WASHINGTON – It was going to be the day I would have been introduced to the congregation as a new member of my church here in the United States, the Springdale Community Church, in the state of Maryland. Instead, I was stopped at the door by two church members and instructed to turn back.
I was no longer welcome in that church, they said, but I could be re-allowed into the church, they explained, if I wrote a retraction to two articles I had published about the church.
ALLEGATIONS AGAINST ME
They asked me if I was investigating the church and mentioned that they were uncomfortable when I mentioned money in my articles.
Besides, they added, I did not get express permission from the church leadership before releasing my articles. Not getting that permission from the church and going ahead to publish my articles was, according to them, “very disrespectful”.
In addition, they added, there were many negative things written about me on the Internet, my arrest in Cameroon while doing an investigative report on Nigerian refugees there.
That happened in 2015 when I was arrested by security forces and accused of being a spy for Boko Haram terrorists, the ruthless terror group that kidnapped the Chibok girls in April 2014. I had received a grant from Ford Foundation here in the United States (via the International Center for Investigative Reporting, ICIR Nigeria) to do that story and I was arrested and falsely accused of being a spy. The allegation of spying was so false that my arrest triggered outrage and protests in Nigeria and Cameroon. I was released after days in detention in atrocious inhuman conditions.
Many human rights organisations in the world, including Amnesty International and the Committee to Project Journalists (CPJ), fought hard for my release. And when I was released, I granted about 50 interviews to television and radio stations as well as newspapers. A documentary was even done about my incident by a church in Lagos.
Before that, I had also been battered by some pastors in Lagos for taking a picture of the church for an article that I was writing. The assault against me triggered outrage, so much so that I was on the cover of one of Nigeria’s most credible and reliable newspapers, The Punch.
In the course of my work and life, I have gone through severe pain, like when I was attacked by pirates on the Gulf of Guinea with an Ak47 rifle placed on my head. There was also an article written about it.
But the church said all these incidents showed that I represented a danger to the church and coupled with my two articles, I was no longer welcome in their church, the Springdale Community Church.
Almost all the incidents they were referring to were well documented. My life has been in the public domain for many years. In addition, they said I was running scams and pointed to an article a blogger had sarcastically written with headline “Is Simon Ateba a stylish beggar?“. It was a blog post made by someone in Nigeria about a Facebook post I had made sarcastically calling on readers to contribute to sustain online journalism, where articles are read for free and the writers who have to travel to cover stories are left struggling to survive.
Even today, I can reiterate that journalism is in danger and if the world takes it so seriously, it should not be allowed to die. We must encourage those who do a great job with our words and resources, and if anyone would like to contribute to the great job I am doing, I would welcome it with gladness, and without any sense of shame.
The two articles that I had published about the church here in the United States were not even unflattering to the church. They narrated my first days at Springdale Community Church since I began going there in May 2017.
The first article, titled “Dispatch From Washington DC: Our First Day In Church Here In The United States, By Simon Ateba” highlighted my first impression in an American church.
It read in part:
“Dipo put on his best ancestral cap and coolest Yoruba outfit and I wore my lovely sweater. It was a bright but chilly Sunday here in the United States, and we were dressing up for God.
It was going to be our first time in the community church in our neighborhood here. We were mentally, spiritually and physically set for Jesus Christ and prayers, hoping to return with some blessings.
Dipo took us through one shortcut, under trees and streams, and we emerged in front of a beautiful church.
The man at the entrance apologised before searching our bag for bombs or guns. Inside the church auditorium, we were the youngest.
You can also read the second article here.
It narrated the first meeting I had with my pastor and an assistant pastor a few days ago.
The first few paragraphs read:
Today (June 27), my pastor and the assistant pastor in the state of Maryland here in the United States invited me for a meeting to become a member of the church, the Springdale Community Church.
I had attended every service since I first went there many Sundays ago, and I was always going home immediately after church service.
They felt it was time for me to join. I was glad. The meeting went well. They wanted to know where I was born, where I grew up, what I do and they wanted to tell me also about the church, their mission and vision and it was really cool.
I felt heartbroken being in front of the church but unable to attend service. I was so close, but so far at the same time. From where I was stopped, by the door, I could hear fellow Christians inside the church praising Jesus Christ with holy songs. I really wanted to attend today’s church service, especially because I was going to be introduced to the church to become a member. It was, I must say, heartbreaking.
I felt heartbroken also when one of the men who stopped me, Mr. W. Murray, a fire investigator with the Prince George’s County in Maryland, told me if I googled his name, I would realise that he had never been arrested as I was while doing my job as a journalist.
I felt embarrassed and so unfairly and ungodly treated by fellow Christians that I have decided not to attend any other African American church here in the United States. I always joke about race, because to me race is a joke, but when you’re so painfully rejected by people of the same color, maybe it’s time to try elsewhere.
I found my ban from the African American church in the state of Maryland today a total atrocity in the eyes of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ did not establish his church for perfect men and women, but for those who are broken. He said he came for sinners and not for saints, for the saints are not part of this world. The church is like a hospital where people come with their challenges expecting to get help. But when a church becomes so intolerant, questions are raised about whether Jesus Christ really lives there.
The action taken by the Springdale Community Church is shameful and should be condemned by all Christians.