Yisa, Elijah Abubakar
Elijah Abubakar Yisa’s life and ministry can be likened to that of the brave biblical prophets who dared kings, refusing to be intimidated by threats of death and torture. Yisa was born in 1946 in Katamba Bologi, which is in the Edati Local Government Area of Niger State, in Nigeria, into the family of Ndalashe Bake and Gog Zduma Bake, who were both Muslims. They had two boys, and Elijah Yisa was the youngest.
Education, Secular Work and Ministerial Positions
Elijah Yisa lost his parents at a very tender age, and was taken to his Christian uncle, Baba Daniel Kolo. His uncle preferred that he go to school, while his older brother was asked to farm. He attended Local Education Authority Primary School, Enagi, Niger State, from 1957 to 1960. He was also enrolled in Koranic school while in Enagi. Later on, he graduated to Senior Primary School at Kutigi, and he was also fortunate to attend St. John’s Anglican Church, where he accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. He was baptized by the Rt. Rev. Segun, the resident pastor, who later confirmed him as a member of the church. At a later date, he attended Bida Teachers College (BTC) in Bida, Niger State, from 1967 to 1971. He married Millicent Amina on December 19, 1977.
After completing his education at Bida Teachers College, he taught for two years at the Government Senior Secondary School, Kutigi, Lavun local Government Area. After that, Yisa felt called into the Christian ministry, so he enrolled in the Theological College of Northern Nigeria at Bukuru, in Plateau State, from 1973 to 1977, where he graduated with a Diploma in Theology. He was ordained as a deacon by the Church of Nigeria, Anglican Communion, on July 3, 1977, and as a priest on December 18 of the same year. His first assignment was St. John’s Anglican Church, Mokwa, Niger State, from 1977 to 1979, after which he served at All Saints Anglican Church, Samaru, Zaria, Kaduna State, from 1980 to 1986. He was transferred to St. John’s Anglican Church, Kutigi, Niger State, from 1986 to 1993, where he became a Rev. Canon. From there he was moved to St. Peter’s Anglican Church, Doko, where he became an Archdeacon, serving from 1993 to 1998. From Doko he was transferred to St. John’s Anglican Church, Bida from 1998 to 2000. When Bida Diocese was created, he was moved to Kutigi for the second time, and he was there from 2000 to 2002. He was then once more relocated to Bida, at St. Matthew’s Anglican Church, where he stayed for about two years, from 2002 to 2004. In 2004, he was again transferred to St. John’s Anglican Church, Bida, as a Bishop’s Assistant, Diocesan Administrator, Missioner, and Hospital Chaplain, from 2004 to 2006.
Contributions to Christian Ministry
Yisa’s specific ministry and vision was to do evangelism among Muslims. As a Muslim convert, he desired to preach to other Muslims so that they too might be part of the kingdom of God through Jesus Christ. After receiving his theological training, he did not have the intention of being a pastor in a local church. However, there was a shortage of priests at that time, so he became a resident local church pastor.
His passion for evangelistic teamwork led him to include his family and every church in which he served in that work. He always made it an important activity in all the churches, believing that after he left, those churches would continue evangelizing. He turned some Sundays into evangelism days: during Sunday worship, he would organize outreaches within the town and visit the homes of people who did not go to church. Some people in certain villages could not make it to church for Sunday worship and mid-week fellowship, and they suffered from a lack of transportation from villages where church establishment was proving to be difficult because of religious intolerance. He noticed this problem when he was in Bida, and this led to the establishment of St. Matthew’s Church there. He developed an interest in getting to know people and in having personal relationships with the members of the churches in which he served. His approach was to get close to people so that he could meet their needs and introduce them to Christ. He often said “It is when you get close to people that you learn about their problems and [find] possible solutions.” He was very open to all, and was unafraid of robbers who might want to use his kind gestures as an opportunity to rob him. He would give people free rides in his car, whether he knew them or not, in the aim of making Christ known to them.
Hospital visitation was very important to Yisa, and he took the time to visit the sick and to pray for them, whether he knew them or not, as a means of sharing the gospel of Christ. In fact, he was engaged in hospital ministry before he became the chaplain for the diocese. When he was in Doko, he paid the hospital bills of [some of] the poor and the less privileged, and sensitized his church to this need. He was not interested in the enjoyment of the material things or gains of this world.
He made it a point of duty to go to the surrounding villages to preach the Gospel. From his church base in Zaria, Kaduna State, he was ministering to people in villages like Raba near Mokwa, Manyisa, Sekiwa, Batagi, Kupafu, Sabo-Yeregi, and Mani in Katsina State. There were converts in some of these villages, and some of them served as open doors for subsequent evangelists and as a form of preparation for receiving the good news. A good number of new converts preferred to be silent or secret believers, fearing that their village heads or immediate family heads might inflict cruel reprisal, torture, and excommunication on them. Some of these same converts feared diabolical attacks from former religious fanatics. Yisa was also involved in follow-up missions to many of these villages that converts came from. One of his strategies for village outreach or evangelism was to use television or video, or medical personnel, singers, or others who would be lodged with the inhabitants of the target village. Some places, like Maisaje, in Niger State, were being visited on weekends. He also became interested in children, and a school was established there with the help of some individuals who had caught the same vision.
As a pastor, Yisa was not interested in having a large congregation, and he believed in opening another branch church whenever a congregation grew to 300 members. For example, when he was in Doko, Bida, in Niger State, and Zaria in Kaduna State, he started St. Matthew Anglican Church, Bida, as a branch church. He believed that if a congregation did not exceed three hundred members, it could be adequately cared for and reached by pastoral work outside the pulpit. He thought that in churches of that size or smaller, shepherding could have a direct impact on the lives of the members, because he strongly believed in using the elders of the church as co-workers in Christian ministry.
He took discipleship seriously, especially in the case of new converts and youth, and practiced a type of interactive discipleship. His model, understood from a biblical perspective, involved relating directly with those who were being discipled, to the extent of having them within his household. Some of the people he discipled are even more involved with his family now than before. In the case of converts who did not find their home environment conducive to the faith after they had converted, Yisa would bring them into his own house. Being a trained teacher, he would take his time to teach those who could not read and write, primarily in the Nupe language. His primary aim was to help them to be able to read the Bible for themselves. He strongly discouraged those families who would give their children over to philanthropic Muslims for assistance with their education, on grounds of financial constraints. However, such actions could be understood as means of maintaining relationships, with respect to traditional Nupe customs. He brought some of those involved in such actions to his house, and some of them had been happily married to Christian husbands. This also led him to place some people (other than his own children) in training for learning a trade or other skills, and he did this without regard to their gender.
The Christian home was important to Yisa, and he believed strongly in seeing husband and wife live and worship together. He would not compromise his stand on this issue, and could not accept that a wife would live in a different place or worship in a different church than the husband, or vice versa. To him, the language barrier should not be an excuse for worshipping in different churches, apart from one’s spouse. This principle led to his request to speak for about twenty minutes during an Easter Monday service held in Bida, in St. Peter’s Catholic Church, on April 12, 2004. His remarks could be paraphrased as follows: “All of you who are worshipping in churches apart from your spouses are causing a setback to some evangelistic efforts being made by those who are involved in evangelism. When you worship in separate churches, Muslims (in particular) challenge us by pointing our attention to members of the Church who worship in other churches apart from their spouses. To them, it is a sign of disunity at home and of the weakness of the Church to remedy the situation.” His point was that husband and wife should worship together in the same church.
He was involved in the discipleship of about twenty people while he was in Bida. Most of them wanted to go to school, but they did not have sponsors. Those who were older were being taken to learn trades or work like tailoring or carpentry. They also learned how to read the Bible in the Nupe language and dialect. Some people who had given their lives to the Lord Jesus Christ suffered harassment from home or in their hometown. On many occasions, Yisa risked his life for them. He had a passion for helping those who were being harassed in Nupe land on grounds of religious difference or intolerance (most towns and villages in Nupe land are Muslim-dominated). On several occasions, he met with the emirs (kings) of the Nupe, to stand for Christian parents whose children were forced, and sometimes deceived, into becoming Muslims. This still occurs in the areas where Muslims dominate, and the emirs have been the ones who resolve such ambiguous and coerced situations. Indeed, on many occasions, an emir can be linked to the forces behind religious choice that is made by compulsion. Yisa was seen as a bold preacher, as a witness, and as a spokesman for all who confessed Jesus as their Lord and Savior, most especially those who converted from Islam to Christianity.
Yisa also had an impact on certain communities in relation to this issue. For instance, in Doko, in Niger State, he intervened in a political crisis that was directly linked to religious affinity. Some indigenous people who were vying for political positions were denied their right to participate in politics at the local government level. On December 6, 1996, an unexpected crisis broke out. Serious damage to government property and the burning down of the government’s quarters in the area ensued. The government sent security troops to restore order, but it resulted in combat between the indigenous people and government forces. The church premises where Elijah Yisa was serving became the only haven for some of the helpless indigenous people, and they took their refuge with him there. It was reported that Elijah Yisa took a bold and risky step by putting on his ministerial robe and walking to the trouble spot to meet with the government security operatives. At this point, a police rifle had reportedly been declared missing. That report sparked anger in the security team, who then insisted on facing off with the locals unless the rifle was returned. Yisa was used by God to locate, retrieve, and return the missing rifle to the police team. It was on account of his timely intervention that the situation was brought under control returned to normal. The indigenous Doko, the Christians, and the Muslims all praised God for Yisa’s life and for the way he was used.
Elijah Yisa’s favorite hymn verse was: “How sweet the name of Jesus sounds in a believer’s ear! / It soothes his sorrows, heals his wounds, and drives away his fear.” In all the places he served, that hymn gave him comfort, courage, strength, and confidence in the face of religious threats, discouragement, and crisis.
He was serving as the bishop’s assistant, diocesan administrator, missioner, and hospital chaplain at St. John’s Anglican Church in Bida when, on the fateful night of January 24, 2006, he was assassinated by unknown gunmen at his official apartment. He died on that day, having been shot several times in the head. People generally related his death to the connection with his ministry, which was evangelism to Muslims and frequent intervention in religious issues. He left behind his wife, Mrs. Millicent Amina Yisa, and their children. Elijah Yisa’s life can be seen as a model for gospel ministers and should serve as a lesson for churches that are not focused on mission. His ministry was practical, and he practiced what he taught, both in theory and in action.
Samson Olufunmiso Olopade
Funeral service program for Elijah Abubakar Yisa, St. John’s Anglican Church, Bida, January 31, 2006.
Joint Easter Monday service, organized by the Christian Association of Nigeria, Bida Chapter, Niger State, St. Peter’s Catholic Church, Bida, April 12, 2004.
Ike Nwachukwu, Dammy Adeliyi, and Elisha Jiya, eds. Evangelizing Nupe Land: Prospects and Srategies, undated.
Millicent Amina Yisa, interview by author, September 23, 2009, Bida.
This article, received in 2010, was written by Samuel Olufunmiso Olopade, a Ph.D. candidate at Nigerian Baptist Theological Seminary, Ogbomoso, under the supervision of Dr. Michael Leke Ogunewu and Dr. Deji Ayegboyin, DACB liaison coordinator.