Encouraging the Faith

Encouraging the Faith

By Rick Davis, BA'88

Insurgents Destroyed His Church, But Not His Spirit

The Rev. Peter Uchebo can talk openly about it now. “The first time I told my story, tears streamed down my face,” says Fr. Uchebo, whose gentle demeanor and broad, warm smile belie the horror and the tragedy he has witnessed.

Fr. Peter — as he prefers to be called — was a student in Creighton’s graduate program in Christian Spirituality this summer, and hopes (“God willing”) to return again next summer to continue his studies. Ordained a priest in 2010, he is the pastor of Lady of Fatima Church in the northeast Nigerian village of Bahuli, which, in September 2014, was overrun by Boko Haram militants.

“It was very, very terrible,” Fr. Peter says.

The Islamic terror group is accused of killing more than 5,000 Catholics over a six-year period in Fr. Peter’s diocese of Maiduguri alone.

A report by the diocese also found another 100,000 Catholics displaced, 7,000 widowed and nearly 10,000 children orphaned by Boko Haram-related violence within its boundaries. More than 350 churches in the diocese were the targets of terror attacks, the report states, with a “good number of them destroyed more than once.”

Boko Haram’s most infamous international-headline-grabbing act came in April 2014 when it kidnapped more than 200 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok, which is also in the Maiduguri diocese.

Schools, Fr. Peter says, have been targets of Boko Haram — whose name loosely translates as “Western education is forbidden” — as have Christian churches and villages. Fr. Peter’s village of Bahuli is about 90 percent Christian.

From September 2014 to January 2015, Boko Haram forcefully took control of nearly 20,000-square miles of northeastern Nigeria, looking to advance its goal of establishing an Islamic state. Many of those who fled came through Bahuli — including those of a nearby village, who told of Boko Haram’s advances.

“I was very scared when I was told that they were coming,” Fr. Peter says. “But I needed to be strong to strengthen the people.”

So the young priest turned to prayer and tending to the spiritual needs of his people.

“I had to celebrate Mass with them and encourage them,” Fr. Peter says. “Some of them relied on me, saying, ‘Father, what is the next step to take?’ We had to pray and ask God to guide us.”

Fr. Peter and his extended flock decided to flee to the neighboring African nation of Cameroon. It was an arduous journey.

“We had to push for many days,” he says, “relying on eating grass, and not having something to drink.”

During their exodus and exile in the refugee camps in Cameroon, he continued to turn to prayer.

“Every night, before I went to bed, I asked the Good Lord to make me strong, so that I can strengthen the people.”

Fr. Peter returned to Bahuli in December 2014, after the village was resecured by government forces. The militants burned down the church, but they didn’t extinguish the faith. “Right now, we worship under a tree,” Fr. Peter says. “My church is not standing, but my people are deeper in faith. The faith of the people is thriving.” A Muslim leader in the community, tears rolling down his face, would tell him that Boko Haram does not represent his Islamic faith.

The bishop of the diocese of Maiduguri recommended that the 33-year-old Fr. Peter attend Creighton’s Christian Spirituality Program (CSP), as a way to heal from the trauma and continue to grow in his faith. It was his first trip to the United States. It was painful to tell his story, especially at first.

“With CSP, I’ve come to understand that as a priest, you are offering your life as a living sacrifice,” Fr. Peter says.

“I want to return to my people to tell them how God loves them, to encourage them,” Fr. Peter says. Then, reflecting on his Creighton studies, he adds: “I have a lot to share with them, a lot to share with them.”