50 years as missionaries: The story of the American couple in Nigeria

 

By Gbenga Osinaike

Though Americans by birth and nationality, Gary and Emma-Lou Maxey who both came to Nigeria in 1982 with their four children perhaps have not spent 13 straight years in the US since they got married because of their commitment to missions. They they have had to travel out of the US doing missions in Latin America and then Nigeria.

The first place of call for the duo was Mexico in Latin America. But then, their stay in Mexico was abrupt. They had to leave the country due to some face saving game played by the home church that sponsored them to the place as a result of a moral laxity of an older missionary. So they had to hurriedly leave the country to protect the reputation of the church in the country.

On their way back to the US with their young family they lost all material possessions they had ever acquired in life. Maxey had hired a trailer to carry their things from Mexico by road while he and his young family rode in a pick-up van. On their way they stopped for a brief visit at the St. Louis Zoo which according to him was on the road to the US. The vehicles were parked outside while they entered the zoo. By the time they emerged three hours later both the trailer and the pick-up van had disappeared. That was the first baptism of fire the Maxeys would face in their missionary journey.

The police came to the scene and helped them to a nearby bus station and were given enough money back to the US. They went back to the US with nothing; yet not losing sight of their commitment to missions in Latin America.

They stayed back in the US for some years during which Maxey undertook his graduate study programmes and also engaged in some pastoral work. But he still had his gaze on Latin America. God however had a different plan for him and his wife.  Earlier Maxey’s parents had visited Nigeria in the 70s and had brought reports about the country to the US. Maxey was often excited listening to the Nigerian story. “For two years he resisted what he felt was a temptation of the flesh…I always liked excitement and this Nigeria call sounded exciting”

But with time God spoke to him in clear terms and also spoke to his wife on the need for missions in Africa. By March 4 1982 they were in Nigeria in obedience to the call of God to march to the country. And they came with all the readiness they could muster to face life in the African continent despite the seeming impending risks.

And indeed, they have tales upon tales to tell of their 50 years as missionary couples out of which they have spent 36 years in Nigeria. They have stories about their experience with the weather, diverse sicknesses, the idiosyncrasies of the average Nigerian and their many dealings with Church leaders across the land.

For Maxey whose sole reason for coming to Nigeria was to establish a Bible school for pastors, Nigeria has turned out to be one of the best things that have happened to him and his family. Indeed, there is every reason to appreciate God since he came to this part of the world. While in Port Harcourt where he and his family first landed, he was able to start a Bible College to train pastors. Years after, they moved to Owerri, Imo State and began another Bible College known today as West Africa Theological Seminary. The seminary has since grown to be a formidable theological institution serving the entire west coast of Africa and indeed the Africa Continent.

But the story of the Maxeys is deeper than the seminary. It is the story of resilience. It is the story of courage. It is the story of a family who caught a vision and were ready to accomplish the vision even if it meant going into the den of the lion. Or how else do you explain a family who had been exposed to the best of life in the US but abandoned all that to live in the harsh environment called Nigeria?

In his book, “Confessions of a grateful Pilgrim”, Maxey tells the story of how he and his family prepared for the harsh life in Africa. He wrote, “I had talked about Nigeria for months with our kids, and they had no illusion that it would be easy. We had even done crazy stuff like deliberately living for months in the US without refrigerator so we could be prepared for the different life we imagined we might encounter in Africa”

Indeed that decision paid off or so it seemed. By the time they landed in Nigeria, they needed not to be told to go get a refrigerator. The heat according to Maxey was “sweltering and seemingly unrelenting. Most of the food was strange.” The viruses, mosquitoes, bacteria and other microbes played uninvited havoc with their bodies as noted by Maxey in the book.  They also had to contend with strange customs, epileptic power supply, absence of means of communication and several other new encounters.

Despite this unwholesome initial experiences the entire family had a positive mind. They were convinced that it was indeed God who sent them to Africa. The conviction notwithstanding, the Maxeys had to pay great price for daring to come to Africa. His wife was to first come down with a life threatening gastro-intestinal attack which came about as a result of the poor water condition.

It was that sickness that first exposed the family to the typical life in Africa. Several women of the church they were attending in Port Harcourt came to pray for her. They insisted she had her hair covered before prayers could be offered and began to pray some violent prayers shaking her body vigorously praying in the name of Jesus. She got well according to her husband as recorded in his memoirs. But still, few months after, she came down with malaria again. Life was gradually slipping out of her but God intervened again. In another trying situation they nearly lost their two-year old son to convulsion.

The entire family was to later take their turn in various kinds of ailments. Beyond the illnesses and bad weather condition, Maxey recounted how he faced personal dangers and how he would have been sent to the great beyond by men of the underworld. He recalled, “As I look back now I can count eight serious encounters with armed robbers in our over thirty five plus years in Nigeria. I have been shot at twice with the intent to kill. Many of our fellow missionaries have come and gone, and several have died violently on the field, but God has kept us alive today.”

But in all these trials, the gospel was being preached while labourers were being raised for the kingdom. In the midst of the seeming difficult situations his family experienced in Port Harcourt, Maxey was unrelenting in his desire to impact the Nigerian church. He experienced, and was part of 1983 and 84 revival in the country and could conveniently tell the story of the revival in Nigeria without blinking an eye. He has had cause to work with the players in the evangelical and orthodox Churches. He has also had cause to traverse many parts of Nigeria responding to the quest for holiness revival in the church.

The Maxeys however did not stay more than eight years in Port Harcourt. The Calvary College of Theology that Maxey began was kind of an appendage of the US church which they came from. They soon found out that because of denominational restrictions the church imposed on them it would be difficult for them to operate in cross cultural societies. They severed ties with the church but then had to move away from the CCT and become independent missionaries.

Their exit from Port Harcourt was not only dramatic but was full of intrigues which had best showed the other side of Nigerians to the Maxey. Though they had severed ties with the US church, it took more than 10 years after the decision before the Nigerians working with them could severe relationship. Maxey noted that the “The allurement of promised money from the US was obviously more important to some of the Nigerian leaders than keeping “problem” missionaries who were not toeing the legalistic line of the US financial backers.”

The US church where Maxeys came from had exhibited some legalism. “Women could never cut their hair or wear any kind of make-up or jewelry.  Television was absolutely forbidden. Women had to wear stockings. Men were not permitted to expose their bare legs and were expected to be completely clean-shaven. I heard later that the use of internet was proscribed unless in a building in one’s backyard.’ Said Maxey in his collection.

Though he left Port Harcourt in quite intriguing circumstances Maxey harboured no ill feeling. On the Bible College he left behind he writes, “CCT has remained a strong beacon for sound theological education ever since its establishment in 1982. I am proud of what continues to happen there and pray that God will continue to make it go and grow in coming years.”

The family moved on. And Owerri, Imo State was the next station of call. The desire to impart theological knowledge was still strong in Maxey. Shortly after his arrival in Owerri he started the Wesley International Bible College. It was so named not because it was a Methodist school but because of Maxey’s belief in the heritage of the great evangelical revival under John and Charles Wesley in 18th century England.

The work progressed gradually. This time people from different denominations began to show growing interest in the seminary which later bore the name West Africa Theological Seminary. It was in Imo State that Maxey began to have a clearer picture of the task ahead of him and the need to help rescue the sinking ship of the Nigerian church and indeed the Nigerian nation. He soon became burdened about the rising cases of corruption in Nigeria and the influx of the wealth and health teachings from the US. These twin factor of corruption in Nigeria and the bastardization of the gospel informed the setting up of the Congress on Christian Ethics in Nigeria. (COCEN)

The COCEN was Maxey’s way of strategically influencing Nigerians positively. He expressed hope that he would see a truly great Nigeria in his life’s time. He was consumed in the task of trying to find a lasting solution to corruption menace in Nigeria to the point that the seminary and his family suffered for it. It was in Imo State that he had one of his grueling encounters with armed robbers. As God would have it, attempts to shoot at him did not succeed.

He recalls one of the encounters he had at a convenience store in Owerri where he went to shop with two of his children. They had just bought soft drink and candy bar. As they attempted to enter their Peugeot 504 Station wagon car the robbers descended on them. “Miraculously (and I use the word deliberately), the guns on both sides of me jammed after the shooters made their first shot. Suddenly both gunmen were cursing shaking their guns, ejecting live shells, and trying repeatedly to clear their guns and shoot at me again. Yet try as they might, neither man could get off a second shot. If God in heaven ever intervened to save a human life it certainly happened that night.”

Despite the horrendous experiences, the Maxey’s had a great time in Owerri. They were in that part of the country for 12 years before their eventual movement to Lagos. The journey to Lagos turned out to be the most exciting and challenging time of their stay in Nigeria. Unfortunately while Maxey was lost in ministry his wife who had actively been involved in the work and had cooperated so well with him in Port Harcourt and Owerri was “beginning to reach the end of the rope in her struggle to address personal and marital issues she could no longer ignore.”

Emma-Lou, his wife perhaps was at the receiving end of all the moves and ministry exploits of her husband. She practically taught their four children at home in their early years and perhaps have had to carry a baggage of domestic challenges that was becoming unbearable. She could not bear the pain of paucity of funds for ministry work and several other challenges associated with ministry. The pain was taking a toll on her and she cleverly began to device ways of opting out of the marriage. There were instances she travelled to go and stay in the US over a long period of time.

Maxey remarked, “Those days have long since been covered by the blood of Jesus, and Emma Lou and I have fully forgiven each other. At last it was clear that Emma Lou was not coming home. She was gone and I woke up to the fact that she might not come back. She could not see any other way out. She had simply given up hope. As strange as it seemed, she was even starting to talk about divorce, strongly encouraged by one of her brothers.”

In the midst of the confusion their children who had been solidly grounded in the Lord were interceding for them and hoping that one day all will be well. Maxey on his own part had realized his own failings and was waiting on God for a resolution. But his wife was in the US with the divorce threat. But the Lord intervened eventually. The legal divorce ended up, lasting barely three months.

He wrote, “At the end God brought great healing to both of us. Even though in much confusion, Emma Lou had continued to be open to God much sooner than I expected she phoned me and asked if she could come home. I was elated.”

But Maxey came off with huge lessons that forever would remain with him. He had noted in his memoirs, “After more than twenty years of relatively good marital relationship…Emma Lou and I went through a lengthy period of sheer marital nightmare. That it all ended well is nothing short of a miracle.”

They were able to survive the downside of their marriage because of the prayers of the saints and the numerous counsel that they had to undergo. The healing took a while but they came off stronger and better. They have since deployed the experience they had during the crisis to help several other couples.

Gary, Emma Lou and their four great children have no doubt been a tremendous blessing to Nigeria. Though this couple may not be known by the vast majority of Nigerians, they have no doubt turned out to be a great influencer of lives. The West Africa Theological Seminary has become a fortress sort of, serving the entire body of Christ in Africa.

As it is the duo have taken Nigeria as home. They have both made public confession of their love for Nigeria. Both of them hope to continue to live and die in Nigeria. Maxey puts it this way, “I hope to live and die in Nigeria and I do not plan to die idle as long as there is reasonable strength in my body and active brain cells in my head.”

Indeed, he and his wife, though now septuagenarians are still working and actively involved in impartation of knowledge. Gary Maxey in the last four years have churned out about seven books or more. The most widely accepted of his books is the ‘Seduction of the Nigerian Church’ which has sold in thousands since it was released. He had also chronicled his experiences in several other books. His wife too has been actively involved in writing. Her book “learn to read from the Bible” which was put together for children have been a tremendous blessing to hundreds of people.

They have godly seeds. Their first child, Becky the second Rachael, third Andrew and Onesimo have imbibed positive aspects of African values and culture. His second child married an African. Maxey notes, “The best news about our children is that they grew up knowing the reality of Jesus in a way I did not when I was a child.”

The story of the Maxeys are best captured by the head of the family himself Dr. Gary Maxey in his book: Confessions of a grateful pilgrim…reflections @70

About Gbenga Osinaike

Gbenga Osinaike is a 1992 graduate of Dramatic Arts from Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria. He specialised in Play-writing. He also holds a Master of Arts Degree from the University of Lagos. He was Assistant Editor in Punch Newspapers from where he resigned having worked for 13 years to start Church Times Nigeria in March 2007. He is currently the Nigeria representative of US based Institute of Global Church Studies and also the Publicity Secretary of the Lagos, Nigeria Chapter of the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria. He is married and blessed with two children.

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