Out of love and respect for their "spiritual mother," four members of the Kuteb tribe in northern Nigeria made a trip recently to clean and better mark the grave of Johanna Veenstra, the first Christian Reformed Church member to go as a missionary to that African country.
"The plaque on her grave has been missing for at least 23 years," says Dr. Timothy Palmer, a Christian Reformed World Missions missionary who teaches at the Theological College of Northern Nigeria. "We have eight Kuteb students at the college. They are spiritual descendants of Johanna. But they were disturbed that her plaque was missing."
Palmer accompanied four of the students to the grave one Saturday in November "We took a bit of cement, some water, and some tools, and made a new marker," says Palmer in a letter he sent to CRWM officials. "I thought she (Veenstra) was one of 'ours.' But the Kutebs felt she was one 'of theirs.' It is because of her – and God's grace – that so many of them are Christian."
The Sudan United Mission from England first began the work in Nigeria. In order to become involved, Veenstra, a native of Paterson, N.J., joined the British mission in 1919 and arrived in her station two years later. She was engaged primarily in medical work and in preaching. She was stationed at Lupwe, which is near Takum, now in Taraba State, and eventually became director of the mission there.
Initially, progress was slow for Veenstra.
But she persisted. During her ministry in Lupwe, a number of people especially of the Kuteb tribe became Christian. The roots of the Christian Reformed Church of Nigeria (CRCN) lay in part in the work of Johanna Veenstra.
She died in Nigeria on Palm Sunday in 1933 and was buried in the non-descript grave in the community of Vom. The grave, which had been relatively untended over the years, is located near a hospital and car body shop. It is not to far from Jos, scene of recent unrest following a controversial election.
In about 1940, the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA) adopted the northern part of Nigeria as one of its mission fields. Over the decades, missionary work flourished. There are now more than 75,000 CRCN members worshiping in 100 churches. Numerous evangelism sites, preaching centers, and church plants throughout Nigeria are supervised by these 100 churches.
Today the three Reformed sister churches of the CRCN together are larger than their CRCNA “mother church.” "We thank God for his church which spans so many cultures and tribes," writes Palmer. "
The four members of the Kuteb tribe and Palmer cleaned and re-marked Veenstra's grave in mid November.
In addition to her missionary work in Nigeria, Johanna Veenstra is significant for presenting the mission needs of Nigeria to the CRC. Veenstra Seminary, the seminary of the CRCN in Donga, is named after Johanna Veenstra. In 1926, Veenstra wrote a book titled "Pioneering for Christ in the Sudan," about work being done in the area.
Veenstra is quoted in the 150th commemorative book, detailing the history of the CRC, about working as a missionary in a difficult setting. The quote is contained in her 1926 book.
"You ask me is the outlook then so very bleak? The outlook as viewed by the human eye is well-nigh hopeless. But blessed be God, there is something greater and higher than the outlook. We have the uplook. We see Jesus, crowned in victory … By faith we look up and hear an assuring answer to our question."
Lorraine Woodward, a CRWM employee who has studied the career of Veenstra and is writing an essay on the CRC's first missionary to Nigeria, says "she (Veenstra) was a visionary and, although she had some of the same colonialist attitudes that were so prevalent in her day, she truly loved the people she was working among."
People among whom she was working returned her love, which is why people even today in Nigeria speak so highly of her as their "spiritual mother."
"She was ahead of her time … and her work there, as well as her reports back to the people of the CRCNA, really did set the groundwork for our later work there," says Woodward. "She literally gave her life to missions."