“Please, we need lots of your prayers,” she wrote recently to her fellow GCSRW board members. “Nigeria is very insecure; a lot is going on. I am trusting God for protection as we continue to preach peace wherever we go.”
A group known as Boko Haram (which translates as “Western education is a sin”) has been terrorizing northern Nigeria since 2009 in an attempt to create an Islamic state in Africa’s most populous country, which is split between a majority Muslim north and Christian south.
The attacks have become more frequent and bloody over the years, and the world’s attention was riveted in April when nearly 300 girls were kidnapped from their boarding school.
Social media campaigns (with hashtags like #BringBackOurGirls) have put pressure on the Nigerian government and other world leaders to bring an end to the violence. In May, President Obama pledged U.S. military support in helping search for the missing students.
But women like Iliya have worked for years to have women’s voices heard in Nigeria, particularly in The United Methodist Church.
Iliya said she was one of three women elders in Nigeria when she was ordained in 2000; now there are more than 20. Many more are local pastors serving the church part-time.
She said she has found that the laity generally are pleased to have women as pastors, seeing them as passionate, caring and committed to their ministry.
“They can appreciate our gifts and talents,” she said.
But not everyone is as welcoming. Iliya has struggled to have her ministry recognized or honored in the past under bishops who were not supportive of women. However, she said things improved dramatically with the election of Bishop John Wesley Yohannah in 2012.
Earlier this year, he appointed Iliya general superintendent, the position that oversees all the conference’s administrative affairs.
Iliya is the first woman to hold the post, but she said Nigeria now has four women district superintendents. She credits Yohannah’s willingness to break through the glass ceiling – or, as Nigerians call it, the “tick wall” -- in appointing her and other women to leadership. She
described her bishop in a recent blog post for GCSRW as “a leader with a heart for justice and equal treatment for all persons.”
The Book of Discipline requires all annual conferences in the United States to have a local Commission on the Status and Role of Women (COSROW) – or a group that performs its functions – but that is not the case in Nigeria. So a few months after joining GCSRW’s board, Iliya spoke to her new bishop about trying to organize a Nigerian COSROW.
With Yohannah’s support, she invited leaders of women’s groups in the three Nigerian conferences to a one-day meeting to discuss
women’s issues in the church and whether they wanted to form a COSROW. The UMC Book of Discipline (¶2102) calls for GCSRW and its conference commissions to work for “the full and equal responsibility and participation of women in the total life and mission of the Church.”
About 60 women gathered; some from remote areas had to spend a full day traveling. Iliya said she shared the description of a COSROW’s purpose and duties from the Book of Discipline and led discussions on the issues the women faced in their home churches.
Women reported issues of sexual misconduct and intimidation, concerns over the small number of women clergy and the lack of support for educating girls.
“These are issues that we all know,” she said. “We are trying to find a way to get men to talk with us” and find common ground toward solving them.
One question the women asked, she said, was what they could do when they did speak up about issues and yet nothing changed.
“I said, ‘in the U.S. it was like it is now, but they didn’t give up, so we can do it, too,’” she said.
“We can’t give up, at least for the sake of our young ones that are coming up,” she added. “Our time has come, so we can speak up as women. We know African women are very strong women and we can do anything.”
Although no official COSROW has formed in Nigeria yet, Iliya said she talks to church women about it whenever she visits meetings or celebrations.
“Each time I find myself there I remind them about COSROW,” she said.
Her dreams for the women of Nigeria are simple, yet powerful:
“I’d like to see women empowered to speak for themselves,” Ilya said. “I’d like to see young women see themselves as created in the image and likeness of God.”