I will live and die in Nigeria – American Missionary


From the first time Dr Gary Maxey, founder of West African Theological Seminary (WATS), Lagos, stepped on the shores of Nigeria in 1982 with his wife and four children, he has been enthralled by the many potentials of the nation. He speaks with Sunday Oguntola on the thrills and challenges of living as an American in Nigeria as well as his undying passion for his country of residence. Excerpts:
AT what point did you decide to come to Nigeria? You know I have been here for 35 years. My parent came here in 1978 for a six-week visit to teach some pastors in Port-Harcourt and that is what really sparked my own interest.
At that point, my wife and I were missionaries in Latin America but my father was so excited about Nigeria. Eventually, God used that to bring us to Nigeria in 1982.
What was your first impression on arrival?

I came with my wife and our four children, who were relatively young. The youngest was two years old. It was a very exciting experience for us. We were already cross-cultural missionaries in Mexico and Central America. So mission life was not new to us.
In fact, we landed and moved straight to Port Harcourt. We were in Port Harcourt for seven years and moved to Imo State for 12 years and later to Lagos 16 years ago.
We were invited originally by The Bible Missionary Church of Nigeria to establish a Bible College in Port Harcourt called Calvary College of Theology, which we did. We moved to Owerri where we first established the West African Theological Seminary (WATS).
How much do you feel Nigerian?
Of course, I do. This is where we live. Like I say we go live here, we go die here. There is really nowhere else to go at this point. We can move back to the United States but our work is here and 95 percent of our friends are here. We have left the States so long that we don’t have much friends there again. We have our four children in the US but they live in four different states. So, why move? What’s there elsewhere that we cannot get here? For us, this is where to be, really. We feel very much at home here. We are comfortable here.
One of your daughters is even married to a Nigerian…
… Yes, that is very correct. Our second daughter is married to a Nigerian/Cameroonian. His mother is from Cameroon but father is Nigerian.
You had no objection whatever when she introduced him?
There was no objection at all from us. The question was whether she was going to be comfortable in a cross-cultural marriage and we had little doubt about that because she had spent a lot of time here to cope. It is a very happy marriage and they have done very well.
What excites you most about Nigeria?
Nigeria is at the heart of the most significant Christian growth on the globe. In fact Africa, as a whole, is the only continent in the history of the world to become majority Christian in one century. The projection is that by 2050, there will be 1.2billion Christians in the continent, which is more than double what we have now and Nigeria is really at the heart of it.
Nigeria is the giant of Africa in terms of Christian growth and other areas of growth. So, this is the place to be. And there is nothing more important to do than to train leadership.

So, you feel at home with the culture here?
Of course, we do. Missionaries are by nature are supposed to be bi-cultural. We eat the food and do everything most Nigerians do. Perhaps, because there are many languages in Nigeria, we haven’t been able to master any of them.
But I speak a lot of Pidgin English. We have always taught students from a multiplicity of cultures and languages and there is not much compelling reason to learn one of them more than the other.
What has made you stay for 35 years despite the challenges here?
First and foremost, it is the call of God. We have the strong belief that this is where God wants us to be. Aside from that, there are a whole lot of reasons why Nigeria is a great place. The people are industrious. The people are intelligent. The students are among the best in the world.
There is a very strong drive for religion and God. So, there is whole long list of reasons to be here really for us. So, there is just a lot of positive things for the country. But again being where God wants you to be is always a compelling reason.
My father-in-law used to say there is no promotion from the centre of God’s will. This means if I am where God wants me to be, moving anywhere else is a demotion.
You have lived in Port Harcourt, Owerri and Lagos. How easy has it been relating with Nigerians?
You know you have to live in Lagos to appreciate what Lagos is really. I have a whole lot of friends outside Lagos who dread coming over to Lagos, let alone living here. The last thing they want to do is be in Lagos. But after a while you fall in love with the place and you get used to this.
The potholes, the go-slow and all the problems, you put up with all the inconveniences. This is the place to be. It is the largest Black city in the world and it is great to be here.
You are excited being here?
Yes, we are. This is the place to be.
You are at home with Nigerian attires?
Yes, I am. I wear them a lot many times.
How do you feel when you are in them?
How do you feel wearing what you are wearing? I mean you feel you have a cloth on and that is it. I am not a fashion stickler.
How about Nigerian meals?
I take all of them, I mean. I enjoy eating them. For me, amala and ewedu is the best. But my wife will say pounded yam is just excellent. But food is just food. It is just to keep you going. It is not what life is all about.

You should be naturalised after 35 years here, shouldn’t you?
Well, that is the sad story really. I have been trying for the past four years but because of the corruption and all the nonsense that goes on in this country, the process is not finished. It’s taking a long time.
Have you been denied or something?
No, I haven’t but the process has dragged on and on. You know how things are in Nigeria. Your file gets to one office and wouldn’t move on except you do what they want you to do. And the whole thing gets delayed. Sometimes ago, we were asked to pay N1million for some nonsense and we said ‘no, we won’t pay bribe.’
It is just that in Nigeria, the government is not set up to do those things smoothly and quickly. So, that is what has been happening.
But that doesn’t stop you from loving Nigeria, does it?
I hope it will be finished some day. We are tired of the long delay. It’s not something we really have to have. We can spend the rest of our days as residents but since we don’t plan to live anywhere else, we preferred to be Nigerian citizens. But as it is, let’s get on with it.
Would you like to be buried here when the time comes?
Sure, I will. I am here and there is no reason to be somewhere else. I have works to do here. So, there is no other place attracting me. There are more beautiful places. There are more attractive places but that is not what life is all about. Life is all about pleasing God.
Do your friends outside the country try to talk you to return home?
No, because my friends outside the country know what I am doing here and they are appreciative. They are very supportive of the work here. I don’t think anyone has ever said maybe I should give it up and be somewhere else.
Obviously, my wife and I will love to be closer to our children and grandchildren. That is probably the single most difficult issue for us but at the same time, we have hopes that one day some of them might consider moving over here to join us.
But life is not about living close to your family. There are always prices to pay for whatever one is doing. Being separated from our family is a price to pay. What grandparents will not want to be with their grandchildren? We get to see them once in a year when we travel for vacation.
What do you find most frustrating about Nigeria?
What shall I say? If you are in a go-slow for more than three hours, that is not a happy day. But I don’t think much of the frustrations. You just put up with whatever comes your way. We are able to live here and do our works.
You live in whatever circumstances you have. You put up with the inconveniences they might be. They are the not the issues. Those are minor things.
For Nigerians who think they must travel out to make it big, what will you be telling them?
It all has to do with your values and sense of direction. I think it is absolutely unreasonable, if not crazy for Nigerians to long to be in the US. The US is a decadent society. It is rapidly losing its Christian foundations. The United States is filled with progressive immoralities, all kinds of absurdities. My children are dreading raising their kids in the US.
Why on earth will a sensible Nigerian want to move over there? Is it so you could have light for 24 hours? Is that all life is all about? Is life all about having light for 24 hours in a day? It just doesn’t make sense to me.
If I have any message to Nigerians, especially Christians, it would be to forget all those nonsense. God put you here for a purpose. I know several Nigerians in the American Diaspora and I can confirm most of them are as unhappy as they were here. On the contrary, most of them are trapped there.
Their children are losing their African, Christian values. Their children are becoming homosexuals to the dismay of their parents and they feel trapped there. So, I just say wake up and stop bemoaning the fact that Nigeria is difficult. We all know it is difficult here.
In my case, I can leave Nigeria tomorrow if I want to. I could live in physical comfort but that is not what life is about…
…What then is life all about?
Life is about finding and living in the centre of God’s will. You will to find what God wants you to be and become that. Obviously, I can’t discover that until I get in harmony about God.
Life is not about physical comfort. It is not about material success. You could make it all about that but I am convinced you won’t be happy at all until you find God.
Which African values do you find interesting?
Africans don’t value pre-marital sex and homosexual marriage. Africans don’t disrespect their parents or marry without strong family ties. So, those are strong values that Africans should hold on tightly to. Unfortunately, they are losing them to the charming deceits from America.
What informed your current book The Seduction of the Nigerian Church?
I have written several books but this came out of my burden for revival in the church. It is the second of the four-book series I plan on revival. The first was Capturing the lost vision: Can Nigerian greatest revival live again?
I came to this country with a burden for a reviving of the church. In 1983/84, we saw revival at a massive level after the civil war. But I realised that the biggest hindrance to revival in the church is that we have had accumulation of errors, theological false teachings that have swept across the church and made it impossible for us to experience revival. We must first have reformation before we can have revival. Now, we can proceed from there to know how we can get rid of some of these poisons out of our system.
Could it be you were on a fault-finding mission in the church with the book?
The purpose is not to find faults but to correct errors among us. That is part of our Christian responsibility to confront with truth. Unfortunately because there is a large spread of theological training and education among church leaders, most of them have fallen prey to these enticing, false teachings, most of them from overseas.
America has dumped a lot of its theological garbage into Africa and because leaders do not have adequate theological training, they have innocently swallowed it. These are good-hearted leaders without enough theological depth to reject it.
WATS has always been in financial strait. How have you been coping?
Any non-denominational theological institution is naturally on its own for funding. It is extremely challenging to support a viable interdenominational institution. It is tough to get people to support it.
The history of the school has always been a history of struggle. But we have continued to do whatever God wants us to do. The struggles have not stopped us from doing what we should do every year of our existence. At any given point, we are in dire needs of financial support to move on to the next level. But God has always provided at every point.
What much more support will you require to take WATS to the next level?
You know I told you there is a projection that Christians in the continent will be 1.2 billion by 2050. That is remarkable because it will constitute 38 percent of Christianity in the globe. It means somehow the African church has to find a way to train 15million pastors in the next few years.
Even if all our theological institutions run at full stretch, we won’t be able to meet 20 percent of that need. So, theological educators have to think outside the box on how to meet that requirement. So, WATS wants to run a virtual campus, which means putting our entire curriculum online so that students can participate in theological training without being physically present.
We are working on a plan now to have one million students online by the middle of the century. It sounds crazy but that is what we will do by His grace. We want to also expand our physical campus where we can have 10,000 resident students.
It will take a lot of faith in God. It will come. It will be there by God’s grace.
Some Christians have pointed out theological education has turned many pastors more academic and not spiritual. Do you agree?
That is not true about our school. People do not say our graduates are academically sound and spiritually inferior. The reason is very simple. We place strong emphasis on spiritual formation. We believe to train the head and not the heart is just wrong. So, we have our curriculum to see to that.
But how come the biggest churches in the nation are not run by theologically trained pastors?
That is part of the problems why I wrote that book. We have been led astray by people without theological, biblical training. Our challenge is how to get theological training to those kinds of people, which is why we came up with the idea of a virtual campus.
I have great admiration for someone like Pastor Sam Adeyemi, who despite not being able to get residential theological training has benefitted a lot from tutelage of properly trained, theological sound mentors.
He has shown that by going to study at the Regent University in the United States. It is not good when a large chunk of our large church pastors do not have theological training. The African church has to correct that mistake.
What can the American church learn from Nigeria and vice versa?
Certainly, Africa has a lot to teach America about evangelism and prayer warfare. I admit we have had a deterioration of the prayer in the Nigerian church but generally speaking the Nigerian church is a much more praying and evangelizing church.
The American church can teach some issues like organisation and church administration as well as corporate governance.
What would you like to change in an average Nigeria, if it were within your powers?
Well, I will like them to get more serious with God and stop chasing the charms of America. They should get real, stay back and develop this big nation with a lot of potentials.
What has Nigeria changed in you? What have you learnt being here in 35 years?
I don’t know how to answer that question. I am here. I think I have learnt how to be patient. You can’t be in traffic for three hours and survive without patience.


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