Documentary reveals decisions of missionaries during 1966 Nigerian genocide

By Cliff Vaughn

The Disturbances” is our feature documentary film chronicling what Christian missionaries and pastors did amid tribal genocide in 1966 Nigeria. These missionaries, many of whom were U.S. citizens, faced unique circumstances abroad.

For the most part, they, themselves, were not targets of violence, but their humanity and Christian faith compelled them to be more than bystanders during atrocities. A complicating factor was that the tribal genocide was “political” in a sense, and Christian missionaries were to “stay out of politics” in Nigeria, their host country.

“You sense in a very real way that you’re aliens in a foreign land,” says Christian Reformed Church missionary Harvey Kiekover in the film. “And you respect your status as a foreigner. This is not your country, even though you’re horrified by what’s happening.”

Meddling could lead to revocation of one’s visa. Furthermore, it could jeopardize an entire denomination’s mission.

“We knew that there were people who were close up to the situation in a political sense, and if we said too much about what we had done, then questions would be raised about who did what, why, when and so forth,” says Southern Baptist missionary Bill Cowley in the film. “So we thought it was just prudent not to say anything about it.”

As Igbo tribe members were being eradicated from Northern Nigeria by extermination or expulsion, missionaries determined various courses of action.

Even when missionaries responded to immediate human need, or concocted a plan to hide or evacuate Igbos, there was yet another complicating factor: the presence of missionary kids, or MKs. Some MKs were kept in the dark about plans to save Igbos. Some MKs were involved, even offering medical and ministerial help to wounded and dying Igbos.

And further complicating all of this: Many of the MKs were living at a missionary boarding school in Jos, Nigeria — a location of significant violence — while their parents served in mission outposts hundreds of miles away.

Imagine: You are a missionary in Jos, responsbile for other people’s children, while other men, women and children are being slaughtered. You have gone to Nigeria to offer a Christian witness.

What do you do?

“The Disturbances” reveals the decisions of Christian missionaries in a time of individual and collective crisis. The stories are as varied as the people. Most of the stories, however, sat in silence for 50 years. Memories tucked away. Slides boxed up. Letters filed and buried.

For many missionaries and MKs, the initial silence became a habit. Trauma and fear of judgment mixed with both a perceived and, in many cases, real apathy on the part of fellow Christians back home. What specifically happened in 1966 began a long, slow public fade for these children, women and men.

But as our research deepened, we observed, paradoxically, that genocides are lively. They, themselves, subvert the intention. People may die but memories may not.

Our phone calls and visits yielded trips to closets, attics, basements — and recesses of the brain. Missionaries and their children had held onto things. Those personal materials and memories dovetailed with denominational and other archives as well as a larger body of research on genocide, Nigerian history and missions.

We were stunned to find so much material a half-century later. Perhaps we shouldn’t have been. Genocides are lively.

Memories of genocide in Nigeria survived the lack of social media then, as well as general reporting back in the United States that favored other topics, such as Vietnam, the space race and the Civil Rights Movement.

All these factors contributed to a public ignorance about this genocide — and how Christian missionaries behaved when confronted with it.

“The Disturbances” embodies, perhaps in an odd way, that saying from an ancient Hebrew teacher about “a time to be silent and a time to speak.”

As such, it is time to listen.

Cliff Vaughn is co-producer/director of “The Disturbances.”