Medical doctor and senior pastor of the House of Freedom, Tony Rapu, speaks with MOBOLA SADIQ about his calling, politics and other issues
What are your fondest memories as a youth growing up in the northern part of the country?
I didn’t really grow up in the north. People always make that assumption when they pick my passport and see Kano State as my place of birth. I have even had Immigration officials sometimes speak Hausa to me. People often assume that Kano is where I grew up. I was just born in Kano and we only lived there for about a year. My dad was in the civil service on a posting for a short while. Then, we moved to Port Harcourt, Rivers State and later Lagos State. My childhood was actually spent in Lagos. My fondest memories were in Surulere where I had many friends and I remember riding bicycles all over the place. Surulere was called ‘New Lagos’ at the time and was an emerging upper-middle-class neighbourhood.
As the Senior Pastor and founder of the House of Freedom, a group of ministries comprising This Present House, The Waterbrook, and God Bless Nigeria Church, what are your duties?
I provide spiritual and strategic oversight for the House of Freedom as a whole. Each expression has a team of pastors and leaders and they basically run the expressions with strategic direction from the centre. I coined the term ‘expression’ years ago to describe the unique style of ministry God has given us.
Each expression is unique, reaching out to different demographies of people in society. Most people know about This Present House, which is our flagship and was the initial expression we set up. But since then, God Bless Nigeria has been the expression that really reaches out to the poor and indigent communities in Lagos. Many of the videos we post on social media are from the work we do at GBN.
The Waterbrook has a younger leadership and attracts a more youthful segment of society. The style, music, and flavour are adapted to reaching out to that unique segment of society. We do not have the parish system that replicates churches but we work with different groups of leaders going out and targeting various groups of people.
What are the invaluable lessons you have learnt over the years as a pastor?
The greatest lessons have been those of leadership. As a leader, I have seen that the best of leaders are, themselves, followers. We are following God. If one takes one’s eyes off God, one may find oneself sinking, especially in crisis moments. In Christian leadership, we begin to learn that we must lead from the front. We must live out the principles that we are espousing. Christianity is not ‘do as I say’ but ‘do as I do’. The effective leader must model what he’s saying. He must live out his message. That is what produces the authenticity of leadership.
What are some of the most challenging social or moral issues you have had to handle with the people you work with?
As ministers, we’re always dealing with issues of ‘fallen humanity’. We live in a broken world and as such, we face several issues. Because pastoral work involves helping people live effectively, we encounter all sorts of problems people go through. From managing family issues to rescuing underage commercial sex workers in the ghettos of Lagos, to helping drug-dependent people and recently, managing crises emanating from the coronavirus lockdown. Really, all kinds of issues confront us in pastoral work such as marital problems, abuse and alcoholism. Our work is to help people arrive at a place where they can live out their full potential and help them manage crisis situations. This, of course, cannot happen without the spiritual input that comes from an understanding of the message of the gospel.
What are some of the toughest challenges that come with leading a large Christian organisation?
Leading a large congregation is one of the most challenging assignments in life. It truly tests one’s mettle as a leader. It is easy to lead people when they are paid or have some kind of contractual obligation to one. But it takes character, capacity, resilience, and giftedness to lead diverse kinds of people from diverse backgrounds. It requires great wisdom to navigate people in the direction one believes God wants them to go. Working with strong leaders in their own right and harnessing their strengths and gifts for the good of the entire organisation requires specific skills as well. Moses, in the Bible, had the same challenge. Having to keep his cool and lead God’s people was a major challenge for him. And eventually, that was where he erred and was unable to enter the Promised Land. Working with people with varying levels of understanding and revelation can be difficult. There are times one feels there’s a direction one should take. It may seem unpopular at the time but as a leader, one makes certain judgments knowing that there could be some negative outcomes. That is a challenge but it comes with the terrain.
As a social reformer, you have come across many people who have given up on life. What is the first thing you tell people like that to revive their hope?
The message we preach is essentially one of hope. Our hope is in Jesus Christ. Life in Christ is all about hope. In fact, we experience what the Bible calls a living hope. Our message is getting people to understand their inheritance in Christ. That God loves them and He is able to change their lives. Today, beyond the work we do on the field, the coronavirus challenge, as you are aware, has thrown many people into disarray. All around us are figures and pictures of gloom and doom. Our message of hope is truly what we can offer people in times of fear and uncertainty like this. Hope in the mercy of God and a better tomorrow— the sure hope of eternal salvation.
How do you handle people that refuse to be transformed after you have invested time, resources and prayers on them?
We always have to remember that we are not the ones who transform. We only care. It is only God that can transform lives. When one makes an investment in people and there is no change, as painful as that may be, we have to let them go. It is their choice. God created us as free moral agents and even though we want the best for people because we see potential in them, they have to see it for themselves. You cannot impose change on people. They must desire and be willing to embrace change for themselves. People often ask ‘Why do we do what we do’? The reason is that we see the inherent good in humanity. We see the potential God has placed in humans waiting to be discovered, developed, and deployed for the glory of God and the benefit of humanity. The decay and depravity we see around us is as a result of the fall of man in the Garden of Eden as a result of sin. The reason Christ came was to reconcile man to God and once again align humans with the perfect plan God has for them. We see drug-dependence not as a moral failure but as a chronic illness. Just as we don’t give up on an asthmatic patient because he has recurrent episodes, the same way we don’t give up on many of our clients because we understand that drug addiction is a brain disease. We never stop believing and trusting that change is possible. Besides, we never know at which point strength, insight, and the courage for a turnaround will come. For many, it is a lifelong battle but we are prepared to work with them.
What are some of the scariest moments of your visits to slums or places where you locate people in need of reformation?
We visited a section of Ijora Badia (Lagos) and preached in the market square. We had done some evangelism in the neighbourhood, then went to one of the brothels, as we usually did, to speak to the ladies and encourage them to pursue other alternative work. On that occasion, the men who managed the brothel then hired other boys to cause an uproar there. The young girls were their source of income and even more, they were meeting the immoral needs of that area. It took the wisdom of God and great tact to navigate out of that volatile situation.
When did you start visiting slums and what inspired that action?
I was working as a medical officer in the late eighties at a hospital on Olowu Street, Ikeja (Lagos State). At that time, and even now, the neighbourhood had a drug culture. Drug addicts and sex workers operated on the streets around the hospital. Many of the addicts found their way to the hospital at one time or the other, asking for help. That was the beginning of my journey with these people on the fringe of society. Today, that neighbourhood is still infested with drug joints.
One of those reformed by your ministry, who is known as Shanawole, has turned a new leaf. What do you regard as being most remarkable about his transformation?
There have been thousands of people who had been transformed over the years through the work we do. The majority are not known to the public nor do we want to publicise all that we do. God Bless Nigeria has worked tirelessly on the field since early 2006 to reform area boys and commercial sex workers and the church has seen thousands of lives changed. Freedom Foundation, the sister organisation, is the NGO that houses the structured programme that has social workers, nurses, and doctors. Freedom Foundation runs the formal residential programmes and has been in existence since 2001. We have been working with drug-dependent people privately for the past 19 years. Most of our work has been happening silently behind the scenes. It is only the advent of social media that has exposed some of the work we do. I created a special TV programme called ‘My Lagos Diaries’ just to highlight some of our work. GBN has a sizeable team of pastors and mentors who work with me on the field. Some were former street boys and gang members and all have great stories of transformation. It was only as people researched into the work we did that we decided to highlight some of it and to show the extent of God’s grace to change and transform lives. That was why we decided to occasionally publish selected stories. Many others are living transformed lives but no one knows about them.
Many churches have schools from primary to tertiary level. Why have you not established yours?
As a church, we have our marching orders from God and we build according to His instructions. Everyone must build according to the pattern they have received from God. We don’t do things because everyone is doing it. We do it because it’s what we are called to do. This is the reason many ministries have given themselves unnecessary anxiety trying to do things they were not called to do. That’s also why there is, sometimes, unnecessary competition among churches. The church does not have a school. However, my wife founded the Bethesda Child Support Agency some years back to provide quality educational services to the less privileged in poor communities. Right now, there are three primary schools and two junior secondary schools. Together with various partners and sponsors, over 5,000 children have passed through the schools in the 19 years of existence.
Many clerics have been in the news for the wrong reasons such as rituals and fraud. How damaging are reports like that to Christendom?
Throughout history, the church has been challenged with instances of human failures. It is not new. We need to know that these failures arise because people are human and they make mistakes. Anyone who is standing is doing so only by the grace of God. When there is a failure, the Bible makes provision for repentance and forgiveness. When this process is followed, God provides restoration. No matter how damaging the reports may be, it is God who is building His church and God will always have His way in the end.
Some people have argued that churches ought to be taxed, especially as many of them run profit-making outfits. What’s your reaction to that?
Churches should register the entities they have, to do the work they were set up to do. If one is selling books and tapes and making money, and one ploughs the money back into the business as a social enterprise, there are different tax implications.
Do you think religious leaders are doing enough to caution against corruption among public officials?
The roles of the church in nation-building are diverse. Not only should we speak truth to power, we should also provide the requisite morality and righteousness needed to turn things around. The Bible says it is righteousness that exalts a nation. We need moral standards of righteousness infiltrating the fabric of society. We must also be involved in the political process in terms of nominating and voting for candidates in the electoral process. Our work also includes preparing people for governance. Many of the Christians who have found themselves in government positions have been ill-equipped to manage the challenges of government. The church must be part of the process that brings people to power. Is it not when the righteous are in power that the people rejoice? We need to prepare people effectively for the rigours of government.
Do you support the notion that more pastors should get involved in the political affairs of the country and seek elective positions?
People perform best in their areas of calling. People who are called to politics should go ahead and seek elective posts. If they happen to be pastors, there is nothing wrong with that. If they are able to manage both sides of their calling, that is very commendable. But whether a pastor is called to seek elective position or not, all pastors should be involved in the political process of the country. Beyond prayers, our call is also to help (church) members understand their civic responsibilities as Christians. We should endeavour to engage the congregation to embrace involvement in the electoral process. Whichever way, pastors should be involved in the political affairs of the country.
As the COVID-19 pandemic has continued to cause concern in Nigeria and the world at large, what is your message of hope to people?
God will often permit challenges and even deploy difficult situations and tough times to work out His purposes. God is aware of COVID-19 and its attendant problems. The message, for now, is that God is good and regardless of what people are going through, God is still with them. He is God in good and bad times. He is God on the mountain and in the valley. He has not abdicated His responsibilities as a good Father. There is nothing that happens to us without the permission of God. We need to put our faith and trust in Him, even in the midst of difficult times.
We should take our fears and troubles to Him in prayer. We need to see that God can use crisis as a doorway to a new phase of life. God does not promise His people to take them out of the crisis but secures them inside the crisis. Christians often feel that they’re not supposed to go through crisis. We live in a broken world and crises are part of life. We are called to stand strong as believers. For those who have lost loved ones, or are affected negatively one way or the other, and for those who are fearful, we encourage them to put their hope and trust in God. It is a difficult time for all. But if we persevere, God will see us through.
Nigeria is a very religious country, yet there is also a high level of corruption. Where are we getting it wrong?
Often times, when people talk about religion, they are referring to the number of churches (and mosques in the country). The challenge is that this definition can be quite removed from the true essence of Christianity and thereby reduce Christianity to a mere religion, devoid of spirituality and genuine transformation.
We need to move beyond this form of religion that denies the power of transformation, to one that includes the working of God in the heart of a man or woman. Ideally, our beliefs should affect our way of life and impact our conduct. If we continue to perform religious acts without an innate change of heart, then corruption will persist. Corruption emanates from a heart that in itself is corrupt. It is the gospel that changes the hearts of men. Corruption will begin to reduce when our actions line up with the value system and principles of changed hearts.
How has your medical profession complemented your ministry?
Apart from the churches, we help in healing and we also provide training to people to prepare them to return to society as productive and self-sufficient individuals. As we speak, we have been overwhelmed with requests for treatment at our rehabilitation centre in Ajah, Lagos. We are now working on a new 70-bed centre in Lekki, which should be open in August. For the past four years, we have worked on a project with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, running a drop-in centre for drug addicts in the Empire area of Mushin. The centre is non-residential and serves the community by providing medical services, nursing care and psycho-social intervention for substance users and their family members. Drug addiction is a segment of addiction medicine, so I still use my experience as a doctor in the work we are doing.
Where did your love for power bikes come from?
I began to ride bikes as a student of the University of Ibadan, Oyo State, in the mid-seventies. The campus was large and my lecture halls were quite a distance from the halls of residence, so we used motorbikes to move around. The love (for bikes) developed and I graduated from small ones to larger, more powerful ones. Now, I ride just for fun and have a group called the Freedom Riders. We do a lot more than ride though. We organise social events and plan annual programmes that reach out to other bikers and generally promote safe riding habits. I don’t ride at top speed.
What were your childhood ambitions?
As a child, I always did well in school. At that time, if you did well in the sciences, your trajectory would usually lead to medicine or engineering. Over the years, it felt like an invisible hand was guiding me in the direction of medicine. Of course, my dad’s encouragement was also instrumental towards studying medicine. Years later, I would say that God has exceeded my ambitions. I neither desired nor wished to become a pastor. It was a calling I was gradually drawn into. In any case, I worked as a medical doctor for a few years before I went into ministry fully.
How do you relax?
I’m a family man and I take time out to be with my family. I also go to the gym and I love to eat out. Recently, I started cycling and that has been such an exhilarating sporting experience.
How do you like to dress?
I got my style from my dad. He used to wear those stylish British-made suits in the sixties and early seventies, especially the double-breasted ones with wide lapels. As he grew older, he moved from his suits and ties to white kaftans and the full agbada to events. He had trunk loads of shirts that he brought out in different seasons. My personal style is now more conservative but with a fashionable twist. Recently, I started experimenting with loose-fitting and comfortable clothing. Today, my go-to outfit would be the simple two-piece items with a short sleeve top and a Cuban collar. I think it’s quite conservative and trendy at the same time.
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