How govt can prevent recurrence of Ile-Ife crisis —Bishop Popoola
The Right Reverend James Afolabi Popoola, Bishop of Osun Anglican Diocese, in this interview by RITA OKONOBOH, speaks on his experience as an ordained minister in more than 40 years, the diocese’s forthcoming synod, his take on Christian taking up arms, among other issues. Excerpts:
HOW did you find yourself in the ministry?
It is by the special grace of God. Interestingly, I was called into the ministry through a movie I watched. In the movie, there was a family which was disintegrated and was reconciled by the intervention of a priest. After watching that movie, I got the inspiration that God was calling me into the ministry of reconciliation – reconciling man and man; reconciling families and reconciling man to God. I offered myself for training in 1967, first at the then Vining Centre, now called Archbishop Vining College of Theology, Akure, and then at the Emmanuel College of Theology, Ibadan. After that, I went to the university. I was born in Ibara-Orile, Abeokuta, Ogun State. The ministry has been my main occupation, full time since I left secondary school in 1963. I worked briefly at the Ministry of Agriculture with the old Western Region. I also worked briefly as a tutor in a secondary school in Ogun State, then as a lecturer at the Moshood Abiola Polytechnic.
How did you become bishop of Osun Diocese?
It is by the special grace of God. I was serving as the provost at St. Peter’s Cathedral, Ake, Abeokuta. Then, I was elected by the college of bishops of the Church of Nigeria to become a bishop. I was consecrated on July 30, 2000 at Abeokuta and since then, I have been the Bishop of Osun Diocese.
You first embraced the ministry 50 years ago and have been in ordained ministry for over forty years, how would you describe your experience so far?
The experience has been worth it. By the grace of God, I have built experience over the years, particularly, since I have been moving from one area to the other. The experience I gathered while at Abeokuta, is quite different from what I’m gathering now. For the past 17 years that I have been the Bishop of Osun Diocese, it has been a highly rewarding experience, because I work with people who have made the experience worth it.
About the upcoming synod
The synod is hosted by three administrative areas – Osogbo East Archdeaconry; Oyan Archdeaconry and Igbajo Chapelry, all in the Osun Diocese. The opening service will take place on Thursday, April 27 at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Igbajo; the plenary session, will hold on Friday and Saturday, April 28 and 29 at the church conference centre, Bishop’s Court, Isale-Aro, Osogbo. The presidential address will be delivered on Friday, April 28 and we expect the governor of the state to give a keynote address. The thanksgiving service will hold at St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Oyan. Some guests we are expecting include: the first lady of Ogun State, Chief (Dr) Mrs Olufunso Amosun; Chief and Chief (Mrs) Olajide Oyewole; Chief Atoyebi Oyeleke from Lagos; former Vice-Chancellor of the Obafemi Awolowo University, Professor Michael Faborode; Mr Gbade Oyewole; Surveyor Ayodeji Olorunsogo; J.S. Bamgboye, SAN; Chief Abiodun Oyebode; Chief Niyi Oyewole; Mr Jide Bewaji and a host of others.
Osun State, according to reports, has not fared too well, in the light of the current recession. How would you say the church has been affected?
Osun State, generally, is a civil servant state. There are not many factories and members of the church are mainly civil servants. So, when members are not paid their salaries, the church is affected. Even the church is experiencing recession, but we must also thank God that we have been able to survive it. We believe that this year will be a turn-around for good for us by the special grace of God.
Recently, Osun State was in the news as a result of the clash between Yorubas and Hausas in Ile-Ife. From the background of your call into the ministry of reconciliation, how would you advise on ensuring that such doesn’t happen again?
The crisis did not cover the whole of Osun State; it was precisely at Ife. It is similar to what goes on in other parts of the country. In some cases, the clashes are ethnic; in other cases, it is between farmers and herdsmen, among others. I will advise government to take every clash seriously. I would also advise security agents not to wait until the crisis has escalated. They should try to adopt preventive measures. Here, the idea of community policing is important. Security agents should hold community meetings with religious leaders, traditional leaders, and leaders of various communities. People of other ethnic groups, apart from the major ethnic group, should also be well represented at such meetings to ensure mutual coexistence.
There are allegations that there are plans to Islamise Nigeria. In recent times too, Christians have been urged to take up arms to defend themselves when threatened. Would you support such stand?
That’s a very sensitive question. I want to plead that Nigerians should be very prayerful. Nigeria is deeply religious and we always want to guard our religion jealously. What government should do is to make sure they do not side any religion. The Nigerian Constitution guarantees freedom of worship. Government, whether at state or federal level, should give everyone fair grounds for religious worship. When it appears that one religion is given preferential treatment over the other, that is preparation for religious crisis and such crisis can go on and on. Particularly for us in the South-West, we should not allow religion to divide us. It is not uncommon to see families where there are adherents of different religions and here, we do our things together. Here, it is not unusual to see Muslims participating in Christian celebrations, and vice versa. That is religious harmony and that should be promoted everywhere. Religious leaders should also not make provocative utterances in their sermons. Religion should promote peace, not crisis. I will not say Christians should take up arms; that will not augur well. However, Christians shouldn’t be attacked for their faith. We should try and understand the tenets of other religion and once that is known, antagonism of other religions will be discouraged.
Do you support the recent proposal by government for religious leaders to retire?
Government should have nothing to do with the age religious leaders should retire. Fortunately for us in the Church of Nigeria, Anglican Communion, we retire at 70. But that is not as a result of government interference; that is our tradition. Religious leaders are not employees of government. Let leaders of each denomination sit with their board and decide on such issues. It is entirely a denominational affair. Government should not interfere with the internal policy of religious denominations.
More people seem to be getting depressed as a result of the state of the Nigerian economy and some have even committed suicide. Is suicide a sin? How would you advise people on coping?
The Bible says ‘thou shall not kill.’ Life is sacred and since one cannot create life, you cannot take it. So, when you take a life or yours, you have committed sin. Christians must be people of hope and that is what the resurrection of Christ teaches us. So, however bad things may be, a Christian must hope for a better tomorrow. Rather, we should open up to people. If you belong to a worshipping community, there, you can also interact with other people. Now, Christians must also be their brothers’ keepers. When you notice that a person looks moody, we should draw closer to them. We also advocate attending prayer cells or what we refer to as fellowship meetings in various localities, outside the church.
With the seeming rise in moral decadence in the society, some people have claimed that youths are not as interested in church activities. What has the church been doing to attract youths to the things of God?
There are many things the church is doing. For us, in the Diocese of Osun, we have many youth groups. Every parish has special programmes for the youths. At the diocesan level, we also have programmes for them. At the bishop’s court, we have a special chapel for the youths, so they can worship together, but with a mature Christian as a leader.
How would you advise government on improving the economy?
I think we must be frank with ourselves that Nigeria shouldn’t be facing recession because God loves us as a nation and God has blessed us with so many things. Our problem has been that of leadership. With the wealth of resources we have, of which we haven’t even tapped half, we need to pray. The theme of our forthcoming synod is: Called to be the Salt of the Earth and Light of the World. With that, we will also examine the role of Christians in a corrupt society. One major thing we should do as Christians is to pray for our leaders. With the calls for diversification and the focus on agriculture, it shouldn’t just be by word of mouth. Let government be serious about agriculture. Money said to be given to the economically disadvantaged is a waste of money; that money can be used to create opportunities for people in agriculture. That is better than just handing out money. The Bible talks about teaching people to fish, rather than giving them fish. Youths should also be encouraged to embrace agriculture, especially mechanised agriculture. Meaningful agriculture can take us out of recession.
The Diocese of Osun organises an annual health outreach, focusing on eye surgery. Why eye surgery?
We have other outreach programmes in which we give back to the people. However, for the eye mission, it a special annual programme that lasts two weeks and it is focused on three areas. The problem of eyesight is a major challenge for many people. We recognise that some people may not have the needed funds for surgery, so we subsidise the costs for them. It is sponsored by the church and we have had many testimonies, the outreach has been on for over ten years and is open to everyone, irrespective of religious affiliation.