Fifteen years after the death of Archbishop Benson Idahosa, Margaret Benson-Idahosa, the Archbishop of the Church of God International, turns 70 on July 29. In this interview, Archbishop Margaret Idahosa who was in Lagos for her annual Christian Women Fellowship International- CWFI, shares memories of her husband and childhood amongst sundry issues. Excerpts:
How does it feel to be seventy? You look younger than that to me…
I feel the same on the inside of me. Although I cannot jump, dance and move like I used to, I know all of that come with age. One thing I know has been the secret of my peace is the fact that I do not hold grudges against anyone. When you offend me, I open up to you and forgive you. You see, forgiveness is not loss of memory but memory without want of vengeance, and that’s what I have on the inside of me because I’m preparing myself for heaven. I’ve been through a lot in this life and cannot afford to miss heaven.
Fifteen years ago, your being handed the mantle of leadership of your husband’s church attracted a lot of criticisms from all sides; how have you managed since then?
One thing my husband taught me to understand is that people will always talk about anybody as long that person has the breath of God in his or her nostrils. But he always told me: “If you talk back to them, it means you’re on the same level.” So, whatever anyone says, I commit to God because He put me in this position. When my husband died, I had my own agenda. I have four biological children and three others whom I adopted. I understood I was living in a man’s world, so, I began planning how I would manage my life after my husband’s funeral.
My first plan was to go spend three months with my son in the UK, spend three months with my first daughter and then with my third child before returning to Nigeria because my fourth child was still schooling at home. My plan was to travel round to my children’s places and maybe come to Nigeria once a year to see my mother and others. The ministry was not in my agenda. So, when I was put in this position, I cried to God about how timid I was and how male dominated the world was, but God did not answer until I had made up my mind. He said to me: “Margaret, I’m not moved by tears or your needs, but by faith. If your faith says yes, I God will not say no”.
I therefore began building my faith by reading books, praying, acting and all. One day, He spoke to me again, saying, “If I made the appointment, I will release in you the ability to perform and excel”. That he has actually done all this while. If you look at the Church of God Mission, you’ll find that I’m not the best preacher. There are some that are fire-brands and whose sermons could make the heaven kiss the earth. But God has been gracious to me.
At this point, do you feel fulfilled?
I feel fulfilled in the sense that I’m doing what God asked me to do. I feel fulfilled because I’m not copying anybody. I feel fulfilled because my children are all in the ministry. I have seen some pastors praying for their child to come to God, but I look at my children and glorify God because they discovered God on their own; not because of whom their father was or what I have done. They discovered God by themselves, and that’s the most precious thing God can do for a preacher; for the children to discover the God of their fathers and stand firmly to defend that God. I’m confident that even when I’m no longer here, they can stand until Jesus comes.
What went through your mind when your husband passed-on; didn’t you feel like suspecting anyone because of the suddenness?
We both went to the United States but on our way back, he told me to go visit the children in the UK and take care of their fees. Two days after, I was told he passed-on! It was a big shock! Early in that year however, sometimes in January, he told me: “Margaret, I now live for posterity, not prosperity, because I have all I need. Now, I live for people and what I can be remembered for.” I was dazed and advised him to go on vacation for a rest.
In February which was his 40th year into the ministry, he called me and said: “Margaret, I think I have finished everything God asked me to do”. I argued with him that one does not finish the work of God, but later in February, he repeated it again, and I became more worried because I believed God promised old age. He was supposed to be 60 in September that year and I didn’t want to agree that he was going to leave at that age. He passed on March 12. It was when I came to terms with the news of his death that I remembered he had said it earlier.
What do you miss about him?
Everything; his care, concern, love, messages, standing for people and the nation. I miss everything about him.
What attracted you to him?
I’m an only child and I was always fighting in the streets and at school. My mother made new uniforms for me almost every month because my uniforms always got torn after every fight. I actually stuttered and because I could not express myself, I got used to using my hands (fighting). My husband was living in the neighbourhood and would always come to settle my fights and counsel me against fighting. But as time went on, I took him as a brother because I had none. I even went as far as trying to choose a wife for him amongst my friends; but he told me he didn’t want a wife. I actually didn’t see anything in him; he had only a bicycle and was living in a rented room and parlour apartment. But I just liked him because he stood by me as a brother (I actually referred to him as bro), especially whenever I entered into trouble on the streets. He came eight years after to say he wanted to marry me, and when I finally accepted, we settled down. At that time he was a deacon.
You were relatively young when he passed on .What effect did it have on you?
My husband departed this world when I was 55 years old. Today I am 70 years. God has helped me since my husband passed on; I have never lust after any man. I had my husband and enjoyed him. It is now time to focus on God’s assignment than re-marrying. There have been men who wanted my hand in marriage, but I declined. Some would say, ‘Mama, you are looking good’. I always tell them, ‘thank you’, and that the way they see me has been through the backing of the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit that rejuvenates me. If you believe in the Holy Spirit, He will rejuvenate you.
You are the Chancellor of Benson Idahosa University. How have you been able to successfully run the university and manage church affairs?
Running a university is not an easy task. When my husband died, the university was not fully accredited then. We had to work on our programme. We were able to comply with rules, regulations and policy of the National University Commission. The university was approved by the Federal Government in 2002. For a state to even run a university, it is not an easy task, not to talk of an individual. We thank God that the foundation of our university is based on God .When God gives a vision, he will also make the provision. We want to thank God that the foundation of our university is based on God.
Is it Biblical for women to lead a church the same way men do?
God is not mad at men and women according to Gen.1:28-29, men and women were created by God, God gave both of them authority; not the man alone, to go and dominate and multiply. You can multiply by the Word of God or biologically. It is religion and tradition that relegated the woman. The mind of God is that men and women work together amicably. Before God, there is no difference but, traditionally, we have difference. If a man can fulfill the gift in him from the foundation, why can’t a woman as well? God has called the man and the woman. So, God is not mad at the man preaching and the woman also preaching. The Restoration Center, which is the Christian Women Fellowship International, was ordained by God. If God gives you a vision, He will bring people around to provide for the vision. God has been very faithful. When He gave us the name, He did not tell us the ups and downs on the way. Every day when we come together as a body to worship, God opens a little more about the vision. We have trained many women and empowered them.
What informed the establishment of Word of Faith Group of Schools? How do you react to the opinion on the establishment of schools by churches as an avenue to make money?
It is true that Word of Faith Group of Schools is owned by us and it is a fact that money is coming in from it now. But don’t forget that before we established it, funds were injected into it. We spent money to build the school, paid teachers and provided incentives to the management in one way or the other. We laboured to put the school in shape. It is just now that money is coming. But the purpose of establishing the school is not to make money but to train children from the cradle. Benin was not what it is today. At that time, it was called the City of Laws. If a native doctor told you to fulfill an appointment by 2pm, you had to be there. When the real gospel came, we let men and women know that God is not a killer. God wants you to give your heart to Him and He will protect you and your children. We have seen a lot of changes. Then, I looked at our children and told myself that, in 20 years time, our children should be able to contribute their quota to the development of the nation. This informed my vision to establish Word of Faith Group of Schools. I think it is better that we have the spread of schools than spreading the gospels of Sango, Ogun, Orunmila. When a child is developed mentally, he or she can become anything in life. So, our school is Christian-based. Whatever comes from the school is invested in the ministry.
One can see you functioning as a full-time minister of the gospel and a mother at home, two poles apart. How have you been able to cope especially as a widow?
I am able to function because I work with a team of men and women who believe in the vision that God has given to us. As you said, we have churches, schools, a university, a Bible school, a hospital and international leadership institutes. By the grace of God, any moment from now, the churches will have different bishops. I have one of the bishops seated with me here. He is in charge of our finance and budget. So, I don’t have to disturb myself on that. He is specially trained for that purpose.
The bishop in charge of administration is also here. He directs the affairs of the church. We have different bishoprics; so I don’t have much to do. It is once every two, three months that we come together to rub minds on our strengths and weaknesses and how to improve and move to the next stage. I believe strongly in team work. Everything we have today is as a result of team work. I have an office in the church. I do my work; when it is time to go home, I go and do domestic things. For example, I have a baby who is my seventh grandchild. When I was ready to come to office for this interview, the mother, my daughter, came and said she brought the three-month-old grandchild to play with me. I told her I was going to office for an appointment with journalists. That is why I came a little bit late. And soon as I am through here, I am going back home to attend to the grandchild. So, you can now see that when I am home I am a mother and grandmother. I don’t allow the work of the ministry to bog me down as a mother at home.
What do you cherish most as birthday gift?
Last month, we had a Council of over 300 pastors meeting. I overheard them making big plans for me but I told them I would be 70 years. Number one, I don’t need a husband. I had one, I enjoyed him. Two, I don’t need biological children again. God gave me seven children. I don’t need a house because I live in a palace. To maintain the house per month costs more than 50,000 naira. One thing I want as birthday gift is how to move Benson Idahosa University from the temporary site to the permanent site and I believe with the support of all of you this will be achieved.
There is a saying that women are to be seen and not to be heard. What is your opinion and what really equipped you as a successful female minister?
A woman to be seen but not to be heard is an old adage. We let women know that they must be seen and they must be heard. However, I am not asking women to usurp authority of men because God made the man the head of the home, if the head of the home is acting in terms of the provision, caring, educating, etc, there is no need for the woman to usurp his authority. But that which God has embedded in you is important. God put you there for your home and others around you in the community to enjoy you. Don’t die with the gift which God has given you. Do your bit at home, do what your husband loves you doing. But do not die with the gift which God has given you.