Bishop Peace Okonkwo is married to the founder of TREM, Bishop Mike Okonkwo. As she clocks 65, she shares some of her life experiences with Ademola Olonilua
How do you feel at 65?
I have always told people that age is in the number. I am still going on and kicking on by his grace, so I do not feel different. I just thank God for the number of years that I have spent on earth.
Even at this age, do you still have some unfulfilled desires?
Of course, I have so many and you do not stop; there are a lot of things that I trust God for. Last year, the first set of our students from the skills acquisition centre which we opened in the village graduated. We had about 33 graduates and I believe in God that other villages too would have such centres in different states in Nigeria. That is where we train people without charging them. We decided to open up the centre because we realised that a lot of people are afraid of going to their villages. They are afraid of being kidnapped but the question is, what are you doing to improve their lives? The skills acquisition centre is for both genders and they learn different vocations ranging from barbing to dress making and also how to use the computer. I have a dream of doing more of that to help humanity.
How have you been able to maintain your youthful looks?
I would not say that I am doing anything in particular except that I have the grace of God on me. Everyone says that I don’t look my age and I remember when I turned 60, a deacon in our church jokingly told me to ask my mother my real date of birth. I make sure I eat healthy, exercise and drink a lot of water.
People would want to think that your tight schedule would have worn you out physically
Since last year, I have been too busy, travelling and evangelising. I come out of one plane and the next minute I am in another. But in my case, if I have 30 minutes to rest, I make the most of it. There is something I call power nap; that is what I subscribe to and by the time I get up, I am very refreshed and I feel fit. It has been the grace of God.
While growing up, did you ever imagine that you would be this big as a minister of God?
If I tell you that I knew, then I am lying. I just followed God and look at what he has done. I did not even see it in a dream.
So what was your future aspiration as a kid?
Coming from a humble background like mine, being a doctor or a lawyer did not come up; who would train you to become one? My father died when we were very young but one thing my mother did was to train us in the way of the Lord. She would say that God can do what your father who is no longer alive cannot do. We started serving God very early in life. My mother is about 87 years old and she is still healthy.
What would you describe as the defining moment of your life?
The turning point came when I was to decide on who to get married to. A lot of people came but as I pondered it in my heart, I said it was better to marry a servant of God because all those years, I had been following God. So I decided that it would be Bishop Mike or no one else because he was into the ministry of God. Even his people used to ask me if I was crazy for choosing to marry their uncle whom they felt was going crazy because he chose to be a pastor. To make matters worse, he decided to be a Pentecostal pastor at a time when it was not in vogue. If you wanted to become a pastor, you had to go to the seminary to become a priest. I just knew that I wanted to marry him and that was the turning point in my life.
We learnt that you still went ahead to marry him even though he did not have a job after quitting his work as a banker?
Yes, I decided to marry him even without a job.
But that is very rare….
This generation is crazy because most ladies are after what they can see. I did not care about what he had because I knew that it was God that raised us. We are about six in my family and even though I don’t know how we managed to complete our education, we are all graduates. My mother had only two clothes; she wore one on Sundays and the other during the week but God saw her through and made all her children to go to school. Having nothing did not move me at all because I knew that the God I served was one that would give me everything that I needed. My aunty was abroad, so she told my mother that one of us should come and stay with her and they chose me. When I travelled abroad and people were trying to persuade me against marrying Bishop Mike, I told them that I had made up my mind. He was not giving me anything. I remember that when I was based abroad, I came home about two times but my husband could not give me a penny because he did not have but I did not mind. I just knew that he was what I wanted and I knew that somehow God would make it good.
So now with the way he is and where he is, there is nothing he has that he cannot give me because I have been there when he did not have anything. So the young ladies of nowadays should take their eyes off material things but we are trying to train them. I remember when my daughter was about to get married, I told her that God instructed me to inform her that she should not look at money. She should not let money be her focus and she heeded my advice.
So what should young ladies look out for in a man?
They should look out for someone who is truthful and sincere. The world is so wonderful that people do not mind to become second or third wives; what are they looking for? I saw one in the newspaper where a 23-year-old lady married an elderly man as a second or third wife, I cried for her. I asked why her family left her to ruin her life. It is all about money. I think we have a lot of work on our hands. Choose a man that you would grow up with and not someone that is already made. If he is made, he would dictate how to live your life but if you both worked hard for your wealth, you would both enjoy it together.
So how did your husband propose?
Bishop is a very shy person and he could not talk to me. After the Civil War, everybody started to go to church because there was nothing to look forward to; he could not propose to me. It was his elder sister that walked up to me on his behalf. The lady just liked me, she is a pastor now. He told his sister that he liked me and she promised to talk to me on his behalf. The first time she spoke to me on his behalf, I shrugged it off and told her that we fought every day in church because I felt that he was arrogant. He drove his father’s car while we always trekked and whenever he got to church, he always wanted his voice to be heard but that was his nature. When you look at him at first glance, you would think he is a proud person but on the contrary, he is very down to earth and simple.
When his sister insisted, I told her that I would think about it but I had to go to school first because my aunty was planning for me to join her abroad. I knew his parents and all his family members so that made things easy; here we are today.
How was life without your father?
It was very tough and the day you had something to eat, you would thank God for it and the day there was no food, you also thanked God. You would go to school, they drove you out because of school fees, then your mother would go to school to beg. She would tell the headmistress that she would pay in instalments because my mother was a fish seller. Growing up was very tough, I cannot tell you otherwise. It was not even easy to pay the house rent but I had an aunty who helped us a lot. At a time, she relocated to England with her family, so she was the one that took me to England.
What led to the death of your father?
I did not know my father because he died when we were very small. The story they told us was that they poisoned him. I cannot really say what killed him.
How did you assist your mother to ease her burden?
I was working and going to school. There was a professor who was from my town, he got married to a white woman and when he came back to Nigeria, I went to see him and told him what we were going through. He said that he could put me in a company to work as a receptionist; I was doing the evening shift. He was true to his words so I was combining my education with work. It was tough combining both but I had to cope. Even when I was in England, I also worked as I schooled. I went to nursing homes where they housed abandoned babies and I took care of those children.
That was how I developed love for abandoned children and eventually built a home for them because there were so many children that were abandoned and it made me wonder how a woman would abandon her child.
Was there a time your faith was put to test and it made you want to backslide?
I have been born again for a very long time. I was born again during the days of Scripture Union. That was after the war. I am from Obosi in Anambra and during the war, we ran to Oba to the home of one of my friends. I love singing so there was this church very close to our house. I would go there to sing and that is how I started, I got born again in SU.
Of course there would always be a time your faith would be tested. There are times you would pray fervently for something but it would look as if the answer is not coming and it would make you ask yourself if you are doing the right thing. But by his grace, I have seen how God has taken care of my mother and that has helped me.
How did the Civil War affect you?
It affected us a lot. I would tie all my things in one nylon bag at all times. I had a friend from school that we ran to their house at Oba. She and her parents are dead now but they were very nice people and they accommodated all of us.
At what point did you move to Lagos?
That was when I came back from England. I stayed with Bishop’s elder sister for a while when I got back to Lagos. I was the secretary to a white director in Ikeja. At that time, her brother had already made up his mind that he wanted to marry me and he had told his family, so we were just waiting to tie the knot.
Can you share your educational background with us?
I went to St. Bartholomew school and when I came to Lagos, I attended Lagos City College for about two years before I travelled to England. I was in Liverpool and I did my A-level and was admitted into London College of Administration for secretariat courses.
How did you develop interest in tennis?
When I was in England, I loved Wimbledon a lot and my aunty and I could sit down at the court the whole day watching the matches; that’s how I picked interest in it. I even taught some people how to count the scores. I still play in the house because we have a court; I play with my husband till date. I love sports generally. I love tennis and football. I support Chelsea Football Club.
How challenging was it as the wife of the Bishop especially in building your church?
It was tough because I came at the onset of TREM, when we were praying to God to give us a name for the ministry. While we were praying to God, one day he told us to name it The Redeemed Evangelical Ministry. It was during the early hours of the day. We took the name and we started. In this ministry, I have been an usher, I sang in the choir and there is no department that I do not know about. I have worked in every ministry of the church. When the women came to clean the church for service, I was always the first to be present.
Was there a time you felt like quitting?
I told you that I was working in Ikeja. When I left work back then, I would go to the market, then I would start to cook. Sometimes I would finish cooking by 12 midnight and the next day, I would have to go to work. I remember getting into molue one day and there was a child who also entered the bus but it was filled up so I asked him to sit on my lap. I did not know the child was looking for my purse; he succeeded in stealing it anyway. There were days we drank gari without sugar, groundnut, or even salt. I remember one pastor came to our house and when he saw what my husband was eating, he told us that he would go back to his house and instruct his wife not to give him more than a piece of meat. There are days of small beginnings but today, it is not the same. I do not eat much because I don’t want to get too big but I can afford it.
When the fame and money came, how were you able to manage it without it getting into your head?
I know it is not me and I cannot give credit to myself but God. Every day we put ourselves in the mirror of the world and pray to God not to make us proud. He should not let us think that what we are doing is because of our effort. We pray to still remain humble. You pray about it and still watch yourself. At times the enemy word want you to feel big but we ask God to help us and he has been doing that.
Do you have any regrets in life?
I would say that there are things I wish that I had done but did not do. Life is full of ups and downs. I had my first child but she went to be with the Lord. I could have given up hope but I just told God that he knows what I don’t know.
Didn’t you question God when your first child died; how did you pass through that moment?
It was a very difficult and tough stage in my life. God blessed one woman through me during that period because after we went to bury her and we got back home, I told them that we should go to church. A woman later told me that the day she lost her cousin who she was training as her child, she remembered what I did and it helped her through that period. I did not know that God used that particular incident to encourage her. It was tough because she was the only one and I did not have any other child but I looked on to Jesus and he gave me another child.
So how did you feel when you saw your daughter walk down the aisle with her husband?
I cried and rejoiced. It was a joyful thing and I thank God. My daughter is a peculiar and a restoration child. When she was studying for her first degree and master’s programme, I refused to dictate to her what to study. I prayed about it on her behalf and asked God to direct her because it is not always good to dictate to children what to become in life. Today, she is working in the ministry. She had a job at the Bank of Industry, a very lucrative job but every day, she got back home she always complained that she was not fulfilled. She said that it was not about the money. When I was seeking God’s face for a child after I lost the first one, I told God that if he gave me a child, I would bring her back to him. God held his own end of his bargain and was watching me but today, I have fulfilled my part as well.
What led to your P.E.A.C.E campaign initiative?
There was a year I was invited to a programme that showcased the number of women that cervical cancer was killing and even though it is treatable, it kills women daily. God spoke to me to do something about it. When I was about celebrating my 60th birthday, I said that I did not need any gift; instead my life should be a blessing to people. I have good ladies in church and they planned the outing of P.E.A.C.E campaign and they did it for my 60th birthday. Since that time, they have been going to villages and a lot of women are being treated. Some women that could have died, God has saved them through this initiative. People have been donating towards it because we treat them for free and I remember going to the village one day and a pastor cried. He said that he wished I came earlier because his best woman died after contracting the disease. You are moved when you hear such things. That is how it started.
Such a project involves money. How do you fund it?
The first one we did, we extended invitation to different people and companies and I also sowed into it myself because I give towards what I believe in. If people donate anything, we send reports back to them once we are through. I believe in transparency. People have been giving towards the campaign as well as companies.
What are some of the testimonies you have heard during such campaigns?
I am so happy that lives that could have been lost were saved through the initiative because some people ascribe those deaths to witchcraft.
Why is it that you target the rural areas?
It is because those people are helpless. There is no money in the rural area. For over eight years, I would go to some rural areas, gather the widows and give them food and money. I do this every December. The first time I went, the women started praying from 9am till 6pm. When you see these women, you would know that people are passing through a lot of hardship. Last year, when we did graduation, we were able to touch the lives of widows and they were crying because they said they thought we would not come because of the way the country was. However, last year was the greatest year for us. What gives me joy is to see that I can be a blessing to someone.