A Nigerian clergyman who has just accepted a post in Northern Ireland said he was surprised to find that Christianity in the Province is much less “vibrant” than in his homeland.

Reverend George Okikiolu has begun a three-year stint doing church-based community work in the Province, based at St Jude’s Church of Ireland on the Ormeau Road, south Belfast.

He voiced unease at the rate at which churches are closing in Northern Ireland, and said things have “really changed” since the days when the British Isles exported the faith to his native continent.

It is believed the appointment may make him the first African employee of the Church of Ireland in Belfast.

When it was put to him that usually it is Northern Irish Christians who travel to Africa to do missionary work, not vice-versa, 39-year-old Rev George chuckled and replied: “The western people brought the Gospel to Nigeria years and years back.

“Now there is a wave of evangelism blowing in Africa. The church in Nigeria is very vibrant, and days have really changed.

“There was an appeal put out [for] a ‘cross-cultural ministry’ in Northern Ireland. I felt, and I said, after praying, that I wish to come to Northern Ireland to see how people here worship God, how they serve God.

“But when I came to Northern Ireland I found out that the faith was not as vibrant as it was in Africa, where I came from.“Things have really, really changed, and sometimes I get surprised.”

He added: “Churches are closing, churches are being turned into hotels and things like that … Many churches are folding up.

“It wasn’t like that in Nigeria – you’re having more churches established every day. But here in Northern Ireland, people are closing doors.”

He said he has the same impression of Christianity in general, not just the Anglican communion.

He added: “I’m not here just to see what I can do to turn things around, but rather I am also here to learn what I can take back home to my people.”

Asked what kind of lessons Northern Ireland can learn from Africa, he said: “I think we need to learn much about love; love for God, and love for the community. Love for everybody, including the ethnic minorities. Everybody needs to be loved.

“In African congregations we live what we call a ‘community life’. Everybody is looking after everybody … doing things together.”

He said this attitude “needs to be brought home here in Northern Ireland”.

In turn, African congregations can learn more about “the act of giving” from Northern Ireland.

He said that, whilst Northern Irish people are very generous with their money and resources, “that is just financial participation, it is not much of a community, physical relationship with each other”.

He runs a string of activities ranging from teaching African drumming to primary school children, to drop-in sessions at the church.

“Now in St Jude’s, to the glory of God, we open the door of St Jude’s three times every week, which is unusual,” he said.

Family connection

Rev Okikiolu, from Ibadan in south-west Nigeria, said he opted to come to the Province because his sister had studied here, and later found a job.

She now works as a nurse in Belfast’s Royal Victoria Hospital, and her husband and children also live in Northern Ireland.

His wife and two sons are still in Nigeria, and he said his own aim is to return when the stint ends.

While Rev Okikiolu is an ordained minister in the Church of Nigeria Anglican Communion, he is not the minister at St Jude’s church; that role belongs to canon Norman Jardine, 68, who has been in post for 12 years (and a minister in Belfast for 38).

He described Rev Okikiolu as “quite a character … a great lad.”

Asked what his family in Nigeria thinks of Northern Ireland, he said: “In their mind, because they’ve not been here, they hear about everything online… [that] Northern Ireland is all about bombs, petrol bombs, chaos and all that stuff.

“They’re praying for daddy – that is, praying for me – that God will bring about peace in the middle of chaos just as He did when he wanted to create the world. He said: ‘Let there be light’. And it was light.”

Source: News Letter