grace. More and more as I read the Bible, I began to feel the Spirit of God drawing me to understand what the Bible says about Jesus. I was struck one day with the statement: "Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on him."(John 3:36).
I went over to my friend and showed him this passage. He confirmed that it is true and that this was what he had been trying to explain to me.
The anger of God was the main burden of my sinful life, and if I believed in Jesus that anger would be removed. I asked my friend, "If I want to believe in Jesus, how do I do it?"
He replied, "It is very simple. You don't have to pay any money, all you do is tell Jesus how you feel now."
"Is that all?" I asked.
He said, "Confess those sins you can remember to him, and just leave those you can't remember to him. He knows all about them anyway. He'll take care of them."
Right there in his room I asked Jesus to come into my heart, to cleanse it of all sin and to make me a child of God.
Right there and then, I felt as if ice-cold water were dripping from heaven through my head and into the rest of my body. It was a most pleasant and refreshing feeling. That first day of October, 1962 was an unforgettable day. Every year when Nigeria celebrates her political independence on October 1, I also celebrate my "new birth" day and the genesis of my pilgrimage in the company of the redeemed.
Although the Christians in that village confessed that they had been praying for my conversion, most of them refused to believe it after it happened. A good number of them still stayed away from me, and some were afraid to sit near me when I attended their church. Many people in the village were also surprised and afraid when they saw that I was worshipping with the Christians.
At the close of 1962, I returned home to Oyo for Christmas vacation. My friend spoke to a Methodist superintendent minister in Oyo about my encounter with Christ. This pastor invited me to his church, but I could not go for fear of being found out. Finally the urge to go to church got stronger and irresistible, so I went on the first Sunday in January 1963.
Some people saw me go into the church (Apara Methodist Church, Oyo, which has remained my home church until today), and in their surprise, confusion and anger, went to my father to report that they'd seen me go into a church.
By the time the service was over and I returned to my apartment in the palace, my family was waiting. The first thing my father said was, "Welcome back from CHURCH. What in the whole world took you into a church?"
At that moment, I was sweating profusely all over my body. I felt as if my tongue were tied with a rope at first. I did not know what to say in reply. All of a sudden I found myself speaking, but the words I spoke were not coming from me. I just lost all consciousness of where I was, and I was speaking.
After what seemed like a long time, my eyes opened and I saw that everyone sat or stood quietly gazing at me. No one was talking. All the elders of the family were there. My mother too was present. They all just stared at me. Then my mother suddenly burst into tears. A lot of them began wailing. I later learned that they thought I had been possessed by an evil spirit or that I was showing signs of a mental problem.
In the midst of their wailing, I was able to say to them, "A young man told me about Jesus Christ, and I found what he told me to be true. I needed to escape from the anger of God, and Jesus had rescued me. When I asked Jesus to come into my heart, I felt him come! Jesus is real to me. He is a living Savior. I will follow him the rest of my life."
My mother came forward, laid prostrate in front of me and pleaded, "Ayo, you are throwing away everything I have lived for. You are putting my life in danger. You are putting your youthful life at risk." She continued, "Don't you see the future ahead of you, and all possibilities? Don't you consider what will happen to me?" She just went on and on, and I could not control my tears because she was sobbing as she pleaded with me to reconsider my decision. But the die had been cast and there was no going back. I had tasted the Lord Jesus Christ and found him sweeter than honey.
In her efforts to free me from what she thought was a bewitchment, my mother consulted and paid many Muslim scholars, Mallams and medicine men to charm me so that if I had been bewitched, the spell could be removed. But I knew I was neither drunk nor bewitched.
Within the same week another family meeting was held. This time I was told bluntly that I must reconsider my decision in order to maintain my high regard in the community and avoid being hated by the people. I was also to think of what shame my conversion could bring on the family name.
But the Lord made my heart very strong and I was able to say to them that I had found great joy, peace of mind and assurance in belonging to God and believing in Jesus. I knew that my sins were forgiven and that was where I would stay.
My dad said, "If that is your decision, then naked fire and gunpowder cannot share the same room. This family has disowned you. We consider you as dead, and you may as well be dead."
Tension was great in the town on account of this event. The news had spread everywhere and everyone was talking about me. First, I tried to hide with members of my mother's family because of their soft spot for me, but they were afraid to harbor a condemned person. I met the pastor of the Methodist Church, told him of the danger I was in and sought his advice on what to do.
It was this pastor, the late Rev. Dr. A.T. Ola Olude, who gave me a note to take, first to a remote station in Ogbomosho Circuit, and later to the United Missionary Society missionaries in Ilorin. I was on the run for four years. These missionaries became my parents and family and, through their kindness, I lacked nothing that I needed in those four years of exile.
During my sojourn far away from home, I felt the call to be a preacher. I enrolled as a student at the United Missionary Theological College Ilorin. Towards the end of my training, I received a message that my father wanted to see me.
When the message came, my friends were all excited and they persuaded me to go. So, I went, not knowing what to expect.
On getting to Oyo, there was another family meeting at which my father spoke that he had heard many good things about me. He said, "I believe this faith you have embraced is good for you. If you would like to return to this family, you are welcome anytime." It was a tearful and joyful reunion. I brought my wife and baby home, and they were both warmly received, but it took the birth of our second daughter and the putting of the family tribal marks on her cheeks before we were officially accepted back into the family.
Many in my homeland never forgave me for embracing Christianity, and this included the kingmakers. When it came time to elect a new king, my uncle was chosen. I have no regrets today because I have gained a more glorious crown, the crown of life. The Lord Jesus has been my sufficiency in spite of my losing all the power, prestige, money and land associated with my earthly royal birthright.
Certainly, it has been a fairly long road from my being a Muslim preacher to becoming a Methodist bishop, but the Lord has traveled with me every inch of the road. Each time I look back on my life, my upbringing and what is happening today, I ask myself, "How come?" The answer I get each time is, "This is the Lord's doing." And as I marvel at what the Lord Jesus has done in my life, I take delight in heeding the call of the Psalmist, "Let the redeemed of the Lord say so"(Psalm 107:2a NASB).
Some of the hostilities are still there, especially with the current fanaticism among Moslems. The joyful part is that some members of my family are now Christians. My uncle, the present King of Oyo, has a lot of respect for me, and he is very friendly with me. He has not stood in the way of Christian witnessing in all of his present domain. I am praying that he, too, and all within his kingdom may come to know my Lord Jesus Christ, whom to know is eternal life.
Permit me to make a few closing remarks before I conclude this time of sharing.
The Holy Scripture inspired by God was paramount in the faith sharing that led to my conversion. It was in reading, studying and hearing the written Word of God that I was drawn to the Word made flesh, even our Savior Jesus Christ. Any faith sharing encounters with Muslims and adherents of other religions must be based on the authority of the infallible Holy Scripture - which is quick and powerful, and the hearing of which enlivens faith in the hearer.
Secondly, I'd like to state that the Church must not apologize for the fact that it wants all people to know Jesus Christ and to follow him. The Church's very calling is to proclaim the gospel to the ends of the earth. We cannot make any restrictions in this respect. Whether people have a high, a low or a primitive religion, whether they have sublime ideals or a defective morality makes no fundamental deference. All must hear the gospel and submit to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. The Word is at work in every human life as it was and still is in mine.
There are millions in North America to whom Christ's name is little known or even unknown, and about 60 million in Nigeria need to hear the gospel message. The local, national, regional and global task and challenge belong to all of us and the interests we represent. The King's business requires haste, and if we tarry long here, some mischief may overtake us. This, therefore, is a day and decade of Good News. "Let's go at once and report this. . ."(2 Kings 7:9b).
Let me plead with you, my Methodist brethren in America, to recapture your old global vision of the church's total mission of soul winning and outreach, especially in your sharing and caring with all of the Third World. We can hasten the coming of Christ's Kingdom by our intensified sacrificial resource-sharing and greater cooperation.
Finally, my encounter with Christ has meant for me praying and laboring for the rekindling of the evangelistic zeal in Nigerian Methodism. It has also involved offering leadership in that area both in Nigeria and West Africa. I have collaborated with agencies like New Life for All, Operation Good News, Methodist Evangelical Movement and Sowers of Seed, for the promotion of mission and evangelism, in the training of pioneer evangelists, in Bible translations and distribution, and for the sponsoring of evangelistic crusades.
Other mission enterprises have included health care delivery, job training, community development and concern for environmental protection by way of afforestation and reforestation projects. Our purpose in becoming all things to all men is primarily to lift up Jesus Christ, who alone can draw all people to himself.
To God be the glory. Great things he has done. Amen!