Some months back, I told the story of the Jenta Reads Community Initiative, and how a group of young men came together to make a difference in their community, with the establishment of a library and other projects. However, there was a part of the story that I didn’t delve much into. That part is how a Facebook relationship led to the supply of more books than they would have anticipated. I was able to link up with Thaine Norris during one of his recent stops in Nigeria, and he was willing to spare some time to talk about his involvement with the people of Jenta, his passion for mission and to help people around the world. This here is the story of Thaine Norris and his voyage to Nigeria with boxes of books to aid the Jenta Reads Community Initiative.
Thaine Norris is a 53 year old American, based in Colorado. He is a computer programmer by training, but a follower and a disciple of of Jesus. This faith of his, frames what he does and what he cares about and it has taken him round the world. He has been married for 31 years and he is blessed with 6 children, 4 of which are grown and away, so he currently just has 2 of them at home.
We quickly got off with the introduction. I wanted to know how he heard about Jenta Reads and this was what he had to say
I like the author C.S Lewis, and I have been part of a discussion group on facebook for C.S Lewis for many years now. One day, probably a year and a half ago, I started seeing these posts that were amazingly well written, very insightful, concise, and excellent. I thought “wow who is this person?�? So I looked him up and he was a 20 year old kid from Jos, Nigeria. We struck up a friendship through Facebook messenger, talked about books, talked about Jesus and everything started there.
I was friends with Lengdung, but that was a thing in itself. I never thought that friendship would take me to Nigeria, but then Lengdung is one of a larger group of friends. A group of about 15 guys, who have been working to bring change to Jenta. I began to see on facebook, all these posts about Jenta reads and Jenta Reads Community Initiative and I felt it was really cool. I told my wife, “Come, see what these guys are doing�?. One day we saw a graphic design that they had posted that said “donate a book today�?. That wasn’t meant for me or anyone outside Nigeria, but it was meant for people close by who could actually physically donate a book and many did. My wife and I began to think, hey we could do that too. I gathered together a lot of the books that Lengdung and I had been talking about already, plus many others and we put a box together. It weighed 33pounds, and I took it to the shipping store in my town and said; “I want to ship this to Jos Nigeria how much will it cost?�? Can you guess how much it cost? It was eight hundred and thirty dollars ($830). Do you know how much an airline ticket to Nigeria was? Nine hundred and thirty dollars ($930). It was only a hundred dollars more and when you fly internationally, you get two extra 50 pounds included in the price. I thought that’s pretty obvious. If I am willing to ship this, I could spend a little bit more, come myself, bring more books and meet these people.
There is this stereotype, that we from Africa or Nigeria (particularly) tend to take advantage of people from the West. Did you at any point feel paranoid about the relationship you had with a boy from Nigeria?
It’s a good question. In fact, at the Nigerian embassy when I was applying for the visa, the man said, “How long have you known this person?�? and I said about a year and he said “Do you know if he is a real person?�? But to answer your question, I had no intention of coming to Nigeria when I became friends with Lengdung. We just had this particular friendship around this author (C.S Lewis) and Jesus. In the course of time while talking to him, we shared books back and forth. One of them is an amazing biography called “The Heavenly Man�?, about a Chinese Pastor. I asked Lengdung if he had ever read the book, he said no, he had heard of it but never read it, and couldn’t get it. I work with brother Yun (the Author of the Heavenly Man), and his organization so I sent an eBook copy to Lengdung. He read, devoured it and wrote a beautiful letter to brother Yun saying how much this book had impacted him and changed his world view. I got to share the letter with brother Yun later that year.
In the area of being paranoid, I don’t think I was, because I have had some experiences in Africa. I came to Uganda five years ago and more importantly, we lived and worked on the Mexican border, working in ministry in Mexico. We were therefore, used to people wanting to take advantage of us. We were also used to the danger of us being in a position, having a lot and the danger of our influence over others. In other words, people would have the wrong motivation to listen to what we had to say, just because they wanted something from the white man. So I asked Lengdung a dangerous question. I said, “Are there any other books that you really wish you could read that you can’t get a hold of?�? And his response really was the reason that I came; because he said, “there are very many books that I wish I could get but I won’t tell you because I know what you will do next.�?
Mr Thaine came to Nigeria and made himself at home among the people of Jenta Community. This seemed strange because there is usually a class gap in such society. Why stay among the people instead of in a hotel?
To answer your question about coming to live among the people, these things were around personal relationships. I didn’t want to stay anywhere else except with them. If I had stayed in the hotel, what work would I have done? My work was to get to know these people and staying outside the community would have just been a hindrance. Not to mention time consuming, as it would probably take an hour each day, to get in and out of Jenta. My wife and I also practice hospitality in our house, it is always full of people (sometimes from all over the world) and it’s a wonderful thing. So I understand the value of being in somebody’s home, allowing them to host you, and just seeing the relationship that can bring. If you noticed, when we were walking across the street from the library, I said come to my house.
How has the community received you in terms of hospitality?
They have received me very warmly. I feel so welcome here, it’s just wonderful. And I didn’t realize the magnitude of the question you asked earlier, (why I didn’t stay in a hotel) because everybody said that. We met the community leader of Jenta and he said, “You are staying in our homes. You are not like anyone else.�? Not to be proud of anything, but what a blessing that has been. It has been a blessing to me too because I get to meet people and know them and grow close to them.
The Jenta Reads Community Initiative was formed due to challenges in the area. Thaine talked about some of the challenges he noticed
Of course, from outside of Nigeria, all we see on the news is the bad news and corruption, violence and all that sort of thing. So I can see that corruption is a huge challenge. It is difficult to have simple things like good roads, reliable electricity, social needs and amenities like that because someone has got their hands in the pocket for the funds for those things. Notwithstanding, I believe that is not Nigeria. That is human nature, unfortunately. We have corruption in our country too, it is just a lot more polished and hidden behind the scenes.
The vision for Jenta community is a unique vision, which is different from community projects in the Western world. Has it been hard to key in and align with the vision of Jenta reads?
It really hasn’t. Again, that is another reason why I came because not only did I have a relationship with these guys, talking to them as we shared about walking with Jesus & good books, but when I heard about the Jenta Reads thing, it really clicked. We had a meeting and I said the prayer that I say often, I try to say it every day but it is a very dangerous prayer. It says, “Lord what are you doing today and how can I be a part of it?�? For the most part, the answer to that prayer is in my own house. How can I support my wife? How can I help raise my children or my daughter? She is struggling and I need to spend time with her. Or my sons need help with this or that. That’s often the answer to the prayer. But as you pray that prayer and you are willing to do whatever he is doing, then that expands and it becomes the people who come and visit us in our home, our neighbours, our community and ultimately our world. So when I saw the “Jenta reads” story, and I saw them doing water projects, road repairs, having a vision for impacting the whole community, it clicked. The Spirit of God said, “This is something that I am doing and you can be a part of it�? and that’s why I came.
You have been very generous with your donations to Jenta reads. One of the major challenges we face in Nigeria is access to these books. Most times we see the books of our favourite authors online, but they are limited to a few people. Even when they come in through shipping, once it is converted to Nigerian currency, it is really expensive. Is the shipping of books a community thing or a personal thing?
I am not sure where God is taking this, because it began as a personal thing with our family bringing together some books. We wanted to make a donation and it was simple, but after visiting once and having brought two boxes of books, we began to see just how great the need is, to access books. So before we came this time, I made a post on Facebook to my friends to send books, and not just any type of books, but books that changed their lives; children’s books, how-to books and so on. This time, we had quite a few books from other people. Probably more than half of the books we brought this time were from other people, and we still had to leave two boxes behind. I am praying about that because I don’t know what the future holds. Questions like “what is the best way to get books into Nigeria?” I don’t know the answer to that question yet, but I am asking it.
Is Jenta Reads the only mission project you are working on right now or do you have mission work in other countries you are also involved in?
Jenta Reads isn’t the only mission project I am working on currently. I mentioned earlier that I work with the ministry of Brother Yun, who wrote the book “The Heavenly Man.�? That mission is called “Back to Jerusalem.�? Back to Jerusalem is the name of the Chinese missionary vision. I will try to say this as succinctly as I can. They’ve seen the gospel come to China from the West; the Europeans brought it (Hudson Taylor, Gladys Edwards). Now, they, in turn, say that God has raised them up, and called them to continue taking the gospel outside of China and the rest of the way, round the world and where it started. That is why they call it “Back to Jerusalem.�? It is not an organization, it’s just Chinese missionaries leaving China, sometimes illegally, to work in close countries in the Middle East, India etc. When you look at what is between the Great Wall of China and the wall of Jerusalem, it’s Buddhism, Islam and Hinduism and that’s where God has sent the Chinese. I work with them in the US, just doing support and organizing speaking tours and things like that. Then I have had few opportunities in Vietnam as well, to go and teach in a Bible school there.
In what ways do you think we in Nigeria, can do more for ourselves? This is because Mr Thaine won’t always come around and we need more Lengdungs and Philip Dimkas in our communities to impact change. What advice do you have for Nigerians in general, who might be reading this?
It is good that you phrased it that way because the answer is here; It is in the Lengdungs and the Philip Dimkas and the other young men that are working so hard to do this. The only thing that I have brought to Jenta Reads are some books, and they are not that many. I have brought some books, and I have come from my country. This only lent momentum to what they were doing. Jenta Reads began, they were spreading the message around the community, and then this guy from America comes randomly to support them and then the people of the community said; “wow what is going on here? This is really good.�? We don’t support Jenta Reads financially, we don’t support them logistically. We just come alongside and say; “What can we do to help?�? So far that’s what our trips here have been, and since we are a novelty, we can travel with them and help sell the vision of Jenta Reads. But to answer your question directly, the solutions to Nigeria’s problems lie in Nigeria, and they are with people like you. They are with the young people who are becoming more educated, who have initiative, who are willing to think outside the box.
Now, this is important; the way Jenta Reads is going about doing things, is not American or European and it is not African. It is simply another way of thinking. These guys are committed to working with Christ and asking him; “Lord, how would you have us do this?�? So far, that has resulted in a really different approach. For example, when I was here the first time, there was an opportunity somebody offered to pay for a larger facility for them to expand. But that offer came with some strings attached because this person was of a certain political party. Wisely, they said thank you but no thanks, we will trust God for what comes next and we know that he will provide. A few months later they had the opportunity to make a presentation at the Global Shapers in Abuja and they won. Now they have exactly what the guy offered. They have a three-room place, computers, and generally, they have a centre that is a place people can come to. That is because, they were willing not to be African, American or anything else, but were willing to say; “God how will you have us do it?” So I hope and I am willing to see God do more things as they trust him.
Will we see you back in Nigeria anytime soon?
I hope to be back next year and I am already planning the trip. I want to bring young people, together with some of my children and their friends. This is because they are just like these guys and they will get along so well.
Thank you very much, Mr Thaine. This has really opened my mind to what you are doing and I pray that God will continue to bless you and bless your ministry and what you have done for the Jenta community. I am sure they appreciate it and they have said it in different ways and we too appreciate it.
Thaine Norris recently visited Nigeria again. This October, his wife and Eb (a friend who has accompanied Thaine on different occasions) are returning to celebrate Eb’s birthday. This time without Thaine though.
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