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Aug9FriWhen Harrison and Evelyn Umudi were forced to leave Nigeria, they made a new life in Canada. August 9, 2019 by Kristin Ostensen
For the first 16 years of his life, Harrison Umudi didn’t know who his father was. “I’m from a polygamous home,” explains Harrison, who was born and raised in Nigeria. “My father had many wives and 33 children. He wasn’t even married to my mother, and that was why my mom never stayed in his house.”
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While polygamous relationships are not officially recognized under Nigerian civil law, the practice is not uncommon among people who hold to traditional beliefs and practices.
“Where I come from, it’s a source of pride when you have more than one wife and many children because it shows how wealthy you are,” Harrison notes.
So when Harrison and his wife, Evelyn, were not able to have any children after several years of marriage, their situation was not simply unfortunate—to Harrison’s family, it was unacceptable. “Not having children is a big deal because they believe that the family name must be carried on,” says Evelyn. “If you don’t even have one, it becomes a problem.”
That “problem” would eventually force them to leave their family and home country behind—after years of suffering, they immigrated to Canada in 2017. But now members of The Salvation Army’s Bloor Central Corps in Toronto, Harrison and Evelyn say it was God’s perfect timing.
Blessings and Challenges
Harrison was raised by his mother and grandparents, who took him to church from a young age. However, the faith he experienced was syncretistic. “For some people back home, going to church is what you do because that’s what everybody is doing,” explains Evelyn. “But you don’t really deviate from your traditional way of living.”
It was only after he moved away from his family as a teenager that Harrison developed a relationship with Jesus. He became involved with Scripture Union and Youth for Christ, and when he met Evelyn as a university student in 2005, he was already the pastor of a church he started on campus.
“The first time we met, she started preaching to me, asking me, ‘Have you given your life to Christ?’ ” he recalls. “I said no because I was curious. In my country, it’s rare to see young ladies talking to men about Christ!
“So I played along, asked lots of questions, and I gave my life to Christ again that day,” Harrison smiles.
The couple were married in 2008. “We had so much hope that this marriage would produce a lot of things, and the blessings came early,” Harrison says. “I was still a pastor and I had a good business going, too, on the side. But then we had the challenge of childbearing.”
In their second year of marriage, Evelyn became pregnant, but lost the child after six months. Two further miscarriages caused more heartbreak for them.
“That was when I began to have a problem with my family,” Harrison says.
Taking a Stand
After he met his father at the age of 16, Harrison still had little contact with that side of his family. When he did, there was often conflict.
“My father and I had lots of disagreements when it came to the issue of faith and some of his practices,” Harrison says.
Polygamy and child marriage were among those contentious issues. “When one of his business associates owed him money, he said, ‘Let’s settle—give me one of your daughters,’ ” Harrison notes. “He also married a girl when she was just a baby—he paid the dowry and when she was 12 years old, he picked her up and brought her to his house. These were some of the beliefs I couldn’t cope with.”
When Harrison and Evelyn were unable to have children, the family began to take an interest in their lives and pressured them to try traditional methods of encouraging conception. Such rituals included prayers and incantations, as well as consuming food and drinks prepared in ritualistic ways.
“Today, it’s one thing; tomorrow, it’s another thing,” Harrison notes. “Even though they knew that we had made up our mind, that we didn’t want to do these things, they were not discouraged; they kept coming at us with new ideas.”
“To take a stand against the traditional beliefs is not common,” says Evelyn. “In fact, it’s seen as you being stubborn. You will attract some kind of repercussion from the gods if you don’t do these things, so they feel that they are helping you.”
The final straw for Evelyn was when the family tried to force female genital mutilation on her. “They had the belief that to get pregnant, you needed circumcision, and I didn’t want to get involved in that.”
For Harrison, it was the constant pressure to take another wife. “They were blaming Evelyn for not having a child, saying she’s not fertile, but I said, ‘No, I won’t do that,’ ” Harrison says. “It may be in my father’s blood, but it’s not in mine. Christ has cleansed that part of life away from me, so I’m a new creation.”
Once they decided to leave Nigeria, it took them six months to scrape together the money they needed to buy plane tickets. But on May 9, 2017, they arrived at Pearson International Airport in Toronto, starting their new life in Canada.
Harrison and Evelyn were fortunate to already have visas for Canada because they were planning to attend a cousin’s wedding. Still, when they landed, they had limited funds and no local knowledge. After two nights in a hotel, they ended up staying at a shelter in Mississauga, Ont.
“It was the worst experience of my life,” Harrison says. “We were separated for the first time—they took her to the female section, and I went to the male section—and I was filled with guilt and shame, feeling like, Why am I taking my wife through all this?”
A caseworker at the shelter advised them to call Toronto’s Central Intake, and with persistence, they were able to secure a place at the Christie Refugee Welcome Centre. Once they settled there, they immediately started looking for a church. A woman they met at the centre suggested they try The Salvation Army, which is a 15-minute walk from the shelter.
They walked over on a weekday and though the church itself was not open, the office was. “We went in and we met Cedric,” Harrison recalls, “and he was so welcoming. I said, ‘This feels like home. This feels like what I’m used to.’ ”
The following Sunday, Harrison and Evelyn were the first people to arrive at Bloor Central Corps, where Majors Doug and Karen Hammond are the corps officers. “Major Doug was talking about hope and not giving up, and I thought, God, it’s like you sent us here to hear these words,” says Harrison. “It was very encouraging and inspiring. We left motivated, knowing that God had ordered our steps here.”
From that day on, they became regular members and volunteers at the corps.
Surprised by Joy
To the Umudis surprise, the immigration process was very smooth—by August, all their paperwork was complete.
As part of the process, they both needed to undergo government-mandated medical exams. Because Evelyn indicated that they still hoped to have children, she was referred to a gynecologist to explore her fertility options.
“The doctor didn’t have my medical records from Nigeria, so she wanted to start everything all over again,” says Evelyn. “I would have to run copious tests.”
Her follow-up appointment to get the results of those tests was booked for two months later. But as it turned out, she didn’t need them.
“The next time I called her, I said, ‘I’m pregnant!’ ” Evelyn smiles.
“When Evelyn showed me the test that said we were expecting a baby—wow!” says Harrison. “We knelt down and thanked the Lord for this blessing.”
Though the Umudis were excited, they also had mixed feelings.
“I was happy, but I had this fear,” Evelyn explains. “Is this really happening? Am I going to lose this one? And then God told me that this was what he wanted for us. After that, I was not stressed; I was strong.”
The couple decided not to tell anyone that they were expecting, but it didn’t stay a secret for long.
“The next time I saw Evelyn, she looked like the cat that swallowed the canary!” says Major Doug with a laugh.
The child, Kairos, was born on June 24, 2018. “Kairos is a Greek word meaning ‘the right opportune time,’ or ‘God’s appointed time,’ ” Evelyn explains. “After 10 years of marriage, Kairos came, at God’s appointed time. He’s a miracle.”
Kairos was dedicated at the corps last October, with the Umudis and Major Doug wearing matching purple robes. “It was wonderful and it was colourful,” remembers Evelyn. “A lot of people came.”
“God answers prayers in this place,” says Harrison. “God has showed himself so strong and mighty on our behalf since we’ve been coming here, and I thank God for this. The Salvation Army is a blessing to us.”
Major Doug says the blessing goes both ways. “We loved them from the moment we got to know them,” he says. “This isn’t where their story ends, it’s where it begins. It’s a reminder—one that we desperately need—that God can work beyond our imagination.”