Distinguished Alumni: Emmanuel Saba Bileya
Published by Nathan Bierma
Reverend Emmanuel Saba Bileya
Emmanuel Saba Bileya came to Calvin Theological Seminary in 2012. A pastor in the Christian Reformed Church of Nigeria, Bileya was pursuing a Master of Theology degree in Worship, studying worship practices such as the use of the Lectionary of weekly Scripture readings in preaching and worship.
In a letter to President Medenblik upon his arrival, Bileya expressed his appreciation for scholarship funds that enabled him to study at Calvin Seminary. He said he would like to demonstrate his gratitude by washing all the windows of the seminary building. And he did, one by one, cleaning the dozens of windows around the building, donating his work and his time.
The memory of Bileya’s generous gratitude, his eagerness to study worship, and his heart for building the church in Nigeria and around the world shaped the memories and the grief of the Calvin Seminary community after learning in June 2020 that Emmanuel and his wife Juliana were murdered in Nigeria. The couple were working on their farm in the state of Taraba when they were ambushed and shot by militiamen. They leave behind eight children and a congregation they cultivated.
In the weeks before his death, Bileya wrote to some of his former professors urgently pleading for prayers for peace amid tribal conflict in his region.
“It is war,” he wrote. “The Tiv tribe is in a serious war with my people, the Jukun/Itchen tribe. So far more than 10 of our villages have been completely destroyed and people killed. The Jukun/Itchen tribe has retaliated by destroying Tiv tribe’s villages and killing their people as well. … Many people have fled the town for safety, including my family, but I have remained in Mararraba praying and hoping for God’s restoration of peace and protection of the town and church.”
While Nigeria has suffered decades of inter-religious violence between Muslims and Christians, Bileya wrote that both of the tribes engulfed in this conflict were majority Christian, many of whose churches were planted by the same North American missionaries, and that the conflict stemmed from a farmland dispute. He wrote that the local government, beset by the challenges of religious conflict and managing the COVID-19 pandemic, was incapable of keeping the peace.
“Sometimes I feel like leaving Nigeria to work somewhere else that is more peaceful. I am tired of the insurgencies, communal clashes, armed robbery, kidnappings, poor economic that renders us live hand to mouth, and other serious vices. God the Sovereign is our only hope.”
In a Facebook post, John Witvliet, Director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and Professor of Worship at Calvin Seminary, recalled Bileya as a student and a colleague.
“He loved books, and was eager to organize shipments of books he could use with his students and colleagues in ministry,” Witvliet wrote. ”He was also very interested in analyzing the similarities and differences in ministry contexts in various places around the world, insisting that he needed to learn from as many different contexts as possible in order to discern what faithful ministry should look like in his context.”
Witvliet supervised Bileya’s thesis, which was entitled “The Liturgical Use of Spiritual Gifts: Discerning Next Steps in Contextual Nigerian Practice.” He completed his degree in 2014. Bileya also studied at the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies in Jacksonville, Florida.
In a letter to the Calvin Seminary community, President Medenblik recalled Bileya’s presence in the community and in particular his gesture of washing the building’s windows. “I will not look at those windows the same way from now on,” Medenblik wrote.
“The news of Emmanuel and his wife Julianna’s killing stunned and saddened me beyond words,” wrote Albert Strydhorst, program manager for the Timothy Leadership Training program and adjunct professor of missiology at Calvin Seminary. “I will always remember Emmanuel’s hope for peace and reconciliation between those in conflict. I’ll remember his heart for church-planting and theological education in Nigeria. For several years in the late 1990’s and 2000’s I worked with him in these areas, especially as he coordinated Timothy Leadership Training in the CRC-N. I’ll remember the energy and talent he brought to leading praise and worship with a remarkable beat, inspired and sharpened by his participation in the Calvin Symposium on Worship. And the love and concern he expressed for his wife and children during those months of separation during his CTS studies. And finally, his work as a pastor with his congregation in Mararraba–staying and praying and hoping for God’s restoration of peace.”
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