"We Do This for the Love of God"
How Mission Tradition is Casting Out Into the Deep in Nigeria
Nigeria’s poorest people need more than just food and water. They also need to experience the light of Christ in a society that has been plunged into darkness by economic turmoil, political unrest, and gruesome violence.
Fr. Angelo Van der Putten, FSSP, has served in our mission in Nigeria since 2013. He recently provided an update to Mission Tradition staff about the good our apostolate is doing in Africa. We hope his insights will inspire you to support Mission Tradition during World Mission Month
Mission Tradition: Father, the last time we spoke, Nigeria’s election was coming up and the currency was a mess. How are things now in the country?
Father Van der Putten: We survived that monetary crisis. We didn’t have any money for two months because the government didn’t print the new currency and wouldn’t allow the old currency to be used. So for two months, there was no money in the country. I still don’t understand how we survived. But we did.
And then we had the elections. Well, they weren’t really elections. The most hated of the candidates became President because that’s what he wanted. He bought himself into it and bribed, paid, and threatened until he became President. We’ve been living in a real hell since then, not that it wasn’t hell already. When this President was elected, the naira [Nigerian currency] was at 500 to the U.S. dollar. And now it’s at 1,000 to the dollar. So there’s an enormous amount of suffering. The price of food, for example, has more than doubled in most cases. A chicken is now selling for $7, but the Federal salary of $100 per month and the state salary of $50 per month haven’t changed. Everything is more than double what it was six months ago.
I’ve talked to lots of people and they’ve never experienced anything like this in their lives. The businesspeople are crying. It’s just horrible. It reminds me of Zimbabwe when they went through their monetary crisis. It’s catastrophic, and there’s no end in sight. The guy who is the President now is about 85 years old and half senile but power hungry. We’re going to be stuck in this spiraling anarchy for the next eight years. It’s horrible.
MT: Was he elected to an eight-year term?
Father VdP: No, it’s four years. But that doesn’t mean anything. You can get elected twice, but he wasn’t really elected the first time. So it’s obvious that he’s not going to be elected the second time. He’s ruling the first time so he’s going to rule the second time. So, it’s an eight-year term.
The previous President was horrible as well. He, too, cheated to become President. He had been the military dictator in 1983. After he stole the presidency eight years ago, he also made himself the Minister of Petroleum. Petroleum is the largest source of revenue for the entire country. So he made himself not only President, but also Minister of Petroleum. And he was making enormous inconceivable amounts of money daily.
The difference between now and then is that there was a petroleum subsidy. The retailers of the petroleum had a government subsidy so that they could buy the fuel. But now the subsidy has been removed. So the price of fuel is three times more than it was six months ago. And there’s no subsidy. All that money that the former President was putting in his pocket now goes into the current President’s pocket, including the three times higher cost of fuel. So the guy is just insanely, inconceivably wealthy.
The people suffer, of course, because inflation is about 400 percent. The poor people, if they’re not getting money from their friends in the United States, they’re completely out of it. I was talking to a businessman who deals in vegetable oils such as palm oil. He buys the oils, and by the time he goes to sell them within a month, he’s lost 200,000 naira due to inflation. So it just becomes absolutely impossible to survive. If you’re really wealthy, you can do that for a certain amount of time. But you’ll eventually run out of money.
This economic situation can only last for so long. We’ve always said that about the U.S. economy, and now we see the U.S. economy tanking as well, but nothing like what we see here. It’s inconceivable. I can’t explain it. The numbers are not computable by the Western psychology, so most people won’t even believe it.
MT: Are you at least able to buy and sell in the market and get the food your apostolate needs, even though it's now far more expensive?
Father VdP: Yes because I get the American dollar. I can exchange the American dollar on the black market, as they call it, and then use the naira to buy goods. But everything costs more than double what it used to. We went to the market for the last four days and there were no vegetables at all.
We were also recently on another lockdown. There’s a vigilante group [Indigenous People of Biafra] in the state who wants to have their own country and so they’re doing all kinds of anarchic things. So, for three weeks, we were on lockdown until noon. The people here live from day to day. They don’t have refrigeration; they don’t have electricity. And so, they survive by going to the market daily and buying the food they use. But for three weeks, we were locked down, except for on Saturday and Sunday. Otherwise you couldn’t go to the market, you couldn’t buy fuel, you couldn’t drive on the road. There was a great fear that they would just shoot you dead. So it’s been really horrible. It blows your mind how a society can exist in such complete and utter anarchy. But we do it here and we’re still alive.
MT: And meanwhile, there’s violence going on, right?
Father VdP: Well, not always. But there’s the threat of violence, of course. And that’s why nobody moves. For three weeks there was no movement, because if you did go to the market you could be shot. And they have shot people randomly and sporadically. So everybody’s terrified of dying. That’s why they don’t move.
MT: Are the Boko Haram militant Muslim group still very active in your area?
Father VdP: Not in our area. But we have our own terror. Most of the people here are Catholics from the Igbo tribe. And so we see Igbos killing Igbos. It’s tragic and completely insane. Igbos are killing other Igbos because the federal government, who are not Igbos, are not giving them their own country. You can’t possibly make sense of it.
MT: What’s the solution, Father?
Father VdP: The coming of Jesus Christ. That’s what we pray: Veni Domine, et noli tardare. Obviously, the Catholic religion is the solution. Many people here pretend to be Catholic. But they’ve received a spirituality, philosophy, and theology that are not strong enough to reform them like the traditional Catholic religion. And so unless they become truly Catholic, there is no hope.
MT: Well, Father, on a more positive note, I’ve been told that a benefactor has stepped forward to get you the property you need to expand your apostolate.
Father VdP: Yes, we’re planning to purchase land. We have some Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate here in the parish who are helping us establish our school. We’re hoping to sort out a land purchase before the end of next month.
In the meantime, we’ve rented a house that has 12 rooms in it and started a little school.
We have 38 children in the school, both boys and girls!
The boys study here in the parish. We added on to one of the buildings in the parish. We’ve got six classrooms for the boys here and 12 classrooms for the girls in the rented house.
The Sisters are running the girls’ school, and we have university graduates who are running the boys’ school. So there’s a little bit of hope, I guess you can say. These are extremely poor people, so we must finance everything. And they’re not used to the discipline, the curriculum, and the arduousness of actual education, so that makes it very challenging as well. But we started last week, and within a week the little ones knew their alphabet! The 10- and 11-year-olds are learning to read.
So even within all the anarchy and despair, we’re still trying to make some sense of it and bring some hope. With their education, these children will be able to live a Catholic life. The other Catholic schools in the area are non-functional. Without this formation, many of the children—the boys, especially—would become “Yahoo boys,” or online criminals. They get money from people in the West through insurance scams, COVID scams, and such. That’s very common here. And frankly, that may be one reason why the suffering isn’t even worse here, because so many kids are scamming people out of American dollars and living off that money.
Our school is a glimmer of hope. The problem is that the whole culture is so opposed to truth, justice, and righteousness. We must impose these values through the school because once the kids go into society, there’s going to be intense pressure to live as the rest of the country lives. But there’s prayer, and there’s God’s grace. So we’re doing what we can for the love of God and hoping that God rewards us—if not here, then with the eternal reward that we’re all living for.
MT: Of course. So, you’re serving 38 students so far. How many grades does the school cover?
Father VdP: We go up through the first eight grades. We’re focusing more on the primary grades so that we can try to get students into the culture of study, concentration, focus, and work. With enough discipline and sweat and tears, we hope to help them grow into adults of moral character.
MT: Beautiful. And I understand you’re trying to complete classrooms to accommodate the students.
Father VdP: We’re working on that and hoping that by the end of this month, we’ll be more stable. The principal of the school complains to me that we’re not set up as we should be. And I keep saying, “Hey, this is Africa!” We make plans, but they may not happen on time. Still, whatever we’re doing is far better than any alternative. So I don’t think we should be too upset that the school is not yet exactly as it should be.
Where the girls are studying now, the house has very small rooms because it was built as an apartment. But we’ve adapted it a little bit and use it for the school. We hope that with the help of our benefactor, we’ll be able to purchase land and build a school and convent for our Sisters.
MT: Do you celebrate daily Mass for the schoolchildren?
Father VdP: Oh, yes! The day starts at 7:00. They come to Mass and then they go to school. The school starts by 8:30. They have four classes in the morning. And then we have lunch with them and then they go home by 1:45.
For those kids who can’t or don’t want to go home yet, we offer extracurricular activities until 5:30. Then we have Rosary and Vespers, and the parents come to get them at 6:00 when they’re done with their workday. So it’s really neat because the children are with us all day long. Our extracurricular activities include sports, crafts, arts, carpentry, mechanics, plumbing, and electrical work, so the kids are getting firsthand experience. This is very unusual for Nigeria because their education tends to be purely theoretical. We’re great believers in practical knowledge. The girls also learn sewing, cooking, and knitting. I think the extracurricular activity is a huge asset to what we’re presenting them with in the school.
MT: Are you still growing crops to supplement your food supply?
Father VdP: Nigeria is like Hawaii or California. It’s subtropical. We can grow anything, anytime, all year round. But from November to May is the dry season. It becomes difficult to grow anything because there’s no water. The cost of running the generator to pump water is exorbitant, so we don’t have water for the garden during those six months. So what grows then are avocado, pineapple, oranges—things that would grow in a tropical country. But during the six months of rainy season, we grow mostly tomatoes, cucumbers, and corn. For six months, we grow our own garden! We’re feeding 25 to 30 people every day in the house, including kids, workers, candidates for the seminary, and helpers. So we go through a lot of food. What we grow helps supplement what we must buy in the market.
Without our Mission Tradition donors, we wouldn’t exist. We would literally starve to death.
MT: Are you still providing water to people from the surrounding areas?
Father VdP: Yes. We run the generator for two and a half hours every night and pump the water. So we have four big tanks that hold about 3,500 gallons of water. And then we disperse that to whomever comes with their jerrycans. And it’s good water. Our borehole is 300 feet deep and we have an inline filter. So they can drink the water and not fear getting typhoid.
MT: Father, you mentioned that you're feeding about 25 to 30 people in the house each day. How many needy people from the surrounding area are you also feeding?
Father VdP: On Fridays, people come but we usually don’t have enough food in the house to give away. So we’ll give them some money to buy rice or potatoes or other staples. We also have some families who we support on a regular basis. We give whatever we can afford.
MT: How are the improvements to your chapel coming along?
Father VdP: We’re slowly continuing to make improvements. We’ve put statues in. We’re putting a baldacchino in and painting it.
Our focus these days is much more on the living of the faith, and trying to get the people to think Catholic and be Catholic. For example, I’ve mandated catechism classes after the 7 AM and 10 AM Masses every Sunday. So for 45 to 60 minutes every Sunday after each Mass, the people are forbidden to leave the church! We close the church doors and keep the people in to teach them catechism. We really want the people to know the faith so they’ll understand what they’re living.
Surprisingly, the people are very happy with it! Sometimes you must force them to do what’s right. It’s certainly not an American or Western mentality. But we’ve done this for the last six weeks and the people have responded well. We hope the people will begin to understand what the Catholic faith is, why there’s a crisis in the Church, why we go to the Latin Mass, and why we want to live as Catholics.
MT: Father, what are the most urgent financial needs of your apostolate right now?
Father VdP: The most urgent is food because the people are starving. I don’t know how they’re still alive. And it’s just going to get worse. The economy is crashing. The naira is crashing. There’s no end in sight. There’s not going to be a revolution because that’s not how these Africans work. They’re terrified of being shot by the military. So I think there’s just going to be a lot of starvation here in the next year.
We’ve spent $100,000 to run the apostolate this year, and much of that goes into the school. It’s difficult to say exactly how much we spend on food. I know we spend about $2,000 per month on food just for the house, and when you add on the outside assistance we’re providing, that number probably doubles.
MT: Is it fair to say that the more funds you have available, the more people you could help feed?
Father VdP: I think so. But I am always cautious about being charitable. I make sure that there is a real benefit and consequence to our giving. We tend to look into a family’s life and help pay rent for the house, or pay school fees, or buy a bag of rice, so it’s a much more physical benefit rather than just handing out money. We’re really helping people who we think are deserving of the help and can benefit in the most suitable way.
MT: I think you mentioned on our last call that your Sunday collections are only $35.
Father VdP: They were around $20 but have gone up to $35. But since we’ve had 300% inflation, that $35 is worth about half of what we were receiving a year ago
MT: Father, what would you most like to tell our Mission Tradition supporters?
Father VdP: I tell the people here that Americans are very generous. But the most important element of that generosity is the supernatural aspect.
We do this for the love of God.
As Christ said, “If you give a cup of water to one of these children, you give it to me.”
I think it’s incredibly important to be supernatural in that generosity, so that when we give money we give with the conscious recognition that we give it for the love of Jesus Christ. It’s not just a humanitarian or philanthropic gesture—it’s an act of charity.
Without the American support, there’s no way we would have an apostolate in Africa. The good that we’re able to accomplish here, however little it is, is due to that generosity.
I want our benefactors to know that every Sunday, we celebrate our first Mass for them.
We also pray the Rosary every evening for them.
And on the thirteenth of every month from May thru October, we pray a 15-decade Rosary for our benefactors in honor of Our Lady of Fatima.
Please keep us in your prayers as well!