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50 years later, missionaries discuss genocide they witnessed

50 years later, missionaries discuss genocide they witnessed Photo: Photo courtesy of Source A new documentary is all...

50 years later, missionaries discuss genocide they witnessed
Photo: Photo courtesy of

A new documentary is allowing missionaries to recount atrocities they witnessed 50 years ago but were encouraged to forget, an effort that filmmakers hope will prompt conversations about Christian response to genocide today.

The Nashville-based Baptist Center for Ethics is releasing “The Disturbances,” a painstakingly researched account of tribal bloodshed in and around Jos, Nigeria, in September 1966 that preceded a three-year civil war. Jos provided a multicultural milieu in Nigeria and was home to schools, training centers and other outposts for multiple denominations, including the Southern Baptist Convention.

“The Disturbances” is an intensely personal project for Baptist Center for Ethics’ founder, Robert Parham, who was a seventh-grader when he and his family walked among the wounded. Bob Parham, Robert’s late father, organized Southern Baptist churches and trained pastors, and his mother, Jo Ann, worked with Nigerian women and children.

Robert Parham got the idea for the documentary after uncovering cryptic correspondence where his father wrote that he couldn’t share everything that happened. In a series of often tearful interviews, witnesses finally reveal the carnage they saw and actions they took.

“Fifty years later, I think there’s a certain freedom to tell the story,” Parham said. “They have a need to tell the story.”

He said viewers will understand better what foreign missionaries do in response to such violence. “They find themselves in this position where they are largely without power to stop it. They can’t get involved in civil government, and they’re not prepared for genocide. We want to encourage a more vigorous conversation about genocide and what the responsibility of the faith community is.”

The documentary outlines missionary efforts in Nigeria, the rise of the Igbo tribe to governmental power – which it sometimes abused – and the resulting backlash from the Hausa tribe. The narration explains that the violence wasn’t religious, even though the nation was divided among Christians generally to the south and Muslims to the north.

Tensions rose for months before the September massacre, an event described stoically in the film by the missionaries themselves and emotionally by their children. Missionaries hid Igbos in rafters, storage rooms and abandoned houses. When the violence ended, they emerged to find their neighbors hacked to pieces or beaten to death with stones.

Survivors gathered at the police station to await air transport out of the region, and the missionaries and their children gave them food and water, picked maggots out of their wounds and, in some cases, watched them die.

“I remember overhearing one Igbo say to the other, ‘Vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord, I shall repay,’” Parham said. “He was offering scripture to a man who was talking about seeking revenge.

“My family just didn’t talk about it. My father never talked about what he did even when I became an adult. My mother never talked about it. The other missionaries wouldn’t.”

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