BY OMIKO AWA
‘I think age is in the number… I don’t feel any difference; I feel the same way I have been feeling.’
‘If everyone of us can just add a little effort to help the less-privileged or needy in our society, the world will be a better place for all.’
TODAY marks another circle in the life of Bishop Peace Okonkwo, a woman whose life, ministry and soft heart have not only imparted on her generation, but also put smiles on the faces of many; giving hope of living to destitutes and raising women across the globe to be their best.
For someone who has joined the Club of 60-years-olds, the drums would have massively been rolled out and the city painted red. However, for the sake of those who lost their lives in the ill-fated DANA plane last Sunday, the celebration will be of low key, as a mark of honour to the departed souls.
Born in Obosi, Idemili North Local Council of Anambra State, Peace, the first child of her parents’ eight children, has only a faint idea of whom her father was, as he died while she was still a child, making the care of the family to rest solely on her mother.
Going through such childhood experience, where they had to struggle to survive, the now wife of Bishop Mike Okonkwo, the founder of The Redeemed Evangelical Mission (TREM), Lagos, vowed to make the society a better place for the less-privileged. This mission, she pursued through her various programmes for women, children and the youths.
Despite being 60, Peace could easily be taken for a lady in her 40s; she looks young and exhibits qualities that attract people to her.
Still thinking of her radiant appeal, you ask how does she feel being 60?
“I think age is in the number,”she says, amidst smile. “I don’t feel any difference; I feel the same way I have been feeling.”
But you are not looking your age what’s the secret?
“It’s God,” she says.
“A lot of people have asked me to go back to my mother, to find out my actual birthday. I think it is the grace of God that has made me look young because I have been travelling ‘back-to-back’ from place to place. It’s that grace that has sustained me, though I eat healthy and do a little exercise like walking, for I can’t do weightlifting.”
Looking back at 60, what are those things you regret in life?
Sounding depressed, almost in a low voice, the lady says, “I regret my not knowing the Lord early in life. But on the other hand, I still thank God that I married Bishop Okonkwo, because he has been the one urging me on, telling me, I can do it. He brought me up in the things of the spirit.”
Being the wife of a Bishop and the founder of TREM, a church that has over 160 parishes in 10 countries across the globe, Peace admits it is not a bread and butter affair, as there are prices to pay.
“Some of the prices I have to pay is being alone. You can’t share your personal challenges with anybody else, but God and the Bishop. People see you as someone without a challenge and look up to you to proffer solutions to theirs, yet yours are there unattended to. If not for God, I would say it’s quite a lonely road because there are things you can’t share with anybody,” she informs.
… Meeting the Bishop
WE met in the Scripture Union Youth Fellowship. After the Nigerian Civil War, everyone, especially those from the eastern part of the country, began to seek for the face God and praying for direction on the next step to take. So, I joined the SU fellowship, especially because of their music. I love music so much; therefore, it was a natural choice for me.
Though he was a chorister in the fellowship, the Bishop was very shy to talk to me about marriage; he confided in his elder sister, Reverend (Mrs.) Ilo. Before now, his elder sister had shown some likeness towards me and I do go to their house, which was a stone throw to the church, to greet her when going to church.
The first day I set my eyes on him, I took him for an arrogant person because of the way he carried himself and talked. I felt he was showing off, having come from a fairly-well-to-do family. So, I developed some repulsive feeling towards him. But with time, we got over it. When he made his intention known, I said, ‘if it's the will of God, it will surely come to pass." And that was where we left it while I travelled abroad for further studies.
While she was in England, young Okonkwo did not give Peace any peace, as he bombarded her with love letters.
“He was always writing to encourage me in the Lord and to keep our affair burning. The rest is now history, as I became the wife of Pastor Okonkwo on July 5, 1980,” she recalls with a smile.
How did you feel marrying a pastor then?
“People, including my cousin that financed my education, were shock to hear me say I was going to marry a Pastor. In fact, my cousin asked me many times if I was sure of what I was saying; but my answer remained yes. She said, ‘I hope you would not come to me for sustenance after marriage.’ But two years after our marriage, she came to say; ‘truly I was sure of what I was saying and thanked God for it.’ In fact, it is now that I am convinced that I was hearing from the Holy Spirit then,” she quips.
However, Mrs. Okonkwo reveals: “There were a lot of suitors coming for me, but I picked him and I thank God for that. At that time, it was not the vogue to marry a Pastor. People were worried why I should marry him when there were lawyers and well-lettered men coming for me, but I told them I needed peace in my life. I came from a very humble background; my father died when we were quite young and the responsibility of fending for the family fell upon my mother and aunty, who taught us to depend on God for all things in life. So, I told them my choice of him, as a husband, was good for me.”
How did your female friends then see you?
With a beam of satisfaction on her face, Peace says, “they thought I was crazy; they said something must have gone wrong with my head — for someone that schooled in England to come home to marry a pauperised pastor. Then, pastors were not on salary.”
Aside from monetary gifts, what other things did he give you?
“Gifts! There was nothing like that, not even a handkerchief. Imagine, when I was even going back to England on one of my visits home, he couldn’t afford to give me N10. Not that he was stingy, but he could not afford it and that’s why he stops at nothing to shower me with gifts today. He feels there is nothing too much to give to me now, because I was there when he had nothing.”
She adds, “however, during those teething days, he kept on writing letters of encouragement, affirming that all would be well. And on my birthdays, he would send letters that I would read over and over for hours.”
If you were to relive your life, would you still choose him?
“Yes, over and over, again and again, because I don’t like trouble; I am a very peaceful person and he, too, does not like trouble. I am not used to fighting, I am a very peaceful person.”
… Gathering women for prayers
BISHOP Peace Okonkwo is the founder of International Women Prayer Conference (IWPC), a platform she has used to mentor and direct women, especially those with burdens they can’t share with others, to come out of their closet and lead a normal life.
She says, “IWPC is a platform for women to pray. We started it with about 10 to 15 women, but the number has since increased to about 4,000 women, in each meeting. This increase is as a result of women from different places across the country, who, hearing of the good things God is doing in the gathering, have come to be part of it. Our number in Abuja has made us to move from the Women Centre to the Ecumenical Centre that has the capacity to take about 10,000 people at a time.”
Held once a month, every last Thursday of the month, from 9am to 12pm, the conference has extended its tentacles to other African countries such as Cote d'Ivoire, Gabon, Congo Kinshasa as well as countries in Europe, the Middle East and the US.
“Human problems are the same everywhere and God has been wonderful. In fact, I have Volumes 1 to 3 of what God has been doing in the conferences and Volume 4 would be unveiled on my birthday,” she says.
And the results?
“Oh, it has been wonderful. If you go through our praise report, you'll see how God has been solving our problems; how people referred to as barren women have turned into mothers, some mothers of triplets. People have been healed of different sicknesses and got different breakthroughs,” she enthuses.
Peace initiatives for better society
SEEING how her mother laboured to provide for her eight children, Peace set up different initiatives such as Widows Empowerment Initiative (WEI), Rehoboth Homes and Skills Acquisition Centre (RHSAC), Children Education Support (CES), Orphanage Support (OS) and others to alleviate the problems of the less-privileged in the society.
“I know how we suffered while growing up; so, I hate to see people suffer, especially widows. I embarked on building houses for widows and street girls because I learnt of a lady who died in a rest room. Though involved in streetwalking, she had no home to go to; she slept in the guest room. And when she contacted a disease, she refused to be treated on the ground that life was not worth living; she was left alone and she died. When I heard of it, I was touched and decided to embark on providing a home for the homeless,” she says.
“We constructed a four-storey building in Ketu for some street girls. We furnished it and as well trained them in different vocations, so that they can fend for themselves. But those willing to go to school among them were sponsored by the Privileged Foundation. Right now, we have about three or four graduates from that group, one of them is even in our church; she works in a bank and has a car.”
Free Cervical Cancer Screening Exercise
LAST Sunday, the committee responsible for organising Bishop Peace’s birthday ceremony unveiled its programmes, which include a musical concert to create awareness and early detection of Cervical Cancer, raise funds for the free Cervical Cancer Screening for over 10,000 women, especially those living in the rural areas as well for other charity projects.
Held at the Expo Hall of the Eko Hotel and Suite, Lagos, the PEACE (Providing Early Attention for Cervical Cancer Everywhere) Concert saw A-List artistes such as songstress, Onyeka Onwenu, the Midnight Crew and an orchestral group from the Archbishop Vining Memorial Church, Ikeja, thrill guests.
Why Cancer Screening during a birthday period that calls for celebration?
Peace, in an emotion-laden voice, retorts, “every thing I do is necessitated by something. Two or three years ago, I went for a seminar and we were shown a documentary where two or three women die every day of Cervical Cancer. After watching the documentary, I asked God what I could do to save the situation and He said you can do something.”
Did He say it?
“Yes, in my spirit, not that I heard an audible voice,” she says. “I later contacted an NGO that for the Pap smear and breast test for each woman for N1, 000. I shared the vision with my women and they keyed into it. But with that, I was able to have 500 women tested and those with the disease treated in Bida, Akure and Ogbunike.
“Turning 60, some women said they do not know what to give me as a birthday gift, as I would neither accept money nor any gift. So, they arranged to screen more women for free beginning from the eve of my birthday at the TREM headquarters, Lagos. After that, we will leave for the rural areas, where we are going with women that are in dire need of it. They never wanted me to know about it at first, but on a second thought, they came to me to pray for them so that it would be a success.”
She continues: “The NGO team is made up of medical experts. We are bringing them from abroad; we shall be responsible for their flights, hotel accommodation and others. We have also set up a train-the-trainer medical team from the church and the women outreach to join in the campaign.”
Would this not be too much for the church to bear?
“No, it is not the Church that is footing the bills. It is IWPC. Even now, we are constructing a Rehoboth Skills Acquisition Centre at Ogbunike.”
Working to stop kidnapping and other vices in the rural areas and make people visit their villages without fears of being kidnapped, Bishop Peace Okonkwo, through the IWPC, hopes to establish skills acquisition centres across the country, to enable youths and even the elderly to be trained in skills that would make them fend for themselves and keep away from crime.
“If you get the youths gainful employed, they won’t think of crime; so, we are planning a free skills acquisition training for the youth and any able-bodied person. This will enable them to be useful to themselves and contribute meaningfully to the society,” she says.
Drawing from the reservoir of her childhood experience, Peace is determined to make the society a better place for all.
She notes, “If everyone of us can just add a little effort to help the less privileged or needy in our midst, our society and the world would be a better place for all. The problem is that most of us are greedy; we want to have everything to ourselves, but the issue is, we are not going to take anything with us when we die.”
… And a Bishop
CONSECRATED a Bishop on April 22, 2006, the proprietress of Word of Power Schools, Lagos, has been recognised with different awards, which include the Nigerian Woman Of The Year (2005), The Eastern Nigeria Role Model Award (2005), SUMA Humanitarian Support Award (2006), International AIDS Candlelight Memorial Award (2007), Hope Award (2010) and others.
With all these recognitions, the Bishop says, “Be the best in any field you find yourself; work with passion and the Lord will surely reward you. If anybody had told me some years ago that I would be ordained a Bishop, I would had denounced it.
“I broke down and wept the day I was announced a Bishop in the church. I was not expecting it, because my aim is to do what God has called me to do. In fact, I believe in positively impacting on lives and making the society a better place to live than in titles or the name you bear. Though people jubilated on my behalf, I was there crying.”
Why the tears?
“The responsibilities and the knowledge that I have not gone far with my projects; I’m still trying to make my various projects better when this came. It was, indeed, a big surprise. I want to touch more lives. I went to Italy and saw how our girls were streetwalking, dehumanising themselves. I felt bad.
“Though I ministered to them and they gave their lives, the fact remains that something must be done to correct the situation because what these ladies are doing outside is from their parents … and we need to carry a campaign to them to stop their children from travelling abroad for this illicit trade. Those are some of the things I had wanted to devote my life to and not necessarily the title,” she equips.
My love for Chelsea and Arsenal
WITH tight schedules, one thinks the Kirkby College, Liverpool, Secretariat Studies graduate would not find time for leisure, but Bishop Peace has plans for each day.
“I plan my life and after a long session of activities, I rest to regain strength. When I close from work each day, I go straight home, sit on the floor and watch lawn tennis on TV. I love games. I am also an ardent football fan. Though I don’t know how to play the game, I love it. I’m a strong supporter of Chelsea and Arsenal football clubs, especially Chelsea and my favourite player is Didier Drogba,” she says.
And your clothes, any particular designer?
“No, I just try any woman that sews well and whenever I see anybody with a nice design, I ask who made it and go for it. However, I have tried somebody like Mafigy and she is good.”
Any special food
“I no longer eat to grow; I take more of vegetables and less carbohydrate. I eat healthy, because sometimes, I could stand for three hours ministering to women. And with that I have to be light,” she says, a smile lightly up her countenance.