Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

A Nigerian civil war story untold until now & my emotional reaction January 31, 2017

"The Disturbances" is told in both book and film.

The Disturbances is told in both book and film.

I NEVER EXPECTED to find myself on the verge of crying while watching a documentary about a civil war in Nigeria in 1966. But I did on Sunday afternoon as I viewed The Disturbances at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Owatonna.

Produced by the Baptist Center for Ethics, the film tells the stories of missionaries and their families who, caught in the middle of a civil war, helped save the lives of Igbos, a tribe victimized by genocide. Thousands upon thousands of tribal natives died, many hacked to death by machetes.

The letter calling the Rev. Paul Griebel and his family to the mission field in Nigeria.

The letter calling the Rev. Paul Griebel and his family to the African mission field.

I’ll admit, I’m not the best with history and geography and, until recently, knew nothing of this strife in Nigeria 51 years ago. But then my pastor-friend, the Rev. Kirk Griebel of Redeemer, alerted me to the documentary. He was an “MK,” as missionary kids were tagged, living in Nigeria with his Lutheran Church Missouri Synod pastor father, mother and five siblings at the height of the violence. He was only eight when his family arrived from Minnesota, thus recalls little.

But plenty of others do remember the civil war and spoke openly about it for the first time in The Disturbances, the film titled after the code name the missionaries gave to the conflict. Their experiences were horrible. And memorable. Even 50 years later, their words and faces reveal the trauma of witnessing such violence.

Artist Susan Griebel crafted this quilted art from fabric her mother-in-law, Margaret Griebel, had gotten in Africa.

Artist Susan Griebel crafted this quilted art from fabric her mother-in-law, Margaret Griebel, acquired in Africa.

The featured missionaries (including pastors, teachers and others from many denominations) lived in and around the city of Jos, a cultural melting pot and the epicenter of the violence. They were warned, “Tomorrow there will be trouble.” The next day the phone rang followed by a three-word declaration: “It has started.”

A beautiful carving from Africa, among those the Rev. Paul and Margaret Griebel brought back to the U.S. from Africa.

A beautiful carving from Africa, among those the Rev. Paul and Margaret Griebel brought back to the U.S. from Africa.

And so the stories emerged of Igbos hiding in fields and in rafters of the church sanctuary and in a store room. Stories of Igbos escaping with the help of missionaries. Stories of missionaries hiding a body in elephant grass. Stories of murdered Igbos picked up by trash trucks and buried in mass graves. Stories of the teen children of missionaries tending the wounded inside a police compound. Stories of missionaries lighting a runway with the headlights of their cars during an evacuation effort.

As I listened, I felt my grief rising, heightened perhaps by the unsettling current events in our own country regarding refugees. I wonder what stories they might tell, what violence many have fled/desire to flee for safety in America.

Two stories in particular imprinted upon me from The Disturbances. A victim of the attacks asked a young woman tending him whether she would be his daughter. His entire family had been slaughtered. She agreed, reciting Psalm 23 (The Lord is my shepherd…) and The Lord’s Prayer to the dying man. The woman, 50 years later, still remembers his final words. “I’m going home, my daughter.”

Missionary children at ELM House (Evangelical Lutheran Mission House) in Nigeria. Missionary children lived in the hostel so they could attend boarding school in Jos, Nigeria. The Rev. Paul and Margaret Griebel served as houseparents. Three of their children, including Kirk, are pictured in this group photo.

Missionary children at ELM House (Evangelical Lutheran Mission House) in Nigeria with teacher Carl Eisman in the back row. Missionary children lived in the hostel so they could attend boarding school in Jos. The Rev. Paul and Margaret Griebel served as houseparents. Three of their children, including Kirk, are pictured in this group photo. Photo courtesy of the Rev. Kirk Griebel.

And then there’s the story shared by Carl Eisman, a Lutheran teacher at Hillcrest School (a boarding school in Jos) and friend/co-worker of the Rev. Paul Griebel. After evacuating children from a hostel, the two men remained hidden there with tribal members. As an angry mob approached ELM House, Eisman hid in the shadows with a hunting knife. And, as he recounted, Rev. Griebel sat at a nearby table reading Scripture and praying. Eventually, the mob dispersed and the men emerged to find a body, one they temporarily hid in elephant grass.

My friend, the Rev. Kirk Griebel, doesn’t recall his father (or mother; both now deceased) ever talking about the violence they witnessed. He remembers only an angry mob and waiting outside a fenced police compound where the injured and dying were taken.

This close-up of Susan Griebel's Nigerian-themed art shows the dove she incorporated as

This close-up of Susan Griebel’s Nigerian-themed art shows the dove she incorporated as representing the Holy Spirit. In the film, one interviewee said the missionaries had only one resource–that of prayer.

The film explains why the missionaries didn’t speak openly about the violence, even to family and church staff back home. They felt caught without resources in the middle of a civil war. As foreigners, they thought it best to lie low. They desired, too, to protect the children, to normalize their lives. And so they remained mostly silent. Until now and the documenting of their experiences in The Disturbances.

Given the time period and their foreigner status, I understand the guarded position. Missionaries and Nigerian pastors met, though, for two days in October 1966 to discuss “the disturbances” privately. I am thankful that these long-ago missionaries and their family members have now chosen to speak publicly about their experiences. For it is through the telling of personal stories that we learn and begin to understand suffering, courage, compassion and faith in times of violence. And for those who witnessed such atrocities, talking begins the process of healing.

FYI: Upcoming screenings of The Disturbances are scheduled in Missouri and Alabama. Click here for details. The Rev. Kirk Griebel will present the film this Wednesday, February 1, at 6 p.m. at King of Kings Lutheran Church, 1701 NE 96th St. in Kansas City, Missouri.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Documentary focuses on missionaries’ life-saving roles in Nigerian civil war of 1966 January 27, 2017

My father, Elvern Kletscher, on the left with two of his soldier buddies in Korea.

My father, Elvern Kletscher, on the left with two of his soldier buddies in Korea.

I’VE EXPERIENCED WAR. Not first hand, but through the words of my soldier father who fought on the front lines during the Korean War. And through photos he took. Through textbooks, too, and the stories of veterans and immigrants. And in memorials I’ve visited, poems I’ve read, songs I’ve heard.

"The Disturbances" is told in both book and film.

“The Disturbances” is told in both book and film.

Now I have an opportunity to learn more about a civil war—one in Nigeria in 1966—through “The Disturbances,” a feature-length documentary. The film is screening at 2 p.m. Sunday, January 29, at Redeemer Lutheran Church, 1054 Truman Avenue, Owatonna.

Missionary children at ELM House (Evangelical Lutheran Mission House) in Nigeria. Missionary children lived in the hostel so they could attend boarding school in Jos, Nigeria. The Rev. Paul and Margaret Griebel served as houseparents. Three of their children, including Kirk, are pictured in this group photo.

Missionary children at ELM House (Evangelical Lutheran Mission House). Missionary children lived in the hostel so they could attend boarding school in Jos, Nigeria. The Rev. Paul and Margaret Griebel served as houseparents. Three of their sons, including Kirk, are pictured in this group photo. He is in the front row, third in from the right. Carl Eisman (tall man in the back) is featured prominently in the film. He taught at the boarding school.

What brings a film like this to southern Minnesota? The answer, in short, is the pastor of Redeemer, the Rev. Kirk Griebel. He moved, as a second grader, from Minnesota to Nigeria with his missionary father and family in February 1966. They stayed until June 1969, took a furlough and then returned for two more years, leaving in 1972. The Griebels and other Christian missionaries found themselves caught in the middle of violent tribal atrocities. “The Disturbances” is their story—the story of how missionaries and Nigerian pastors saved lives.

Back then, missionaries did not openly discuss the situation. Now they are, in this documentary produced by the Baptist Center for Ethics. The stories of missionaries from various denominations, including those of the Rev. Paul and Margaret Griebel of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, are included.

I look forward to learning more about these brave souls who stretched their missionary skills beyond preaching, teaching, training and serving to acts of heroism that saved lives.

Kirk Griebel with his parents, the Rev. Paul and Margaret Griebel, on his Confirmation Day in 1972. The family left Nigeria shortly thereafter.

Kirk Griebel with his parents, the Rev. Paul and Margaret Griebel, on his Confirmation Day in 1972. The family left Nigeria shortly thereafter.

The Rev. Kirk Griebel plans to share memories of his experiences from that time in Nigeria. He was only eight years old when war erupted, but remembers a mob of men with clubs and machetes as the violence unfolded, according to a January 15 interview with “Faith of Steele.” I expect I will learn more about my pastor-friend who holds a strong interest in social issues. I surmise his experiences and observations in Nigeria helped shape his willingness to publicly tackle and participate in issues beyond simply preaching from the pulpit. War changes people.

Redeemer Lutheran Church, Owatonna. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2016.

Sunday’s screening is at Redeemer Lutheran Church, Owatonna. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2016.

FYI: Please consider attending this free screening of “The Disturbances.” I always appreciate opportunities like this to learn and then relate what I learn to my life.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Photos from Nigeria are courtesy of the Rev. Kirk Griebel.

 

You’ve won $2 million March 4, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 10:13 AM
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A FRIEND—I’ll call her Alice—phoned yesterday. Unfortunately at the moment I answered the telephone, I was inputting some photos into my computer and I had to set down the receiver and finish that task.

When I returned, I asked, “What’s up?”

“It’s important,” she answered, her voice wavering.

Then Alice proceeded to tell me about the phone call from a man announcing that she had won a new car and $2 million. Instantly, my radar kicked in.

Alice had been instructed to go to the embroidery department of a local big box retailer and pick up some receipts. When she told the caller she didn’t know where the embroidery department was located, he advised her to go to the pharmacy area. Later that day, she was supposed to expect a delivery truck at her house.

She wondered if this was a scam.

I didn’t even hesitate. First, I told Alice to call the police. She already had. Secondly, I told her not to follow the instructions and not to give money to anyone. I emphasized that, absolutely, undeniably, this was all bogus. She had not won anything.

But, I could also tell, for a few seconds during our conversation, that Alice might have been persuaded to believe that she really had won $2 million and a new car. I’m not clear on the details of how my friend would have claimed her “prize,” but she did mention something about $2,000. I assume that’s the fee she was supposed to pay for the $2 million and that shiny new auto. She seemed somewhat confused about the process. By the way, Alice is a reasonable and cautious woman.

Alice had the caller’s phone number; it popped up on her television screen. He had also given her a cell phone number.

I assured Alice that she had done the right thing by contacting the police and that she should call me again if she needed to talk. I knew she was upset and unsettled.

Later in the day, I checked back with my friend. Alice was doing OK, but shared that she had been really nervous during the phone conversation with the unknown caller. He was difficult to understand and may have had a southern accent, she said.

I speculated he more than likely had a foreign accent.

A week ago I saw a piece on ABC’s television show What Would You Do? about a Nigerian man trying to scam an elderly woman, I told Alice. ABC’s 20/20 news show reported earlier on such Nigerian-based scams.

When I hear news stories like this, I never really believe such an attempted scam could happen in a Midwestern community like Faribault and especially to a friend. Yesterday I was proven wrong.

HAVE YOU, or someone you know, ever been the target of an attempted scam? If so, I’d like to hear about your, or your acquaintance’s, experience.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling