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Review of Martha E. Farrar Highfield, A Time to Heal: Missionary Nurses in Churches of Christ, Southeastern Nigeria (1953–1967)

Author: Dyron B. Daughrity
Published: Winter-Spring 2021

MD 12.1

Article Type: Book Review

Martha E. Farrar Highfield. A Time to Heal: Missionary Nurses in Churches of Christ, Southeastern Nigeria (1953–1967). Los Angeles: Sulis Academic Press, 2020. Paperback. 332 pp. $19.95.

Martha E. Farrar Highfield has made an exemplary contribution to mission studies with this 332-page, carefully researched monograph on Churches of Christ medical missions during a crucial era in West Africa. A Time to Heal will provide helpful background to those interested in African missions in general, and in medical missions in Nigeria in particular.

Farrar Highfield is well-positioned for this undertaking, as she holds an RN and a PhD in the field of nursing. She spent her academic career at California State University, Northridge, and recently retired with Emeritus status.

The author’s interest in African missions was sparked when her family moved to the region of Onicha Ngwa, southeastern Nigeria, in the summer of 1964. Her father, Henry Farrar, was an MD who aspired to get involved in medical mission work for some years before. Her mother, Grace Farrar, was a registered nurse. They heard the “Macedonian Call” during the early 1960s and, with several other American medical practitioners, made the ambitious decision to establish a hospital supported by Churches of Christ. Indeed that hospital became a reality on August 21, 1965, and was named the Nigerian Christian Hospital (NCH). The hospital continues to serve mainly the Ibo people, near Aba, a city of nearly three million inhabitants. The hospital now services around 20,000 patients annually. It employs 150 workers, including six full-time physicians.

At the heart of the book is a series of tensions and frustrations. The Farrar family was in Nigeria during a most turbulent time—the Nigerian Civil War, which lasted from 1966 to 1970. It is heartbreaking to read of the difficult work and red tape required to establish the hospital, only to have it gutted and left riddled with bullet holes during the Nigerian Civil War. Henry Farrar’s commitment to the hospital remained firm, however, and he worked tirelessly to resurrect the work he and his family had poured their lives into. He and his wife continued to mentor nurses and physicians through annual visits that lasted until 2009.

This book is a blow-by-blow history that will prove to be extremely valuable to those with interest in the topic due to the incredible amount of painstaking research that has been compiled. Initially, Farrar Highfield had few resources to work with, as there is a scarcity of documentation and archived sources. This is a common frustration for missions historians affiliated with Churches of Christ, as that fellowship has no centralized sending agency similar to most Christian denominations. Indeed the notion of autonomous congregations sending missionaries is the norm in the Churches of Christ. Thus, it is left to chance whether a particular mission has preserved its history in documented form. Some missions were fairly adept at recording their reports and activities, but that is not the norm. Farrar Highfield conducted numerous interviews, listened to oral histories, and visited private collections to piece this story together. It is thus richly told with intimate perspectives on what was happening in Nigerian missions during those years.

Farrar Highfield states that her purpose in writing this book was to “describe missionary nurses’ leadership in COC healthcare in Nigeria (v),” and she succeeds in this endeavor. There is a particular concern with women’s history throughout that is refreshing. That is not at all to say that the men of the story—doctors and evangelists mainly—are ignored. Rather, Farrar Highfield maintains a healthy balance by moving back and forth between the key male players and their obvious reliance on the women who served the mission as equals.

The most obvious readership for this monograph will be those associated with Nigerian missions—particularly Church of Christ missions—during the 1950s through the 1970s. Academic historians who focus on medical missions will find much valuable information. Nigerians desiring to understand the cross-cultural, collaborative efforts that led to the Nigerian Christian Hospital will be heartened to read of the sacrifices that were made to get this project up and running. Westerners led the initiative, but Nigerians made it a reality.

Nigeria’s Christian population is massive today—around 100 million souls strong. This story is a careful, granular study of how that incredible growth happened in one corner of the nation. Focusing on spiritual growth alongside physical healing, many people came to Christ in Nigeria due to the efforts of the people discussed herein. All the while, the author tells a kind of family history that is obviously meaningful for her and likely served as the fuel to complete the challenging task of seeing this work through to the finish.

Dyron B. Daughrity

Professor of Religion

Pepperdine University

Malibu, California, USA

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