I had intended to write a post this week about how Christmas is celebrated here. I hoped I would only have good things to report, but I'm sure you've read the news. Even Fox News had Nigeria on the front page yesterday, and they're not exactly known for their international coverage.
We knew we might expect violence on Christmas. Last year a bomb exploded in a busy market on Christmas Eve and many people lost their lives. I heard that some months later there was a Muslim holiday. For weeks the authorities told the Muslim community not to go and pray in the mosque near that market, so naturally that's exactly what they did. Imagine your mother or your sister was murdered by Islamic terrorists on Christmas, and you see a mob of Muslims coming to pray in your neighborhood, to add insult to injury. The Muslims had brought weapons with them, but left them in their cars. They thought Christians wouldn't get violent. Unfortunately they thought wrong.
There's been a tense peace. You don't feel the tension, the distrust, as you walk the streets. Actually, compared to other African countries where I've visited and lived, walking the streets of Jos is like a stroll in the garden. I don't feel targeted. I don't have to clutch my purse all the time. I don't worry about being robbed, or raped. I feel safe here, and it's not an illusion.
You notice the tension in the traffic, the backups that happen because Christians fear driving through Muslim neighborhoods, and vice versa. Most neighborhoods are segregated now, and it wasn't that way even a few years ago. The violence has separated the population along religious lines like oil separates from water. Arson relocated those too stubborn or too poor to move of their own accord.
And yet, the violence isn't really about religion. Muslims and Christians lived together in this city for many, many years, and Jos was always known as a place of peace. People use religion to stir up fear, to advance their political and social agendas. They bomb churches on Christmas.
On Christmas Eve, our family threw a birthday party for Jesus. The girls helped me bake a cake. We had a nice dinner, then birthday cake, then the Christmas story and carols and prayer. When the children were in bed, Martijn and I baked cinnamon rolls and curled up by the fireplace with a glass of wine, set out the presents and stuffed the stockings.
Sunday morning the children opened their presents. They were deliriously happy, and played for a couple of hours with their new toys. I went in the kitchen. It's tradition here to make a lot of food on Christmas, enough to share with all your neighbors. My friend Umar came by with two big bags, one with drinks and yogurt, the other with food. We gave him cinnamon rolls and samosas in return.
I was rolling out dough for more samosas when I heard the bomb blast in the distance. Martijn and I locked eyes. Then there were shots: AK47s. I took a deep breath, went back to rolling dough, but I felt so…heavy. I wondered what was happening, if people were wounded, dying right in that moment.
There was no news. A couple hours later our neighbors heard it was a church. They had bombed a church. I went in back in the kitchen and wept. We had decided not to go to church that morning, partly because holiday services tend to be five hours long, and partly because it was safer to stay home. I imagined a congregation, dressed in their best clothes for the holiday, perfumed and pedicured and joyful. I imagined them singing things like, "Peace on earth, goodwill to men." Then I imagined a bomb ripping through the building.
Later I heard the service had already ended when the bomb exploded, and I felt like I could breathe again. There were other reports: a Catholic church bombed in Abuja and many people killed. More attacks up in the north.
We had lunch with our American neighbors upstairs and a British family. We laughed, we chatted, we celebrated, but with hesitance. Yesterday showed me the beauty of friendship, of sharing, of giving more than you can afford to give—there is so much goodness in the world, so much that makes life worth living. Yesterday also showed me evil, sin, the destructive power of hatred. My Nigerian Christmas was a day of contrasts. Being human is about living amidst both good and evil; being Christian is about choosing the former.
We are letters from Christ, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.