By Morenike Taire
A former Commissioner for Education in Lagos State, Professor Idowu Sobowale, is the Chairman, Organizing Committee for the 50th anniversary ceremonies of the iconic Shepherd Hill Baptist Church, Lagos. Being an eminent alumnus of Baptist Academy, the mother school of the church, the three-time Special Adviser to various Lagos State governors is probably in the best position to provide a peep into the month-long series of events as well some background on the institution. Excerpts
What is the significance of the 50th anniversary?
To be 50 is a major achievement. Many churches started, they didn’t even do half of that before they packed up just like many organisations also have packed up long before they turned 20 or 25. And even for human beings, 50 is beyond the average in Nigeria. So, it’s an occasion that should be celebrated.
Hill is one of the most iconic Baptist churches. Why do you think that is so?
Because one, the philosophy of the church and two, the location of the church.
Holding to the tenets of the founder of the church, the late Rev. Dr. J.A Adegbite, the church is centrally located and whatever the Baptist Convention wants to do, if they want to do something central in Lagos, they do it in Shepherd Hill.
Even for outsiders? Does it have something to do with the building?
Partly, because there’s no way you’ll pass without noticing the church.
What is the history of the building?
Well, the building was designed by an architect who was a young man when he did it, about 25/26 years ago. The one we were using before is the small church. That was the one that was built as a chapel of the Baptist Academy in 1963.
So what is going to happen to that old building?
It is very much in use. The Yoruba Church holds there, the Indian Community service holds there.
You have been a member of Shepherd Hill for so long. What are the factors that kept you there?
When I was a student of Baptist Academy, I was attached to the founder, Rev. Dr. J.A Adegbite. I also loved the church services.
I mean, the major factors are the ones that I told you, student membership of Baptist Academy and then my association with Rev. Adegbite. And in any event, it’s not far from where I live.
So what part of the celebration are you looking forward to the most?
Every part of it, but the two major ones are the ones that are happening on the 13th of July which is the anniversary lecture, gala night and dinner and on the 14th which is the dance event.
What of the football match?
Every one is important. We have the football match on Saturday. On Friday, we have the visit to the Old People’s Home and Modupe Cole.
Every activity is important but those are the two most important. As in the anniversary of the establishment of the church and the lecture given by Pastor Tunde Bakare of Latter Rain and being chaired by Ambassador Christopher Kolade.
Are they members of the Baptist Church?
They are not members. They don’t have to be.
So having existed for 50 years, what impact would you say Shepherd Hill has had on the community?
Without being unnecessarily immodest, I would say that the church has made considerable impact on the society. It has influenced, in a big way, the conduct and practices of members which has also impacted those that the members relate with. One of such areas is in government. The church has produced two commissioners that have served at least two states of Nigeria; those that have served the parastatals and other arms of government. A large number of Nigerians have been influenced.
Then in the area of ethics and morality, the church has influenced its members who have had to serve. For example, for a number of years, the founder and former principal of Baptist Academy, Rev. Adegbite, was appointed Chairman of Code of Conduct Bureau and he said that any day a student of the Baptist Academy was brought before the committee for an infraction, he would resign. To the glory of God, no member of Baptist Academy was brought to his committee while he was there.
What is the relationship between Shepherd Hill and other Baptist churches?
Very cordial. We have an association of churches around our area; then we have a conference of Baptist churches. That conference has split into 4, we belong to the Lagos East Baptist Conference; so all the churches within that conference cooperate and relate closely together. Not forgetting the principles of the Baptist denomination. Then all Baptist churches over Nigeria meet at a convention once a year, which is the Nigerian Baptist Convention.
There’s no way you’ll talk about Shepherd Hill Church without talking about Baptist Academy.
In fact, a lot of people think Baptist Academy came out of Shepherd Hill; can you set the record straight?
It was when Baptist Academy moved from Broad Street in Lagos in 1959, a decision was taken to found a chapel where the students would receive religious instructions that served as a place of worship and then it was the chapel that transformed into Shepherd Hill.
So in view of recent religious and ethnic skirmishes, is Baptist Academy discriminatory to students?
For a long while, Lagos State government took over all private schools. But then, during Tinubu’s era, a committee was set up to return all schools to their various owners and I happen to have been the person that implemented that policy. And before then, every person from any state of origin attended Baptist Academy regardless of religious limit. When government took it over, of course, it was open to everybody and that status remained even after the school went back to the missions.
As a former commissioner, what is your opinion about returning schools to the mission?
I think it’s the best thing to do, otherwise I would not have done it because at the time we did the return, schools had really gone low in terms of morals and discipline but with the return, at least the former owners or proprietors/proprietresses had the opportunity of exploring the policies and strategies that they used before the government took over. And in no time at all, we saw the difference that the return had made towards the progress or development of these schools.
A lot of churches are getting involved in Nigeria’s politics. That is, pastors are speaking out. What is the position of Shepherd Hill?
The position of Shepherd Hill is that the church encourages anybody who is interested in politics to go out there and play it. That’s the official position of the Baptist mission. Because if churches say people should not play politics because of the misconception that it is dirty, I’ve always tried to explain that politics in and of itself is not dirty, it is those who are playing it that are dirty. So if Christians say because politics is dirty, quote and unquote, then those who are probably dirtier will be in charge and you and I would have no reason to complain. Just like Alhaji Jakande asked me to chair the committee that transferred pupils from private to public schools when he became governor and my own children were in private school.
I had reason to reject the appointment because I had a UNESCO offer to go and establish my own school of mass communication in Malawi and they had given me my warrant to travel when that offer came and after considering the options, I opted to accept Jakande’s offer and I explained to people that cared to listen on national TV and newspapers that I took that decision for a selfish reason, that if I rejected it because of the allure of foreign currency then somebody else will carry out that assignment. If that person did it in a way that will hurt my children then I’ll have no right to complain. It is the same thing for Christians but all along they have left it for other people to run their affairs but now I think they’re getting a lot wiser that they have to be out there and compete with other people and if we really follow the precepts of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, then it is they that ought to do things in a just and reputable way.