By Chuck Goldberg
Missionaries John and Melissa Camiola live the ultimate irony in central Nigeria, right between the Muslim north and Christian south.
They’ve seen terrorism and bombings and civil unrest. They’ve seen desperate poverty lead to rampant human sex trafficking and slavery. They admit to seeing other things they wish they had not, but in the midst of all the chaos, they’ve experienced something else: incredible peace from God that affirms they are in the center of His will—peace that indeed passes all understanding.
Originally, the Camiolas had no plans for missionary work. John, 39, and Melissa, 37, met as students at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, marrying August 1997. Eventually they became houseparents at the Glenwood School For Boys and Girls in Chicago for 11 years, living with up to 15 at-risk children who attended weekdays with them, then went home on weekends.
When their church decided to send teams to various mission fields for 10-day trips, the Camiolas volunteered without concern for their destination. They wound up in Jos, Nigeria, in October 2005, working with a missionary who lived in a boarding school, just as they had in Chicago. Both felt such love for the people and sense of their need, they began their application to become missionaries immediately upon returning home.
Melissa, in particular, had felt God speaking to her as she and John visited a Jos cemetery.
“I saw all the tombstones of those who sacrificed themselves for the gospel,” she says. “I thought of myself as a strong Christian, but I had never sacrificed anything for the sake of the gospel.”
One tombstone’s inscription had a profound effect, speaking of life as a roller coaster worth riding, posing the question: “Why settle for a day when you can have all of eternity?” With that, Melissa knelt at that tombstone and told God she would go anywhere He wanted her to go.
For the last five years, the Camiolas have served as missionaries with SIM, which has more than 1,600 missionaries in more than 60 countries. Also, they have an outreach ministry to brothels and prisons called Grace Gardens, which houses, disciples and ministers to 40 human trafficking victims—all women and children. An estimated seven million orphans feed the trafficking industry for both sex and house help. The Camiolas say it is common to see 10- and 11-year-old girls as live-in maids, relegated to shabby living quarters while the children of the house live well.
When the Nigerian government rescues human trafficking victims in the Grace Gardens region (Plateau State), it turns them over to the ministry, since it is the only shelter present. Officials recognize that if these victims are returned to their families, they will again be sold, say the Camiolas. Others the Camiolas have rescued themselves, taking them into their family either on a foster basis or adoption. Their children are Jocelyn, 15; Nicholas (Nikko), 13; Josephine, 11; and Noah, 6. Two more are Nigerians they are in the process of adopting: Nansik, 4; and Joshua, 7 months. Another, Selnan, they had rescued from a brothel in 2012 at age 2—unable to walk, severely malnourished, dehydrated and more—but recently placed him with a family as a healthy, well-adjusted boy.
Melissa says her greatest joy is seeing the kids at Grace Gardens smiling and laughing, which never happened when they first came. Her favorite thing is seeing the women turning their lives around and emerging from Grace Gardens to lead successful, changed lives.
In addition to helping at Grace Gardens, John is running an effort called BAM—Business As Missions. It started as an effort to help others, but developed into a business—shipping containers to Nigeria both as a means of support and bringing in supplies for the mission field. At the same time, he trains Nigerians and Grace Gardens residents in business skills and how to use those skills to further the gospel.
The Camiolas indeed got their roller coaster ride, with no such thing as an average day. Plans will include such things as Bible studies, preaching in brothels, overseeing Grace Gardens programs and training for Melissa, while John is developing business relationships, overseeing other Grace Gardens programs, and indulging in his favorite activity of wrestling with Grace Gardens kids.
“Every day is different and difficult,” says Melissa, “but I enjoy the challenges and seeing how God works. We never know what tomorrow may bring—who will call and need ministry, whether rushing someone to the hospital, or someone having a baby.”
Their number one goal is to preach the gospel in Nigeria, believing strongly in coupling their faith with works, saying that living the gospel is helping those in need, not trying to convert anyone.
“We help ladies and children,” says Melissa, “but our main focus is loving them. We don’t force anyone to become a Christian. We help them where they are. We feel it’s our job to speak the truth and it’s God’s job to make results. In our ministry there’s a lot of failure, but I try not to let it get me down because it’s not my job to change lives, but to love them.”
The Camiolas acknowledge they indeed got their roller coaster ride in Nigeria, living in a sometimes dangerous environment in a guarded compound, just as everyone else must; however, they remain unfazed.
“Sometimes we face criticism for putting our family at risk here, but it’s been good here,” says Melissa. “You could die in a tornado in Arkansas and be gone, but here we can be at peace because we know we’re in God’s will. At times it’s dangerous to travel and we stay home, but we can still walk boldly because God is at work.”
In their prayers, they ask God to speak to them through their children when the time comes to leave Nigeria. Now, the children are thriving, fully participating in the community without fear, but when it’s time to leave, they ask for their children’s peace to depart.
The Camiolas say it has been an amazing experience for their family, calling themselves ordinary people who trusted God. In the process, they have enjoyed a front-row seat to see Him do incredible things. Therefore, John especially urges American Christians to also get out and put themselves in a position to trust God for everything.
“I’m in awe of what God has allowed us to do here,” says John. “It’s pretty amazing to think the gospel is moving here, seeing people get to know Christ. My faith has grown beyond my wildest imagination. I thought it’s a very challenging place to live, but God gives a peace that passes all understanding. In the midst of chaos, civil unrest, terrorism and poverty, God has given us peace. It’s just a privilege to see how God is working.”
For more about the Camiola’s ministry, visit their website at: http://servinginnigeria.com.