Pastor Henry Odeneye. President, Harvest Point Ministries Inc. is not your typical Yoruba man. He was born in Jos, Nigeria; spent his early childhood there before his parents migrated to Ghana where he had his early education. So he did not have the privilege of living among his kinsmen and thus could not speak the Yoruba language fluently. Up till the time he came back to Nigeria from Ghana, he still could not string a clean sentence in Yoruba. But he could speak Hausa and two Ghanaian languages: Twi and Fanti and then the English Language.
A professional marketer by training and consultant to many organisations Odeneye has since been a member of The Apostolic Church Nigeria. He rose to become an elder in the Church. That was where his proficiency in Yoruba was put to the test. The church would not allow him to speak English on the pulpit while preaching. His wife, Deaconess Clara Odeneye however came to his rescue. He taught him the basics of the Yoruba language. Pastor Odeneye also went to a Bible school at Ota Nigeria, where one of the lecturers, a former herbalist who had become born again, exposed him to some of the nuances of the language.
Unknown to Odeneye who is two years away from his 70th birthday, God was preparing him for a greater task. In the year 2000, he had cause to travel to the United States with the whole of his family. It was there God spoke to him to begin a ministry where Yoruba would be the means of communication. It was a tall order. But for close to 18 years since he obeyed the heavenly call, its been from glory to glory.
Odeneye holds A Ph.D. from the Christian Leadership University, New York USA, and is also, a certified and licensed counselor with a Master’s Degree in Missions and Indigenous church planting. He shares the story of his ministry with Church Times Nigeria. It is quite revealing. Below are excerpts:
When I heard you use the Yoruba language to preach in the US I was taken aback. How did it all start?
I remember travelling to Brazil some years back while in Nigeria. I was working with a company called Afro Technical Services Nigeria Ltd. I was the general sales manager of the company. We had some products from Brazil and I was asked to go to the factory in Brazil to get some information on the product as the sales manager.
On getting to Rio in Brazil; one of the immigration officers saw my passport and wondered if I was a Yoruba man from Nigeria. I said yes. He then told me he was learning the Yoruba language. He also told me he was an Ifa worshiper. When I got to my hotel the holy spirit began to speak to me on what the Yoruba language is being used for.
He reminded me that the Arabic Language is Synonymous with Islam, the Hebrew Language is synonymous with Judaism and now, it seems the Yoruba Language is synonymous with Ifa worship. That got me thinking.
The Lord then made me realize that the Christian faith played a critical role in the evolution of the Yoruba Language. He reminded me of the enormous work done by Ajayi Crowther who gave the language the alphabet in the first place. All this happened in 1997. That was when the Lord began to tell me of the need to employ the language on a global scale and make it a language that would be used for the propagation of the gospel.
By that time I had been an elder in The Apostolic Church Nigeria. I was invited to minister at a programme in the church in 1999. While in the hotel room during the programme, the Lord gave me a clear vision of my ministry. He told me my ministry would be in the US. I remember then that Akeem Olajuwon was in Houston. Texas I began to have a picture of being in that part of the world. The district pastor of my church then confirmed that my ministry would be abroad. As God would have it, the opportunity came for me and my family in the Year 2000 to travel to the US and it happened that we are in Houston Texas. So it became clear that I had work on my hand.
Did you now start the ministry immediately?
Well, I had to get the necessary consent from the church authority. Incidentally, The TACN would not allow any church to use Yoruba to preach in the US for obvious reasons. I went to my pastor then and told him about what God was asking me to do. I spoke with Pastor Samuel Jemigbon, the then Chairman of the Lagos, Western/Northern Area (LAWNA) Territory and Vice-President of The Apostolic Church Nigeria.. He presented the matter to the executive council of the church and they approved it.
When Pastor Jemigbon came to the US, he asked me to stand up in the midst of the congregation and said the Lord had led me to do ministry in the Yoruba language. He said it’s a tough ministry but since it is the Lord’s work, it would succeed. I was given the approval to run the ministry a year after I came to the US. That was quite unprecedented in the history of the TACN. The church does not usually approve of independent ministry before that time. But it acquiesced to mine
So what was the first hurdle you had to cross doing ministry in the Yoruba language in a land where English is the official language and where the Yoruba population is insignificant?
Let me confess that those I met in the US who were servants of God gave me the needed support. But I remember a pastor who warned me that he had tried it and failed but that he wished I would succeed. But the fact that I got the official approval of my church, The Apostolic Church Nigeria was just what I needed. That gave me the needed energy to express my calling. Some of the pastors said they had used English to do ministry and had not succeeded; wondering how I would succeed using Yoruba.
The greatest challenge I would have had then was that I was more fluent in Hausa than Yoruba. I was born in the north and then my father moved to Ghana. When the Lord was preparing me for this ministry I did not know. I lived in Ghana for 8 years, I speak Fanti and Twi very well. When I came back to Nigeria I served in Maiduguri, Kaduna and then Lagos. I used to preach in English but when I got to Lagos I was ordained an elder and I was asked to preach in Yoruba. It became a big challenge.
I managed to pass Yoruba in my school certificate exams. When I was told I had to preach in Yoruba, I had to start learning Yoruba from the scratches. My wife took me through the basics. I also attended a Bible school in Ota, Ogun State and was fortunate to have a lecturer who was a former Babalawo (witch doctor)
He told us many things about Ifa and he exposed us to the depth of the Yoruba Language. There are many sayings in the Yoruba language that look like incantations but are not really incantations but deep wisdom expressions. I was learning all that and I did not know God was preparing me for the US Yoruba Language ministry.
62 universities in the US teach Yoruba as a course
From your experience so far, what is your assessment of the Yoruba Language
It is a very rich language. It is unfortunate that we don’t value it. UNESCO confirmed that the language is on the verge of extinction. If UNESCO makes that assessment, then we have to be careful. The good thing is that the language is being appreciated globally. Presently 62 universities in the US teach Yoruba as a course. unfortunately, I read somewhere that one government agency recommended to the government they should forget indigenous languages and not make them compulsory.
Meanwhile, the Brazillian government is asking for technical support from Nigeria to come and teach the language. In New York today, the Oluwo of Eledi Ifa is a Mexican. He speaks Yoruba fluently. He learnt Yoruba because of Ifa. In the California prison, they now accommodate an Ifa priest to counsel prisoners alongside the Christian and Muslim chaplains. The danger is that the prisoners will be indoctrinated in Ifa. I have nothing against that but I too should be able to use the language to win souls to Christ. The Yoruba language is no doubt a very rich language.
You said something earlier that Bishop Ajayi Crowther gave life to the Yoruba language by giving it the alphabet and structure. How strong is the language in reaching souls for Christ?
In one of the endorsements, we received I remember Bishop David Oyedepo saying we should all go back and learn our native languages. There is no language you can express yourself in prayers that will be as effective as your native language. One thing I have found out is that the acceptability of the Yoruba Language in my sphere of influence in the US is great.
There are some expressions that cannot be captured adequately in the English language. When it comes to prayers the confidence in prayers has to do with the ability to express yourself. That is where your native tongue comes in.
Some people deploy incantations in the name of praying in Yoruba. How do we draw the line?
We have to be careful. There are people who capitalise on the Yoruba language to do evil on the pulpit. But that does not mean the language itself is the problem. Someone told me Jowo which is a plea from whatever angle has an occult connotation. But because there was no Christianity when the language was evolving the Ifa worshipers used the word for incantation. Edabo, Edakun are occultic words. But that should not stop us from using it in day to day conversation and even during our worship because it is part of the Yoruba language.
But then if you want to use the language to preach, you have to be careful you don’t resort to the incantation. Using idiomatic expressions and deep Yoruba wisdom is different from an incantation. There is a thin line though.
Gospel is not primarily for prosperity
I once watched the interview of a young man born to parents who attend Deeper Life Bible Church who now promotes Ifa worship. It seems the traditional religion is waking up from what he said in the interview. How will you react to this?
The weapons of our warfare are not carnal. Most of the time pastors approach the gospel from the point of prosperity. They tell people to come to Jesus and they would prosper. That leads us to problems. But we should approach the gospel from the point of view that anybody without Christ is doomed. We should not present prosperity as the basis for people to come to Christ.
The way of Ifa cant lead people to salvation. There was a sister we preached to some years back. She converted from Islam. Six months after conversion, she had an accident and lost one of her legs. I was one of the leaders who went to counsel this sister in the hospital. When we got there, before I could say a word, she started singing that she was not bothered if her name was no longer in this physical world but that her joy was that her name is in the book of life. She knew the essence of salvation and the accident did not affect her faith. Today, this sister is doing fine in the faith.
Some have said the Christian religion took away the Yoruba values. How do you address this mindset in the light of your ministry focus?
People say that because many people were given Christian names at baptism. But that is understandable because the white missionaries were trying to dissociate us from the idolatrous background we had and ensure we start on a clean slate. So people who were bearing names that had to do with idols were advised to change their names to names relevant to the Christian faith.
But then they took our akara and gave us cake. They took akamu and gave us custard. They came with a superior culture so to say. The other way to look at it however is that they even allowed those idolaters to come with their emblems of worship to church. The irony of the whole thing now is that some of our fathers in faith have imbibed the western culture without being forced to do so. There are churches where church workers are not allowed to dress in native attire. We agree that the whites tried to impose their culture on us. Now that they are no more with us, why are we still aping their dress sense and culture?
The extreme I see in our end is that some pastors in the name of staying faithful to Yoruba culture are into rituals in the name of prayers. They will do miniature coffins and read psalms into it saying they are trying to avert death over some people. That is not in the Bible. It should be discouraged. From our own end, we try to promote values that are Biblical from the Yoruba standpoint. For instance, we promote meaningful Yoruba names. I have given a lot of African Americans in the US Yoruba names at their naming ceremony because the names have meanings.
Let’s talk about faith extenders like the use of oil, mantle and candle to pray. What is your understanding of this trend? Some people believe it is a fallout of our native way of worship?
I have nothing against the use of elements as points of contact. People were used to emblems before they became Christians, the argument is that they need something to replace what they were used to.
But that should not be a doctrine. The Christian should mature to the point of doing away with those elements. People have come to ask me to sell oil because others do it. But I won’t allow that. There has to be a limit to faith extenders. We have to grow believers to the point of holding to the word of God.
Harvest Point Ministries and Dagunduro Prayer Family
Your ministry is about 18 years in the US. What is the progress like?
God has been good to us. Harvest Point Ministries is the mother of the Dagunduro Prayer Family. It is a prayer ministry that holds every month. We saw the need and started the Yoruba Christian fellowship on Sunday. We don’t interpret to English. The fellowship has been growing.
It was when we started the programme that we discovered that some Yoruba speaking population especially mothers who come to take care of their grandchildren who are qualified to be citizens of the US could do their qualifying test in Yoruba.
The test was usually in English. But the Chinese are allowed to do their test in Mandarin their native language, Spanish, do theirs in their language. The Vientnamins also use their language. So we had to make a case for the Yoruba speaking population.
We approached the govt of the US that we want the Yoruba population who can’t use English very well to do their qualifying test to become US citizens in Yoruba. The US government agreed. But they monitored the process. So, we were able to achieve that feat. The Yoruba language is the first language in Nigeria to get that privilege.
We helped our people to get the covid-19 vaccine. We have been involved in a lot of social engineering. Because of our activities, the then Mayor of HoustonTexas declared December 6 as Harvest Point Ministries Dagunduro Day. That is a milestone achievement I must confess. It’s now left for us to celebrate that day in-house It shows the extent to which the Yoruba language has been accepted in Houston Texas.
Talking about Dagunduro, I have this feeling it’s about this warfare prayer we pray in Nigeria. Is that what Dagunduro is all about?
We were in a prayer meeting when God asked us to institute a prayer programme; that the programme will be called Dagunduro. God said I am God who stops a raging battle. There is war every day around the Christian. You either fight to protect what you have, fight to recover what the devil has taken from you or you fight to get what God has given you. We are in a world of war. If somebody is crying it’s only the person who does not cry that can tell the person not to cry. And God is that person. The programme came by divine injunction.
(Sunday Odeleke Media relations contact of Harvest Point Ministries made this remark)
Texas is the state that has one of the largest Nigerian population. The Dagunduro programme holds last weekend of every month. Houston used to be known for parties. But then because of the programme, which is also held on weekends, people advise themselves not to fix parties on the last weekend of the month if they want people to attend. This is because the Dagundoro programme holds on the last weekend of the month and it has ignited the interest of a lot of people.)
Many people think life is sweet in the US. Do people still need to pray the fall down and die kind of prayers we pray in Nigeria?
The more we keep courtship within marriage the more we keep marriage out of the court. So is it with prayers. Some prayed so hard to get their visas. But beyond the visas, there are other gates to open. You need citizenship, green card. In between. Life itself is filled with battles. You need the grace of God to wake up alive.
There are some battles that are peculiar to certain places. Many people have been wasted by people who use gun indiscriminately. But then, comfort could also portend danger. People come here and live anyhow. They have access to credit cards and think they don’t need to pray. The truth however is that the more comfort you enjoy, the closer you must be to the Lord. The greatest battle we need to fight on a daily basis is the battle of the lust of the flesh. So, Dagunduro was instituted so we could pray against all the odds in our lives.
So what has been the testimonies so far?
The testimonies abound. God has given our ministry the grace to attract great ministers of God without much effort. God has also been good, we have witnessed many miracles. There was the case of a woman who had a mental problem, she was brought to the ministry. Immediately the person who brought her pointed her attention to the signboard of the ministry, she calmed down. That was before I prayed for her. I prayed for her and we gave her some food. After eating she slept off. The person who brought her said she had not slept for three days before that day. To me, that is a big testimony. There have also been testimonies of changed lives and many marriages restored.
I was to name the baby of a well-known gospel artist in Houston. In the course of the naming, the father of the baby slumped. We prayed for him before he was rushed to the hospital. It was not long he was brought back from the hospital to join us in the naming. There have been several other divine interventions in the lives of people that time will fail me to mention.
How Nigerians are doing in the US
How are Yorubas and by extension Nigerians faring in Texas?
Yorubas and indeed Nigerians are doing well. Unfortunately, the 419 side of it is what the world proclaim. Our children are making their marks in academics. In the medical field, our children are tops. In industry, we are not doing badly. But I think we need to put a limit to the extreme approach to social life. The culture of spraying dollar notes is pervasive here. They will spray the money that they now have to sweep the money to collate it. They now use a toy gun to shoot money into the air in the name of partying. This is giving us a negative name. It is presenting us to the public as people who do not have regard for money.
(Deacon Sunday Odeleke notes: The only thing that is caving into the Yoruba community and indeed the Nigerian community in the US is the culture of divorce and separation. It is beginning to gain ground but God has used Pastor Odeneye to bring succour to many homes. Pastor Odeneye relates well with the youths and elders. God will continue to use the ministry to correct some of these anomalies.
What is the future like for Harvest Point Ministries?
There are greater things ahead. We are currently in partnership with some schools to give theological instructions to pastors in their local languages. Some pastors preach well in the Yoruba language but then when it comes to going back for theological education they do so in English. So I discovered the need for theological education in their native language. I work with a ministry in the US that has been able to translate the books and resources of great ministers of the gospel like TL Osborn, Reinhard Bonke and a host of others into 52 languages in video format.
In Nigeria, we established a school of ministry where theological education is done in both English and Yoruba. Our vision is to equip people in their own language so they could impact their congregation.
We also have such school in the Benin Republic where pastors are being taught in French, their native language and Yoruba. We also have a school of ministry in Tanzania where Swahili is used for theological education for the first time. We have one in Uganda too. We will be having one in Mexico too. We have a missionary mandate to reach the world with the gospel and to spread theological education to church leaders.
You are 68 and you still have your eyes on the world for missions. What is the inspiration?
The essence of my being alive is to proclaim the goodness of God. I have been in the business world and doing exploits. But now, I want to devote the whole of my life to spread the gospel. I gave my life to Christ at the age of 16 and I have been with him ever since. No other life matters to me than the life of the kingdom. As God would have it, my class teacher, Mrs Dada who led me to Christ is alive today and still on fire for Christ. So I have no excuse but to continue to do God’s bidding till l breathe my last.