October is national Clergy Appreciation Month, recognizing the contributions and service of spiritual leaders ordained for service in the name of God. This tribute was established in 1992 by a group of pastors and church leaders to honor those who serve in ministry. They grounded the celebration in Paul’s words to Timothy: “The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching” (1 Tim. 5:17).
Among the clergy we honor is The Rev. Bitrus Bamai, Campus Pastor at Maranatha, located in Brooklyn Center, MN. Outgoing by nature, Bitrus radiates spiritual energy, authenticity and resiliency that remain with people, lifting their hearts and giving them hope.
When Bitrus enters Bonnie Paulson’s room at The Gables care center, she smiles and holds out her arms for a hug. “Pastor Bitrus reaches out to everyone. He’s a real asset to Maranatha,” she said. Seeing her pastor makes it a good day because he was also at her side on the worst day: when her husband died this past June after enduring years of illness. “Pastor Bitrus was always there with words of comfort and reassuring prayer. He has been a great strength and support to me and my family,” she said.
Bitrus’ journey from his homeland in Nigeria to Maranatha has been filled with trials and uncertainties to overcome. After 19 years of parish ministry in northern Nigeria through the Evangelical Church Winning All (ECWA), Bitrus left his parish and home, saying goodbye to his wife Ruth and their five children, to pursue further theological study. With a letter of acceptance and a pledge of funding, he arrived at a seminary in Kentucky. His hopes were dashed when he learned that circumstances had changed and the school could not receive him. “That experience really broke me,” he said.
Bitrus could have given into despair, but a former classmate Rev. Philip Nache, who is pastor of an African congregation in the Twin Cities, encouraged him to apply to Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN. The seminary accepted Bitrus into its Master of Theology program, welcomed him into the seminary community and opened the door to his future.
A course at Luther introduced Bitrus to the ministry of caregiving. “I discovered that caregiving is where my heart is. I saw the need to use my story to encourage people who have experienced brokenness. The course prepared me to be the hands and feet of God to give care and hope.” Another course focusing on ministry with older adults led him to write his Master’s thesis on older adult ministry from both an African and Western perspective. “The essence of my thesis is this,” he explained: “Society may see older adults as people who no longer have anything to offer to the world. The Christian community must see older adults as human beings created in the image of God. They have their stories to tell us. They have experiences that we’ve not been through. They have wisdom that cannot be bought,” he said.
When the time came in Bitrus’ studies to find an internship, Rev. Kevin Welton, pastor of Bethany Baptist Church in Roseville, MN where Bitrus worshipped, introduced him to Rev. Kurt Linn, Campus Pastor at EagleCrest, a PHS community in Roseville, MN. Pastor Linn brought him to Rev. Chris Wheatley, Director of Christian Ministry Programming for PHS, who arranged for Bitrus to serve as a hospice chaplain intern. The volunteer internship confirmed Bitrus’ sense that God was calling him to older adult ministry but a new hurdle arose. With the accomplishment of graduating from Luther Seminary came the end of his student visa status. Bitrus required a new and different visa to remain in the US and continue working at PHS.
Pastor Chris rallied several clergy and staff at PHS and in the community to help Bitrus obtain his visa. Jim Chalmers, General Manager of International Recruitment at PHS, worked with immigration lawyers to make his application. Revs. Adam Blons and Corrine Freedman Ellis, pastors at Macalester Plymouth United Church in St. Paul, MN, brought him to the church’s board to be received as a member, validating his ecclesiastical standing. The PHS campus pastors and Optage Chaplains were joined by several other area clergy who lifted Bitrus in prayer and stood by him with encouragement and hope.
After months of uncertainty and waiting, Bitrus was granted the visa that allowed him full employment as Campus Pastor at Maranatha. Now, with continued help from PHS, he is working to obtain visas for his family who has not been with him in person for over five years. Photos of Ruth and their children adorn his office walls and he’s not shy about asking others to pray that his family be reunited in the US.
Since January 2019, Bitrus has served as the pastor to the entire Maranatha community, including residents, staff and volunteers. The staff at Maranatha includes immigrants from many nations and cultures. His own experience as an immigrant increases his empathy for their personal situations. Likewise they have come to trust him and turn to him for encouragement, spiritual guidance and prayer.
Everything he learned academically about older adults is confirmed in his daily ministry at Maranatha. “The residents give me joy. They are so honest and authentic. I know that they will tell me whether or not they think I’m doing a good job!” he laughed. He is genuinely grateful for such honesty; like when Bonnie reminds him with a graceful gesture to slow down while he preaches so that she and others can understand his message.
Bitrus overflows with words of appreciation for the clergy colleagues and others at PHS who have stood with him, advocated, prayed and bolstered his fortitude. “I would not be here without them,” he said. “This experience has transformed my life. Now, I hope to be a pastor at PHS for as long as the Lord wants me to do this. I’m so content.”
We deeply appreciate Bitrus and all our campus pastors and chaplains. We thank them for their spiritual leadership and the grace they bring to our communities every day. They fulfill a ministry of spiritual care and witness to the love of God in Jesus, encouraging us all to reflect that love in our daily work and lives.