EthicsDaily.com’s forthcoming documentary is titled “The Disturbances,” scheduled for release this fall. It is the untold story of Christian missionaries saving lives in Nigeria amid genocide there in 1966.
The early, working title had been “Genocide 66.” We have used that title with Twitter and Facebook. We even showed a 15-minute clip at our annual ethics luncheon under that title.
However, a better title emerged, as it often does, in the course of production: “The Disturbances.”
Such was the case with our award-winning documentary on Baptists and racism “Beneath the Skin.” It was the case again with “Different Books, Common Word,” which explored the relationship between Baptists and Muslims, airing on ABC-TV stations across the country.
The title for our work on immigration – “Gospel Without Borders” – came out of interviews and theological reflections with the diverse Christian community seeking to address the plight of the undocumented. “Through the Door” was a play off a highly successful ministry that helps women coming out of prison.
Our working title was good – the context of our story is genocide, after all. But as we move into post-production, our focus is clear: it’s what the missionaries did – and what they did and didn’t say.
Of course, when we first got started, we didn’t know if we would even find enough sources, information and stories to do a documentary.
We began with my own experiences in the seventh grade at a nondenominational mission school in Nigeria. We had some family correspondence from the year. We had my mother’s memory.
We didn’t have much else, mostly because very little had been written about what happened. Missionaries simply didn’t talk publicly about it. Some mission agencies even downplayed the events.
Fifteen months later, we have conducted 24 video interviews with missionaries, missionary children and Nigerians. We’ve collected more than 2,400 period photographs, including 8mm film footage.
We have a stack of documents – correspondence, minutes, memos, cablegrams, diaries. We’ve had scores of conversations with even more eyewitnesses.
We also obtained the shorthand minutes from a meeting of missionary executives and Nigerian pastors a few days after the events to determine what had happened and why.
Many of the documents, photographs and film reels have been sitting for some 50 years in family attics. Other material has been buried in denominational archives.
In terms of interviewees, we have traveled across the country interviewing missionaries and missionary children with the Assemblies of God, Christian Reformed Church, Church of the Brethren, Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Southern Baptist Convention and Sudan Interior Mission.
We discovered from interviewees and documents that a variety of terms were used to label what happened: riots, the killings, troubles, violence.
The events were frequently called “disturbances” in newspaper headlines, minutes, mission memos and family correspondence.
One Nigerian woman wrote to her missionary Bible teacher in Jos about what had occurred. She repeatedly used the word “disturbances.”
The clincher, however, was the word and the shorthand “symbol” for the word found in the minutes of that meeting only days after the events. The symbol is jarring. The symbol and the word carry a sense of mystery.
Thus, the name of the documentary with the full title is “The Disturbances: The Untold Story of Missionaries Saving Lives During Genocide.”
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.