By Yemisi Suleiman
When women of substance gathered in Lagos recently at thisyearâ€™s Women of Global Impact Conference 2009, it was in response to a call to make a difference in the lives of poor women and children in Nigeria.
A charity call initiated, inspired, and supported by Bishop Peace Okonkwo, resident Pastor of The Redeemed Evangelical Mission (TREM), a humble woman of God who is passionate about making a difference in the lives of women anywhere she is. The idea of the conference, she said, was to bring women together so that â€œthey will arise, take the bull by the horn and make the difference in their world.â€
Happily married to Bishop Mike Okonkwo and blessed with a daughter, Bishop Peace, who turned 57 last June, celebrated her birthday with a number of activities aimed at reaching out to the less privileged and needy in the society.
In this interview, Bishop Peace speaks more on the Women of Global Impact, her days of humble beginnings, her marriage and lifestyle amongst other issues.
Congratulations on your 57th birthday Ma. How does it feel to be 57?
It feels great. We thank God for his keeping grace. It has not been easy; there has been ups and downs. The only thing is that we depend on God absolutely and he has been there for us. We thank god for seeing another year.
What are some of the challenges you have encountered over the years?
I had a lot of challenges; challenges when we lost my daughter (and) my brother in law. And challenges when people you trust show you their bad side. But in all, we thank God who has been there for us.
What has been your strength over the years?
The word of God. He says in His word: â€œI will never leave you nor forsake you.â€ That is what has always been in my heart,that no matter what comes, God will always be there for me. The word of God has a way of consoling you, giving you grace; telling you that it is not yet over until it is over. I would say the word of God and prayers.
What informed the Women of Global Impact programme that held recently in Lagos.
I have been a counsellor for about twenty-something years and I know women carry a lot of burden, because, when they come for counseling, before they offload what is in their heart, some will cry for thirty or fifteen minutes. So, I started praying. I told God, â€œWe cannot continue like this, something has got to be done.â€ That was what triggered my interest in women and then I asked God the area I could come in, to be able to help in my own little way.
The Women of Global Impact is an initiative that has different points of reaching out: Rehoboth Homes, Widows Empowerment Initiative, Children Educational Support and Orphanage Support.
The programme was actually aimed at getting women that are highly placed in the society to let them know that as women we could do more to complement what the men are doing; because, we are the ones carrying the brunt, the ones that give birth. It was to bring them together and thank them for what they are doing and inspire them to do more. I highlighted some of the things I have done. For instance, my project on cervical cancer prevention seminar and I know that as women, we could save a lot of women from dying because it is curable.
I have been able to do some for the northern women. I was at Idah for that and I believe we could do more. It is also to encourage women to look at their environment and see what they could do to alleviate the suffering of the masses, particularly women and if they canâ€™t do much, they can then see what we are doing and partner with us to know the area to come in.
Lets talk about Rehoboth Homes and Vocation Skill Centre. What inspired it?
The home was built about three or four years ago, having found out that these people do not have anyone to look up to. If you have read some articles, you would have read where I said that a young lady died in one rest room, because she had no where to lay her head. When I got the information, I was troubled.
I began asking God what I could do to help such people and it came up in my spirit to build a home. That was how Rehoboth Home came into being and by His grace, ladies have been coming there and we have empowered them in different vocations. One of the girls is even doing her industrial attachment in a bank because, she is in the university. Some have already done their different vocations. We give them a place to stay and empower them so that they can be useful to themselves and the society.
Is it limited to only members of TREM?
No. I donâ€™t even know some of the ladies there. For instance, the (government) agency against child trafficking brought two little girls that their mother was using to make money. How does it look for a fifteen or fourteen year old girl to be in primary two? But, we had to put them in school and give them additional tutorial classes. One was brought in by a media house that saw she had a lot of challenges because she had been messed up. She had been living in an uncompleted building and people were taking advantage of her, so we had to take her to the hospital for treatment and now she is doing very well.
Since you do not know the background of most of these women, how do you follow them up after graduation?
We follow them up because we have a committee that looks after the home. We follow them up till we are sure that they are established.
Sometime ago, I went to the womenâ€™s prison and after ministering, I thought I was a strong woman but I broke down. With a lot of young and old women in jail, it was a terrible sight. But, some of them have come out by Godâ€™s intervention. We had to get a shop for one of such women and she is managing the shop well and she still comes to church. One woman had been condemned to death and was about sixty years old but by Godâ€™s grace, after prayers, she was discharged and acquitted. She came to church one day and I saw somebody holding my legs but I could not recognize her immediately.
Then, she told me she came from the prison. I remembered and asked her if I could tell the church and she said yes. By the time they heard her story, they were all moved and they started donating and you know because she is an old woman, with the peopleâ€™s donation, we realized over two hundred thousand naira. With that, we were able to get a place for her and arranged for a shop in front of her new home. So, a committee follows them up.
Do they all live together?
Yes it is a block of flats and in each of the flats we have four rooms. So, they live in the different flats.
What are the challenges you encounter doing this?
Some of them that came from bad backgrounds like hotels are very difficult to tame; because they need money. Here, we make sure that we feed them twice a day and give them some money as young girlsâ€™ allowance, but it is not as much as they make outside. So, sometimes you see them falling back. They fight. Also, because of their background, everyday my matron is settling quarrels. They beat themselves up and some of them even have babies; because they came in pregnant. So, those are the challenges we face.
But we know nobody is perfect and if God were to look at our errors, we wouldnâ€™t be able to answer to Him. But we give them enough time, believing and trusting God to change them. We have a lady pastor who goes there every week to listen to them, pray with them, talk to them and counsel them. And, we still have the good ones because most of them change. If you go to the home, we have a salon for those people that want to learn.
How is the home funded?
In Lagos, the Covenant Department of the International Women Prayer Conference; these are the people that contribute for the different projects depending on how God has prospered them. So, that is where we get funds from. But like I said, we can do more. The last training we had for women, we spent about three hundred thousand for about three hundred women.
We have women who have the gift of ministration but because of beliefs and traditions, they are not allowed to minister. What would you advise women in such situations to do?
One thing I know is that you cannot bottle the Holy Spirit. I have always told women that nobody can stop you from praying. There is a particular church where they donâ€™t believe in women ministering. All I advised one of them to do was to keep on praying. Eventually, that church would have gone down but for her prayers because, God is really using her.
So, I think they should continue to pray and at the fullness of time, when God shows himself strong it cannot be denied that they are in Jesus. Nobody can deny it when things start happening. People will even come and beg you.
I didnâ€™t just start to preside over the church although Bishop believes in women ministering. We have strong men here and I didnâ€™t want to impose myself on them. At a time, the men said they want Bishop Peace to be their pastor. You donâ€™t struggle for it. If God has blessed you with his gift, at the right time, there would be a manifestation. You donâ€™t need to go before your time. Bishop would have said my wife will be the pastor but he left them till they started agitating for it.
Do you think Nigerian women have got what it takes to lead Nigeria to greater heights?
Liberia is an African country being led by a woman. Watch where women are holding leading positions and you will see the difference. It might not be now but I think women have got what it takes. So, a time is coming when women would not only be governors but also presidents. It may not be in my day but before Christâ€™s coming. It might tarry, but it will come and you will see everything turning around.
What is it like being married to the Bishop
It is not easy (laughs) but Godâ€™s grace is sufficient for us. Now, it is getting better and better. At first, it wasnâ€™t because Bishop is a very principled person. I can remember there was this lady pastor that I had something with and Bishop came out and said that I was wrong and that I should apologize to her, unlike what other men would have done.
For him, once you are wrong you are wrong. And, he doesnâ€™t joke with his prayers. Now, he is getting older and he is calming down. He is an encourager. Sometimes, when I look at some things and say â€œNo! No! No!â€; because I am someone who likes to stay at the background, he will say â€œYou can do it. I will teach you how to do it and I will pray for you.â€ He is actually the motivating factor that has led me this far. Sometimes, I tell him that we are believing God for something (and) he will say â€œBelieve him the more, pray the more and fast the more.â€|
Many people believe that women who are leaders tend to be domineering and overbearing. Is it the same with you?
Not when you know the scriptures. I am somebody who likes things done precisely. I give people due respect but they must do things according to the rules. I wonâ€™t tell them that they must do this or that and I canâ€™t beat them; I only appeal to their conscience.
Outside the church, what kind of person is the Bishop?
Bishop is a very simple person. He sits down on the floor in the sitting room to watch news on TV; wearing his T-shirt and shorts. He has very tender and good heart. He is a good person and he is softer than I am. When you get to know him, you will love him. A pastor once said to someone that if the Bishop sends for him, he can go later; but if Bishop Peace sends for him, he will first go and do three days fasting and prayer before he comes to me.
The Bishop has a very soft heart and can go to any extent to be a blessing to anyone. He kept giving all we had at a particular time to bless people. Because of my background, I think before I spend; because I am not from a big background that has a lot of money. We grew up believing God for everything. But, he is from a well to do family all his siblings are doctors and they donâ€™t look at money before spending (laughs).
Talking about growing up, how were your early days?
I lost my father when I was very young. I never knew him but my mother was always there. When we were growing up, you canâ€™t count up to four wrappers my mother had. But today, all my siblings are doing well, thanks to my mum. We are about eight; one boy and the rest of us are girls. She made sure everyone of us went to school up till secondary school before some decided to go further. At least, she was able at that time. We grew up struggling. But, God has really been faithful to us because, my mother was a prayerful woman. Up till now that she has turned eighty, she still fasts and prays three times a week because she is used to it.
What is fashion like for you?
You know there is a position one gets to in life and needs to take some things seriously. I am not really one for fashion but I try in that regard because, if you are with the Bishop, you must be fashion-conscious. He likes to look good. When he wears a shirt and tie, you will go and look for it in the market. He knows how to combine colours and he also has carriage.
But, I am somebody who likes the casual outfit. With the position I have attained, I have to be all dressed up at times. But I love shirts
How do you relax?
I love to listen to Christian worship songs and, usually, I have some days off – like on Tuesdays; and if I am not doing any prayer, I will just lie down and listen to worship songs. I also watch football.
What are your plans for the future?
I take everyday as it comes. You can never be satisfied; you still ask God for more as long as there is breath in you. I think, I would love to do more Rehoboth homes in more states. Most of these people come from there. I see myself bringing them back and be able to empower them because, when you counsel most of them, they keep asking you what they are coming back to. And, as God opens more doors, we will run along with it. I just resign to God.
How have you been able to balance your work and marital life?
I have prayed. I have gone extra miles. I make sure that I do all that I am told to do in the home because, I donâ€™t want to be successful outside and be a failure in the family. It has to be a balance. I make sure, prayerfully, that I carry out my responsibility in the home and in the church. And, I thank God that my home is together because, if your home is not together, you canâ€™t be together yourself. What you see in the home is a manifestation of the spirit. I make sure my husband is happy and my children are happy.
What would you have been if you were not a Bishop?
I love to look after children because, the Bible says that we should train up a child in the way of the Lord and when he grows up, he will not depart from it. So, you have to start from when they are young. Maybe, I would have had a nursery centre or a daycare where mothers would come in and drop their children and go to work.
What makes your husband different from other men?
Bishop is not intimidated by anyone and I will give credit to his parents; they trained them very well. They brought them up to be self confident and to know that there are no two people who are the same. And that each person is peculiar in his own way.