Michael Abiola Omolewa: Dialogue with an Adventist ambassador and permanent delegate to UNESCO

Professor Michael Abiola Omolewa, a Seventh-day Adventist from Nigeria, is his country’s current ambassador and permanent delegate to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Born 11th in a large family, he was brought up with the prestige that Africa affords to the son of a village chief. His father, Daniel Omolusi, a senior chief of the Ipoti-Ekiti region of Nigeria, was among the first to welcome and host in 1915 David Babcock, the first Adventist missionary to the vast West African country. Young Michael began his education in 1946 at the local Adventist primary school – an early step that kept his heart and mind closely knit to the priorities of Adventist faith and mission all through his life. Early in life, Michael learned the value and meaning of the Sabbath. Whenever his educational journey took him to a non-Adventist school – be it grammar school or college or the prestigious University of Ibadan or Queen Mary’s College in London – he insisted on putting God’s worship first on the day of His worship. His educational journey, supported by scholarship awards that rewarded his brilliance, led him to a bachelor’s degree (honors.) in African history from the University of Ibadan. Later graduate study at the same university, along with a visiting research scholarship at the University of London, led him to a doctoral degree in history and historical research. His work career spans roles as high school teacher and university professor to high positions in the government of Nigeria and currently ambassador and permanent delegate to UNESCO. Professor Omolewa is happily married to Yami, and they have four children.

Professor Omolewa, your life story is out of the ordinary. If you were asked to give credit, where would you begin?

I have to begin with God. Early in my childhood, I learned from my parents that God should be first and foremost in life in order to make it rich and meaningful. My faith in God blossomed to the full when I attended the Adventist primary school in my village. There I discovered that if I honor God, God will honor me. It is in those early steps of Christian education that I learned the value and meaning of Sabbath, and I resolved to be faithful in Sabbath-keeping. My faith helped me grow all the way to university education, and even today I feel a sense of divine guidance every step of my way. Without that, I would be lost.

You have spent many years of life in teaching. Was teaching your first choice?

Actually, no. After completing my secondary education in 1960, I applied to work in a bank. The job paid much higher remuneration than teaching, and I needed to earn as much as possible to support my large family, made up of many siblings. I got the job all right, and it was with fixed hours and no stress and with prospects for climbing up the corporate ladder. But soon I discovered a big hitch: I had to work on Sabbath. No amount of petitions helped, and I decided to quit and look for a job where I could keep the Sabbath and enjoy the peace of a redemptive relationship with my Maker. So I joined teaching, which gave me free weekends, and ever since, Sabbath has been my priority whenever a choice of employment has come before me.

Your student and teaching career has taken you to several places of learning. During this journey, how did you maintain your link with the Adventist Church?

One might say that early habits stay with you. What I learned and practiced in elementary school has become an inalienable part of my life. From childhood, the church has been the center of my life, and I cannot think of a time when I could live outside the church. Not just on Sabbath, but throughout the week, the church and its mission has a grip on my life. As a teenager and as a college student, I enjoyed Sabbath School, taking part in mission activities, teaching and participating in class, and witnessing. So in 1974, as a fresh Ph.D. graduate, when I was ordained as a deacon in my local church, I wasn’t exactly sure which one to celebrate. I enjoyed my work as a deacon, and used that office to advance God’s work of grace in my faith community. I organized a local ministry group to study and witness with students at Samonda, a nearby outpost of the University of Ibadan. Thus, wherever my work or study took me, I considered the new posting as an avenue to witness for the grace of God.

Was there any particular emphasis in your lay evangelism?

The central focus of my witness was God’s grace. Doctrines are important, and I did convey the fundamental doctrines of our church, but above all doctrines stood the person of Jesus, whose grace and mercy is at the core of our redemption. One particular emphasis on this grace was to let it take hold of our complete lives, and I pressed this point in my contacts with young people. I always emphasized to the young people with whom I worked – in church, in the community, or in the classroom – that they needed to experience wholistic salvation – body, mind, and soul. So my evangelistic method was to touch life in all its dimensions – body as God’s temple, living a holy life, choosing carefully life partners, establishing an acceptable lifestyle, spending one’s resources wisely, and relating to the community of believers and seekers. I found this kind of wholistic evangelism very rewarding.

That’s interesting: a busy professor engaging in such spiritual activities. Is there anything else to tell about your involvement in church work?

In fact, there is. My childhood was closely linked with the beginning of the Adventist work in Nigeria. My father was among the first to welcome and host the first missionary, Elder David Babcock, to our community, tribe, and region. So when I finished my university education, I became curious to find out and record for history the beginnings and advancement of Adventist mission work in Nigeria. I researched with the help of the documents available locally in Africa, and then I went to the General Conference archives in 1976. That was a very rewarding experience, both spiritually and academically. Later, when the church in West Africa Division founded a theological seminary, now a university named after Babcock, no one could have been as happy as I was. It was my privilege to serve on its board from 1988 to 1997. I thank God that I have watched the birth and maturing of Adventism in Nigeria. What better privilege can one have!

Indeed so. Can you tell us something about your university life?

I was fortunate in being a student at the University of Ibadan, founded in 1948 as a college linked to the University of London. When the university began to function on its own in 1962, it continued to maintain standards and academic discipline, and I was blessed by this when I entered college in 1964, and later in graduate school. The doctoral work done there and the research pursued in London shaped my pursuit for the best in education. As the dean of the faculty of education, it was my privilege to promote excellence in academic work. Degrees count only if accompanied by a desire to work hard and work well. Adventists must not lose sight of this emphasis: “better” is our watchword, as Ellen White reminds us. The Lord has blessed me with publication of, or contribution to, some 47 books, in addition to numerous articles.

How did you get into diplomacy?

Here again I see God’s hand at work, as it was in the case of Daniel and Esther. When we are faithful to God’s calling in whatever work we do, there is no limit to what God can do with us. While I served at the University of Ibadan, I also had the opportunity of serving in national, pan-African, and international forums. My study and research in African history had their own reward in fostering international understanding and culture, negotiating inter-cultural and cross-tribal challenges, and promoting a sense of unity in the midst of diversity. Gradually, this shift in my work led me to serve on the Nigerian National Commission for UNESCO, and later as a permanent delegate and ambassador to this United Nations global organization for educational, scientific, and cultural matters.

In your present position, do you have any opportunity to share your faith commitment?

Committees can tend to be contentious. Colleagues can get anxious and stressed out over issues. At times like that, I like to calm them down and remind them of the existence of a supreme being who is in charge of all human affairs. At times, I share my personal testimony. Not all may accept my view, but at least there is a moment for pause and reflection, and that can be quite soothing. Within my heart, there’s always the assurance: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

Finally, do you have a word for our readers, most of them university students?

Very early in life, I learned that human beings in themselves have little role to play in determining the course of our journey. One may try, but for true success, it is better to remember that there is a Potter in whose hands we remain as clay. He can shape us. Just choose to remain in His hands. Be open for His movements. What He does with us cannot but lead to success.

David O. Babalola (Ph.D., University of Ibadan) is senior vice-president/deputy vice-chancellor of Babcock University, Ilishan-Remo, Ogun State, Nigeria. E-mail: profdobabalola@yahoo.com.

Michael A. Omolewa’s e-mail: m.omolewa@unesco.org.