Photo: Natasha Schmale
Feature

Flames Turned to Hope

In the midst of war, Pastor Pius Mbahlegue courageously brought the
peace of Christ
to his village.

(Above) Pastor Pius Mbahlegue brings the fire of God’s Word during a sermon to his congregation in Bambalang, Cameroon. Pius preaches to his congregation from the Bambalang New Testament, which will be ready for printing in 2016.

(This photo) Pius’ wife Delphine stirs fufu, a staple food for Cameroonians made from corn flour. It is often served with a sauce containing fish or greens.
(Photo: Natasha Schmale)

Everything in Bambalang, Cameroon has a fiery tint. Blame it on the community’s red soil. In the dry season, dust films the landscape, covering palm trees and grass with a dark salmon hue.

This red dirt also gathers in the creases of Pastor Pius Mbahlegue’s black dress shoes as he tours the wreckage of homes in Bambalang. Memories of a devastating attack by a neighbouring village flood the mind of the pastor and Ndop Cluster Bible translator. About 400 homes in the village of 25,000 people were burned in the land-grab assault four years ago—yet Pius speaks calmly of the event. This wasn’t an ordinary war, because from those ashes came a powerful hope this community had never seen. 

Desperation

They had bullets, they had gasoline and they had trucks. Without hesitation, they came and burned more than 400 Bambalang houses to the ground. It was simple. These men from the neighbouring community wanted more land and this was a way to get it. For many in Bambalang, everything was gone: no food, no house, no clothing, no pots to cook in. There was nothing left. 

Naturally, villagers were angry. As one young woman told Pius: “I had a plan in my heart that I was going to go to that village and look for a very big house and set it on fire. I would burn the house even with the people inside. Then they would come out and they would kill me. I wouldn’t have to suffer. They would just kill me.”

Revenge would have been easy, but this girl found hope instead. By God’s providence, the Bambalang Gospel of Luke dedication was scheduled six days after the war was halted by the government’s rapid intervention battalion. 

“The Scripture was coming at that time—when something so disastrous, so terrible was happening,” Pius says of the dedication where the king and many nobles of the language group were in attendance. “Nobody in the village shall ever forget the first words God spoke to them [in their heart language] because those were the first words spoken to the whole village after the terrible disaster.”

A short time later, Pius taught two trauma workshops, where he shared a message of hope in the face of desperation, perplexity, confusion and anger. In the following days and months, the Bambalang team of the Ndop Cluster put roofs on nearly 100 homes, with primary care given to widows and those most vulnerable. 

By boldly following Christ in word and deed, Pius and his colleagues gained the respect of the community.  Because of Pius’ commitment to Christ, more and more people are seeing the true power and trustworthiness of Christ.

It’s Good to Be Curious

“You did not save yourself. You are not alive because you know how to swim. I saved you to come back to me.”
Pius Mbahlegue

Pius himself didn’t personally see Christ as trustworthy until he was a young man. As he tells his life story, his contagious smile is present even during a serious conversation. With his sharp eyes, gapped teeth, and deep voice, he captures your attention. He has a curious and polite manner just like he had as a kid.

Growing up the oldest of 11 children, Pius’ first love was science. He would spend hours memorizing diagrams in textbooks and dreamt about one day becoming a doctor. When he was in Grade 5, his father converted to Islam and introduced him to the Qur’an. 

“I used to ask lots of questions. I was often told, ‘You have to learn! You don’t have to ask questions,’ ” Pius says. “But to me asking questions was part of learning. When they were stopping me from asking questions, something in my heart [told me] that this is not the right place for me.”

Pius was curious. He couldn’t help it. Soon though, he and his family left Islam and instead attended church. Despite the change in worship, Pius says going to church—just like going to mosque—was simply something people did.  It didn’t really intersect with home life where traditional religion, such as ancestor worship and other African spirituality, was practised.

“Ninety-nine-point-nine per cent of those who were going to church were still really participating in those things,” he explains. “They were living in two worlds.”

Pius says he went to church for “a very long time without knowing Christ.” God hadn’t yet grabbed his attention. But he would soon—in a big way.

No Rescue

After graduating from high school, Pius moved to a Bambalang island, where he farmed a piece of land and fished the waters alongside Novethan Shanui, who wasn’t yet a Christian. (Today, he is a fellow pastor and Bible translator.) 

“This is the time for you to quit all your Christian stuff and take a break,” Novethan told Pius.

Caught off guard, Pius initially rebuked Novethan’s suggestion, intending to maintain his faith by reading his English Gideon New International Bible each Sunday.  However, after two weeks on the water, Pius had abandoned his Christian tradition and focused his attention on catching fish and making money.

One day Pius was traversing the open waters on his canoe, singing at the top of his lungs as he floated along. Approaching the forest in the distance—which had been partially submerged by the lake—he got so caught up in song that he lost his concentration. Losing his balance, he struggled to regain his composure before the canoe hit a tree. While his canoe floated away in the distance, Pius found himself in the water like a frightened dog thrown into a lake for the first time.

As Pius grappled for something to hold on to, so he could pull himself out of the water, a man floated by in his canoe—totally ignoring him. That evening, after he retrieved his canoe and dried off, Pius was deeply troubled.

“Why did this man not want to rescue me?” he questioned. “How terrible of a man who sees a man dying and he will not want to rescue him?”

“It’s not everybody that will have the privilege to go through Scripture verse-by-verse, taught fully in context and try to know the meaning of each word, each phrase, each sentence, each paragraph.”
Pius Mbahlegue

As he lay in bed, meditating on what had happened, suddenly he heard a voice: “You did not save yourself. You are not alive because you know how to swim. I saved you to come back to me.”

Feeling confused and frightened, he reached for his Gideon New International Bible, opening it up to Romans, his favourite book.

“No one is righteous, not even one,” he read from Romans 3. “All have gone astray like sheep and goats . . . the wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life.”

It pricked Pius deep in his heart. Deeply moved, he asked God to take complete control of his life. The next morning he immediately went to the owner of the island and told him he was leaving his plot of land and was done fishing. Pius returned to Bambalang and would become a pastor.

Fishing Through Scripture

In 2002, along with current translator and old fishing buddy Novethan, Pius was chosen by the chairman of Bambalang’s traditional council to develop a writing system for the Bambalang language. By 2008, they began the translation of the New Testament, which is expected to be finished by next year. 

“That is just so wonderful, so big to me,” says Pius of translating the New Testament. “It’s not everybody that will have the privilege to go through Scripture verse-by-verse, taught fully in context and try to know the meaning of each word, each phrase, each sentence, each paragraph.”

With a deeper understanding of Scripture in his mother tongue, Pius is able to offer his congregation a greater comprehension of Scripture in their first language. Instead of falling asleep in the service because the pastor is preaching in a language they struggle to understand, the congregation is learning the truths of the gospel. Rather than church being only a village social club, it has become a place of restoration. 

“Now they are hearing the truth in their language. . . .They are actually growing deep in their faith.”

Pastor Pius (centre) laughs as Canadian Dan Grove (right), the Ndop Cluster supervisor tells an animated story. Pius is gaining a bigger role in the cluster. He is attending seminary so he can become a much-needed translation consultant.
(Photo: Natasha Schmale)

Fisher of Men

It’s market day in Bambalang. Pius shuffles through a hectic scene. A large truck forces its way through a tight walkway and, in the distance, a man tackles a desperate, squealing pig with a rope. In the midst of the people scrambling and struggling to sell goods, Pius reflects a radical, different economy and a new way of life. In the chaos of the market, he is a calming presence. He is reached out to by villagers for direction and counsel. He is respected and honoured. As he shakes the hands of villagers, he realizes how much his place in the village has changed and how Christ has broken through the deep traditions and culture of his people.

He hasn’t always been so respected, though. When he was a young pastor he took his stand, refusing to participate in traditional religious practices. For instance, he refused to make sacrifices to “the god of rain” when there was a crop failure.

When the village fon (king) decreed that all Bambalang pastors should pray publicly for the success of the annual religious festival, Pius instead preached the gospel.

“People said, ‘No one has the authority to call the nobles in the village to repent,’” he explains. “They said that it is not fair and that I was going to die.”

With Pius under spiritual attack, churches fasted and prayed for him. Many in the community believed he would be cursed for his belligerence. But no harm came to him.

“Wow, nothing happened to Pastor Pius. He must have the Lord behind him. His God must be real,” people concluded.

God’s power was on display through Pius’ stand.

A New Season

As Pius looks at Bambalang’s countryside, perhaps he sees a parallel between the red dust that tinges the landscape and the hearts of the villagers. For many generations, local traditions and customs have clouded the hearts of the people from the touch of Christ’s gospel, their view obscured like the dust that fills the Bambalang air. 

Pius, however, can now see beyond the dusty red tinge in the air. He sees hope. The rainy season is coming and it will wash away the dust. With a bright smile, he looks in the distance. He knows that Christ brings rebirth and trusts that a new season is just around the corner. 

Pius tours Bambalang homes damaged in a brutal attack by a neighbouring village in 2011. Hundreds of homes were destroyed, yet in the devastation many found hope through Christ presented in mother-tongue Scriptures.
(Photo: Natasha Schmale)

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