As prelude to the celebration of the 70th birthday of Bishop Mike Okonkwo, the Presiding Bishop of The Redeemed Evangelical Mission (TREM) which is coming up next week, his better half, Bishop Peace Okonkwo, in this interview with select journalists, relives their coming together as a couple 35 years ago and what has kept them vibrant in the work of the kingdom. YEMISI AOFOLAJU, who was there, brings excerpts:
In a nutshell, how has life been with your better half?
Life with Mike Okonkwo is an interesting one, but not without challenges. Since I married him 35 years ago, God has been our helper all the way. We have had our own share of challenges, but the Bible says ‘’we should look up to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith’’ and because we are in agreement, we surmounted the challenges.
The Bible says ‘if two could agree on anything, it shall be done’. It has not been rosy, there were ups and downs, but we just hanged in there because we cannot run from God. I would say it has been 35 years of God’s faithfulness, helping us in the ministry and home. He has thus far helped us to train our daughter, who will be getting married in a couple of months.
How did you meet Bishop?
It is a long story. I met him in one of the churches. When the war ended, there was the need for people to get close to God because we lost all we had, and He is the only one that can help us. It was during this period that I met Bishop’s senior sister, who became fond of me. Bishop, at that time, was very shy; he couldn’t talk to a woman. So, it was his sister who said ‘my brother likes you’, I asked her ‘which of your brothers?’ because they are six men and two women in their family. She said ‘the one that works in the bank’, I said we would talk about it later, so one thing led to another; the rest is history.
What did you like about him then?
I didn’t like anything about him initially because I thought he was very arrogant and cocky. Then I asked myself ‘who is this young man who was all over the place?’
What was the first two years with Bishop like?
About 35 years ago! What will I remember? Bishop is a person who will defend one anytime; if he loves you, he stands for you. He does not deny you once he knows you are doing the right thing. He is a great help and a good cook, he taught me how to prepare some meals, especially vegetable soup. It is funny because his is a large family with many people living with them; how he learnt how to cook vegetable soup still amazes me.
How did he convince you to leave your secular job?
He didn’t convince me because we started the ministry together. Bishop is a man who hungers for change and improvement in anything he does, which occasioned his travelling abroad. But before he left, he told me that had God spoken to him. At the time, I was very much involved in the ministry as an usher, choir and in almost every department. I was also working.
Where were you working?
I was a secretary to a white man at Adeniyi Jones Street. He said God told him that ‘it is high time I gave up the job’ to go into full time and that he told God to prove Himself saying ‘God, if it is You who sent me, talk to her’. When he came back, the then board members came to me and said ‘you have put in so much in the ministry, why don’t you become full time?’ I told them that I was going to pray about it, being the first of many children who all depended on me because my father was late. I told God ‘if it is you that is really leading us, when I talk to my mum, let her agree with me’ despite the responsibility on me. When she came to help when I had my first child, I told her my mind and she said: ‘’the Lord will provide. The best thing you can do is to work for God’’. Then, I threw in the trowel by telling the church board that I didn’t want any allowance for one year because I wanted to test God.
What is your take on the sharing of household chores between a man and his wife?
I don’t see anything wrong in this. I believe that a man should help the woman. If a man can help in any way, he should; don’t force it on him, allow him do this out of his own free will.
How much interest do you take in how the Bishop appears outside?
He is the one teaching me; he is very stylish and fashionable. Honestly, he is very gifted in putting things together. My daughter used to say ‘mummy, if you want to buy anything for me, let daddy see it first’. This is evident in the way he dresses.
How do you feel now that he is turning 70?
It is God’s doing, because anywhere we go, people keep asking ‘what are you giving this man?’ It is the grace of God because his schedule is out of this world. I always beg him to reduce his activities, but he replies by saying ‘my friend, all you need to do, is to pray for me’. At a point, my daughter cautioned me that counselling him to reduce his workload might make him sick.
How did you overcome the thinking in some circles that women whose husbands are always on the move are not happy?
When you know what God has called him to do, you will give him all the encouragement. Even my schedule has been tripled. His being used by God gives me joy.
Has there been a time that you felt like ‘God, why did you call this man into the ministry?
Not quite, but during our trials, I said ‘God, this is rather too much, You just have to help us through this’. I said this because he travelled a week after our wedding. And he was away for six months.
What about the honeymoon?
We went to Ghana for a few days. And he travelled shortly after.
Share your memorable moments with the Bishop
Have you ever seen us on a motorcycle? His friend in the US loves motorbikes, so we both sat on one, though he can’t ride. In fact, we don’t know till date the person who posted this on the net. I’m a football and tennis lover…
I am a Chelsea fan.
We won the championship. I like the manager and some of the players, specifically Drogba. Bishop is a Man U fan, so when Chelsea wins, he gets angry. We watch football together, and because I love tennis, he became interested in lawn tennis.
Do you still have time for relaxation?
Yes, we do, because if we don’t, we will kill ourselves, especially when it is Sunday evening.
Having travelled far and wide, which is your favourite city in the world and why?
Do I have any favourite of all the places that I have gone to minister? I will say Israel because of the spiritual aspect, but in other places, once we check into our hotel, the next time I go out of the hotel is when we are leaving, except of course when I choose to visit a few places especially in the US.
Do you have any favourite state in Nigeria and why?
I like Uyo, in Akwa Ibom. I had my first experience two years ago.
How do you surprise Bishop?
Can anyone surprise him? It is very difficult to surprise that man because he will know where you are coming from, he is so sensitive. But I am going to surprise him this time round.
What are the things you share in common?
So many things; he doesn’t like pressing toothpaste from the middle because he feels it is a waste, but I am fond of doing this. We eat, exercise and play table tennis together in our compound.
What have been your achievements over the years in respect of women-targeted programmes?
A lot, God has really been gracious. We started like a mustard seed. You will be surprised if you see the turnout of women every last Thursday of the month because they are always about 3,000 to 4,000. When I turned 60 in 2012, my women who knew my passion organised a concert on cervical cancer as my birthday’s gift. We now go from one state to the other to enlighten them on the need to know their status on cervical cancer free; our doctors are paid from the concert’s proceeds. In all about 120,000 men and women in different states have been screened free of charge while about 5000 children were dewormed. We also empower widows maybe because my mother is one. At a time, God spoke to me and said ‘why can’t you start doing something for the widows?’ It is now an annual act as we send Christmas gifts to widows in the village. The rot in the educational sector gave birth to Word of Power Group of Schools. Today, by His grace, we have just opened a secondary school in Asaba, Delta State. Everything God has used me to pioneer came out of a burden. There is also a Skill Acquisition Centre for girls who become pregnant without any man claiming responsibility, They are made to undergo training here apart from being responsible for their ante natal needs until delivery. I don’t get involved in keeping the babies because we support several orphanages, free girls and those who found themselves on the streets of Lagos in search of greener pasture, but who later become sex hawkers, among others. My interest is that such girls must go to school or learn a vocation to be better women.
How do you advise young women to seek God’s face for choice of partner?
I tell them that they might not hear a voice, but must like the person. Nobody can tell you this is your husband; you must like the person and when you start praying, God will lead you. Don’t allow anybody to pull wool over your face and say this is your husband. Cases of such arrangements that backfired abound.
As a Bishop, how has it been working with other senior female ministers?
I do not only work with female pastors, but with good men and women. I give them their space. They know that when I want something done, I don’t take NO for an answer. There was a time the Bishop and I could not afford to travel together, but now, we have a lot of word pastors and teachers. The work is getting lighter because we have been delegating, we cannot be in it for ever. So many young pastors have been ordained because we want to make sure that when we are leaving, there won’t be any vacuum.
What are your family values?
I believe the husband and a wife should see things the same way and I believe that there should be an altar in the home because a family that prays together stays together. Training of the children is also very vital; you must pray about the school the children attend, among other issues.
What is your take on women getting involved in corrupt practices?
We need to tighten our belt because corruption has eaten so much into the society and this demands drastic decision. We are praying and the prayers are not in vain. I believe that in our own life time, God will give us the Nigeria of our dream, we will eat the dividends of democracy. All we owe President Muhammadu Buhari and other leaders is prayers as contained in the Bible that we should pray for those in authority.
Who are the people you admire in the ministry?
There are many women of faith in Nigeria now, who are doing wonderfully well for the kingdom and who I admire. TREM started without a woman pastor, it was so difficult initially; but we pioneered the women ministry, so there was no mentor so to say.,
What is your next major step for now?
As the door opens, we go in. This is because I don’t just do anything because I want to do it, I do what I’m led to do. We intend to build on the existing programmes as we intend to have more skill acquisition centres in the villages so as to stem rural-urban drift. The feedback from our pioneer centre in the South-East is encouraging us to do more. Women who have benefited from our training are no longer housewives but breadwinners. Some of them are now better bakers, hat makers, who not only feed their families, but empowering others through trainings. We send trainers from Lagos and provide them with accommodation. The young ones are now computer literate and the menace of roaming about aimlessly is becoming a thing of the past as we keep them busy with diverse vocations. All I do is to put value on somebody’s life, put smile on somebody’s face to make our world a better place. Impacting lives gives me fulfilment.
Is life a teacher to you?
Yes, it has taught me so many things. That we are where we are by His grace and if we refuse to help when necessary, somebody else will. The case of a call I received a couple of weeks ago from a brilliant girl, who I never met, but gave scholarship, telling me that she has finished her final papers in the university only waiting on campus for her project, gave me hope that with the right decisions taken at the right time, Nigeria will be a better place. The girl’s parents have been bombarding my phone with appreciation messages. This is one in hundreds of cases. What we have passed through has also taught me a lot of things; we are all living on God’s mercy, when you have an opportunity to help someone else, please, do.
What is your take on single parenthood?
It is not biblical, it is not right, if you find yourself in such a situation all well and good, we can’t condemn you. A lot of ladies get into the wrong hands out of impatience because they think they are getting old which result in single parenthood. But I believe, for every woman, there is a man, your time will come. Having a baby without deliberately counting the cost might be disastrous.
What are some of the values you got from your mother?
She is a woman of prayer till date. Even at 85 she fasts on Mondays and Wednesdays. I have just advised her that she should not exceed 12 noon whenever she chooses to wait on the Lord but she said the exercise had enabled her to bring up all her children.
What is your message for bishop on his birthday?
‘Man of God, I love you so much. Apart from God, you are the best thing that had happened to me. My prayer, my message for you is to keep on keeping on, the Lord is with you and I will love you till I die’.