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“We have overcome challenges in marriage” — Dr. Mike Okonkwo

Dr. Mike Okonkwo, Presiding Bishop of The Redeemed Evangelical Mission (TREM) clocks 64 today, September 6, 2009. Activities lined up to mark the 64th birthday began with , the 10th Mike Okonkwo Annual lecture with the topic “Global Economic Trend: The Alternatives for Nigeria” on Thursday September 3rd, at the Shell hall, Muson, Onikan Lagos with  presentation of gifts to the winners of the 6th edition of the Mike Okonkwo National Essay Competition.

A special praise service tagged ‘Shaback’ will be held today at the TREM International Headquarters, Lagos as well as some special event targeted at providing for the needy and the less privileged in our society The man of many parts, who has successfully been and is still the bridge between the old and the young, the established and the upcoming ministers of God is an Apostle to this generation, whose life has impacted  around the world. A father to many, Dr Mike Okonkwo is also a dynamic conference speaker, an evangelist, a national spokesman for Nigeria, and an advocate of true Christianity.
In this encounter with Yemisi Suleiman, the vocal man of God speaks on his life as a bishop, growing up, and managing challenges in marriage.

You look younger than your age. What is the secret?

Age is a number; not how you perceive yourself. I say that to myself. The Scripture tells us that Moses grew very old, his eyes and entire body system were still solid, not abated. For me, whatever you can do to stay fit and stay alive, do it. I told God that I don’t want to fall apart because I am growing old.

THE OKONKWOS... Any person that says they never had issues in their marriage is lying.
THE OKONKWOS... Any person that says they never had issues in their marriage is lying.

The work I am involved in is so demanding that I cannot afford to fall sick. It is expensive to fall sick. So, whatever you can do: eat right, drink a lot of water, do exercises and stay fit because, it is your body that carries the anointing. If you are in hospital, you cannot be useful to anyone. Therefore, whatever you can do to stay healthy, do it. For me, I desire to stay this way. I told my wife: “If you want to fall apart, that is left to you. I am going to stay fit.” (Laughs)

Twenty one years of being a bishop; how would you describe the experience so far?

It has been very interesting because, the work has grown beyond what it was; from the time we came into ministry and what the ministry now demands in different parts of the world. It is very demanding and challenging but then very interesting; because, once you are able to identify what you are called out for, you are ready to go all the way. That is what it is.

Let’s look at your background. Can you give us a glimpse into your childhood days?

I was born in Enugu. Then, when I was 5 or thereabout, my father moved down to Lagos, working with Post and Telegrams Department (P&T). We were living at Ebute Metta West, that is Ijero area. I remember where we were living then – 60 Victory Road, Ebute Metta. I started going to school at Ijero Baptist School, along Apapa Road. After some time, my father – being a strict disciplinarian, he believed that one must see all sides of life; though we were comfortable as a family. I remember that my older sisters were sent to go and live with our grandmother, during their schooling days, in the East. While my immediate younger brother was sent to go and live with an Anglican priest, I went to live with my uncle who was a teacher at Offa Grammar School.

I lived with him for about 2 years before I gained admission to Mayflower Secondary School, Ikenne, under Tai Solarin. At that time, Mayflower hadn’t gotten to Class Five.  It was a new school; still developing. It was quite interesting learning under Tai Solarin. Even though he wasn’t a Christian, he was very vocal and straight to the point. For me, that training was also a good one.

Our home was a Christian home and while at home I attended church services regularly. I was also a member of the choir with my older sister at St Jude’s Church, Ebute Metta. That was how I lived my life.

After two years in that school, I had to move to another school because of peer pressure; the students were making fun of me that I could not speak my native language. I had to tell my daddy to ensure I moved to another school. Then, I moved to the East; (precisely) Merchant of Lights Grammar School, Oba – very close to Onistha. That is where I completed my secondary education in 1963. Soon after that, of course, my father was still living in Lagos, I moved back to Lagos and started working with the Ports Authority as a pioneer staff.

At Ports Authority, when I saw the way they took bribes, because it was strange to me, I told my father that I didn’t want to work there any longer. There used to be what was called Lagos Quays and Apapa Quays. I worked there for 2 months before I got a job with Africa Continental Bank (ACB). We were the pioneer staff of the Martins Street Branch. That was where I worked until the war began. Then, I moved back to the East.

What particular event led to your salvation?

The (civil) war had just ended. You know, everyone went through difficult times, pain and trauma during the Nigeria-Biafra war. The Lord was gracious to us; we were all alive – my father and all members of the family went and settled in Enugu. It was there I resumed my job back at the bank. During the war, we moved from place to place to the point that everyone lost track. We were not even sure about the security of our jobs. But after the war, they reabsorbed all the staff and I was posted to start one of the new branches in Enugu.

It was a conviction which came as a result of a habit imbibed by people who were of my age group, staying around me. They always knelt down to pray but they never invited me. So, I said to myself, it seems as if I was lost. So, I decided to go give my heart to Christ without informing them. It was there I gave my heart to Christ. People had been speaking to me about it but I didn’t think much of it until I came to Lagos. I remember then, at Oyadiran Estate, I went into one of the rooms in the place I was visiting; from the East. I knelt down before the Lord and gave my heart to Christ.
It happened during a short visit to Lagos. As soon as I got to the East, I started attending church seriously. Since then, I have never gone back. So, there was really not what you will call lightning and thunder. That was in 1971.

At what point did you become a pastor?
In 1972. Early ’72; I gave my heart in ’71 by 1972 I was fully engaged in the ministry work even as a banker. I left the bank in November of the same year and went fully into ministry work. I didn’t even resign from the bank. It was later on I resigned, based on people’s advice – since I was working in a financial institution, to avoid being misunderstood. It took some time before they accepted the resignation because, they felt that everything was not right. Ministry was not the main thing at that time. It was not attractive to go into ministry work. They thought that something must be wrong with me; some people thought: why should I leave a lucrative job for a job that has no pay attached to it? When they saw that I was not willing to bend, they accepted my resignation.

What impact has TREM made in the Nigeria’s social economic development?

We have done quite a lot, by the grace of God. We are established in almost all the states of the country. One of our policies, as a ministry, is that every branch should ensure that they are involved in the social development of the country. They do not just exist in a community without doing something for that community. For instance, recently, I ministered in one of our churches at Iba and I know that they supply water to one of the police stations around them. They also have a skills acquisition centre for the people in the community. Some of our branches supply street lights; some give water to the people to their neighbourhood.

From my wife’s ministry, she has been able to build a home for less privileged people; stranded and homeless ladies who have been thrown out of their homes. They take care of them and train them free of charge. Also, I started a foundation that has schools, right now, in five locations within Lagos: Agege, Mushin, Lekki, Lagos Island and Ajegunle. They train people in different vocations and computer studies free of charge.

You will be surprised that most of the about 3,000 beneficiaries of the foundation are not members of our church. Some of them are even Muslims.
We are working across the nation. We see it is part of our duty (to impact lives) and we insist that they be done well.

Recently, you gave out wheelchairs to some hospitals…

That is one of the activities of the foundation. That was the third time we gave out wheelchairs to health institutions across the nation. Then, we also have the BLENT (Breeding Leaders for Empowerment and National Transformation) programme. During a special service, we invite different people from different walks of life. We invite media personnel, medical personnel, lawyers, security operatives, education personnel and people from the finance sector etc. When they come, we address issues facing the nation and how we can partner with them.

The whole essence is to seek how we can partner with them; let them understand that we are together in this society. And, it has helped quite a lot; informing our members that we have to be socially responsible. Also, one aspect of our mission statement is that we should make an impact wherever we find ourselves. So, it helps us to know that we have to make impact now; where we are. We don’t just exist, waiting for heaven. Wherever you find yourself, ensure that you make an impact in that place for the kingdom of God. Always ask yourself, if Jesus were to walk the streets of Lagos, how will He perform?

What is the impact of the Mike Okonkwo Annual Lecture which you have held in the last 10 years? How will you rate it?

For me, the lectures have been very successful. They are making necessary impact and I am satisfied because the whole essence is to enlighten the society; get them to see. You will be surprised that people don’t even know what is going on around them; people don’t even read newspapers. They just read the headlines; people don’t even know their rights and privileges.

Through these lectures, we have been able to make people to see what is going on in the society, what their rights are; what they can do as citizens to ensure some of these things are corrected. I don’t believe, when it comes to issues (concerning) our nation that we should always push the buck back to people in politics. Everyone is involved.

Like I was sharing in one place: whether we like it or not, one way or the other, all of us have been made to partake of corruption. There is no person in this country now that we can exempt from being involved in corruption, including the clergy man. I preached this even within a setting of clergy men.  You know why? For instance, we have a law on importation of foreign clothing but we buy foreign dresses. All of us wear foreign clothing, foreign shoes. So both you the buyer and the importer are already involved.
The society is so programmed that even when you want to do what is right, they are forcing you to do the wrong thing; that is the problem. Now, why won’t I buy foreign clothing when most of our textile companies are shut down? They are all shut down because, there is no electricity. They can’t function; they can not break even in addition to other issues. The whole thing is like a cycle. It is vicious cycle we are involved in.

Talking about clothing, what influenced your dress sense?

That has always been my lifestyle. My father is a good dresser and that is one of the things I learnt from him. It doesn’t have to cost much but put yourself together; know what fits you and put it on. That is the point. I believe that and, of course, as a minister of the gospel and even as a Christian, we teach our people that they should dress well. You are an ambassador of Christ; you shouldn’t look shabby as a child of the Kingdom. We teach that as part of our culture in the Kingdom of God.

How do you describe your years of marriage?

Very fruitful and very interesting. It was one of the things I dreaded back then because, the worst thing that can ever happen to a man of God is to marry the wrong person. If you do, half of your ministry is gone. Surely, God knows the type of heart I have and packaged my wife for me. She has never given me a problem; she has never made me to regret marrying her. I wouldn’t say we’ve not had issues. Any person that says they never had issues in their marriage is lying.

After all, in the Bible, we were told to work out our salvation. Even though salvation was packaged from heaven, if we have to work out salvation, is it marriage that you will not work out? Really, I wouldn’t say we have never had issues. We have never had any major issue that made me to say “I regret doing this”. I have never laid my hand on her, never thought of it.

Also, my wife had always been a very considerate person; never pushes me to the wall. She never had any cause to say: “Why are you doing this for your family members” or me asking: “Why should I do this for your family.”
In fact, when we got married, we had a joint account and her first gift after the marriage, we put it in the account. When an opportunity came for me to travel to Israel, I told her to lend me the money and that I will refund afterwards. I have not paid her up till today…. (laughs).

I know I am so liberal with money; when I have money I can give everything out. So, I told her: “I don’t want you cheated because of this.” I advised her to open an account; it is not compulsory that we have a joint account. “Open your account. When I have something to give you, I drop it for you, so that we don’t put money together and I spend everything before you know it.” So, whatever she is doing with her funds, it’s her business. I do not go to find out.

Would you say that the elements between the two of you are responsible for your successful marriage?

If I say that, that would be taking too much on me. I would say that, to some large extent, these elements will make a successful marriage when you understand each other; when you don’t go amplifying each other’s weaknesses. There is no way you will not be successful when you have God at the centre of your marriage. There is no reason why you can’t have a successful marriage.

So, how did you meet your wife?

We were together in the same church. Apparently, she got saved in the Scripture Union and attended ECWA in Enugu. Then when I started attending the church I was attending then, United Christian Church, Enugu, I worked in that church also. We started going to the same church but the moment I saw her, something from me went out. I just had the feeling that something is going to happen between the two of us.

I am not a go-go type when it comes to women. I am a shy person. I couldn’t even talk to a lady. It is not part of me. So, I couldn’t talk to her. We were together in the same youth fellowship but we were like cat and dog; probably admiring each other and not knowing it. I suspected that but we were always antagonizing each other yet even when we quarreled, something went out of me for her.

My older sister was attending the same church also and, of course, my sister was very close to her. I told my sister that I would like to marry her. It was my sister who truly spoke to her; not me. It was after my sister informed her that I went to propose to her. I said, “I will like to marry you, but we will pray about it. If it is not in the will of God, there is no point going ahead.”

In our little way, that time we were still growing in the Lord. We prayed together to ascertain whether it is God or not. I told you that my parents are strict disciplinarians. We had a lot of boys in my house; they didn’t want girls to come near them and all that stuff. But, when I went to speak to my parents, they quickly accepted her. I told her about it and she was very amazed and happy for it. As God will have it, her god-mother happens to be one of my aunties, which actually gave it more support.

Talking about God’s will in marriage, for the benefit of the youth, how you would know?

Sincerely, God will speak to you at your level. Just like a parent carries a child and wants to talk to him and the child is not even talking but the parent knows how to communicate with that child. The problem with some of our youth is that they say that they want to know the will of God but it is not true. If you are truly sincere in your heart that you are willing to accept whatever God tells you, I can assure you God will speak to you in the language you understand. To some, it could be a prophetic word; to others it could be an inward witness; to some it could be peace in your heart so you will know that this is the direction to take or He can speak to you in an audible voice, depending on which way He can reach you.

The most important thing is let there be honesty. I discovered after many years of ministry that a lot of people say they want to know the will of God but they don’t really want to. And, you can’t fool God. God knows you in and out and He is watching and He says “Okay, do what you want.”

There is an example like that in the Bible. A prophet came to God and said: “God, some people want me to prophesy against some people. Do you want me to go? God said “No”. Now, they came back to him with more gifts and said we are going to give you all these things. He went back again to meet God and God said: “Okay, do what you want.” You see now. On his way, he nearly killed himself. Often times, people don’t want to know the will of God. They just want to go through the religious exercise to satisfy their curiosity. When anyone truly wants to know God’s will, God will speak to him or her.

How do you relax after a hard day’s work?

I love swimming when the opportunity comes. I love sight seeing. If I am not traveling and I am at home, I listen to music, watch some TV programmes like Gulder Ultimate Search. I follow it a lot because, it is so interesting to watch how these children navigate in life. I like detective movies because, it puts me on the edge; to see how they will unravel some mystery. When I am at home, I am very relaxed. I am a pastor in the church but I am a father and husband at home. So, when I am at home, I could sit on the floor with my wife and children and the people living with us and chat with them; laugh with them. That way, I relax my body when I am not busy.

What is your vision for TREM?

Our vision is to, like our mission statement says, discover talents or individuals who also discover God and then impact them, equip them with the word of God, bring out their potential (that means development); then we deploy them to their different areas of influence, to make an impact. These are the three basic areas: we discover, develop and deploy.


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