Shirley Gunn learned to live by some simple rules during her nearly 35 years as an IMB (International Mission Board) missionary in Nigeria – spend time with and love others, hold tight to the Word of God, and keep her eyes open when praying with strangers.
Dubbed by some Nigerians as the “queen of robberies” after being robbed multiple times – including one time at gunpoint – the 67-year-old retired missionary has lived to tell about some difficult years. But the challenges are just part of the story for Gunn, who has grown especially thankful for her career overseas.
With the holiday season upon us, Gunn is quick to share about how blessed Americans are and how so many could sacrifice just a little more for God’s work. She saw firsthand the importance of the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering. Today the offering – with a goal of $175 million – supports nearly 5,000 missionaries around the globe.
“There is so much consumerism and materialism [in this country],” said Gunn, who retired from IMB in 2009 and now lives in Reidsville where she attends First Baptist Church.
Despite the difficulties of living in West Africa, Shirley Gunn has grown especially thankful for her career overseas.
“Is this what Christmas is about, or do we try to teach the true meaning – God sending His son?”
Traveling the tough roads of Nigeria for so many years, Gunn realized how important the offering was to keeping her ministry going strong amidst a challenging environment. Over the years, Gunn watched missionaries pack up and leave Nigeria because they were unable to adapt to the lack of resources, poverty and crime.
“Living in Nigeria, living in West Africa is difficult,” Gunn said.
Still, Gunn misses the place that had become her home. “I miss the Nigerians,” Gunn said. “I miss my work.”
Gunn was appointed to Nigeria in 1975. She went to work for the Nigerian Baptist Theological Seminary in Ogbomoso. There, she served as a librarian for 14 years. Though Gunn enjoyed her position with the seminary, she longed for days when she was able to spend time ministering to Nigerians suffering from leprosy [or Hansen’s disease].
“I would go out there and just be with them,” said Gunn, who would take them supplies, food and medicine.
In 1990, Gunn went to work for the Nigerian Baptist Convention in Ibadan, a much larger city between 3 and 5 million people.
With the convention, she helped head up the publishing ministry that produced a variety of materials – in three languages –for Bible studies, family and personal devotions, discipleship, evangelism, children’s ministry and literacy education.
It was in Ibadan, however, – where the city’s resources were unable to keep up with its exploding population – that Gunn found herself in a city of many desperate Nigerians struggling to make a living.
For many Nigerians, a single, American woman seemed too tempting a target.
“The office was robbed, the car I was driving was taken at gunpoint, and I was robbed in my house twice,” she said.
Through all of it, Gunn escaped virtually without a scratch, but the car robbery haunted her for many months.
“I had nightmares for months,” she said. “I would wake up seeing a guy with a gun.”
She recalled the time when a group of men forced their way into her home and were unable to find her hiding in a walk-in closet.
“An angel hid that door from them because they came in the room, took things out of the drawers, and went into the bathroom,” she said. “They never even tried the door.”
There was another time Gunn sat in her living room as robbers threatened her and nearly “tore down the house.” Gunn remembers sitting in a recliner praying out loud for the intruders. “I said, ‘Now Lord I know that you have created them for a purpose,’” she said.
“‘My prayer is that they will find a purpose for which you have created them.’”
“I was never physically harmed,” she said.
“They did push me, but I didn’t fall.”
Gunn said one of her drivers gave her some advice that she often didn’t take.
“He said, ‘Momma, I have tried to teach you that you do not close your eyes when you are praying with somebody you do not know,’” she said.
All of her trials, though, have left her undaunted and have strengthened her faith in God.
“I said if somebody is trying to drive me away this is not going to work,” she said. “When God tells me to go, I will go.”
In 2009, Gunn officially retired from IMB and returned to North Carolina where she was raised.
Today, Gunn takes care of her 94-year-old mother, Gladys, and tutors three days a week for the Rockingham County Literacy Project.
Gunn admitted she remains saddened when she reads headlines of trouble in her former homeland – where poverty and Muslim extremism is on the rise and Christians confront persecution.
She still believes there is hope for Nigeria.
“Reaching the rest of them is going to take a lot of being there and establishing relationships,” she said.
Gunn’s advice to future missionaries?
“Try to be with [your assigned people group] as much as possible and love them,” she said.
“We may not see the harvest … in our generation [but] the story will be told until Christ comes for sure.”
Like IMB President Tom Elliff, Gunn said the responsibility of impacting the tough areas of the world falls on all believers in Christ – not just missionaries.
“Everybody is a missionary,” she said. “All of us must be missionaries where we are and now.”
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