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Bowman pastor, son recall life of missionary work in Africa

When his airplane landed in Cameroon in 1981, Rev. Mark Nygard said he was intrigued by the perceived "wildness" of the country, but also uneasy over the possibility of disease and the unknown.

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Mark Nygard stands outside The Press office in November. Nygard has extensive missionary history in different parts of Africa. (Press Photo by Andrew Wernette)

When his airplane landed in Cameroon in 1981, Rev. Mark Nygard said he was intrigued by the perceived “wildness” of the country, but also uneasy over the possibility of disease and the unknown.

“There was a sense of no return when that door opened,” said the Bowman pastor.

Nygard served in Cameroon as a missionary with his family for 12 years, during which time he said they and others in their group maintained “remarkably good health.” They then went on two more callings in Africa over the next two decades, during which they experienced many different faces, cultures and ways of thinking.

Now, as the pastor of Bowman Lutheran Church, the Minot area native said his overseas missionary work is done.

He said his calling to become a pastor came suddenly one day when he was preparing a confirmation lesson around the seventh grade.

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“It filled me with energy and excitement, and it’s been that way ever since,” Nygard said.


Starting out

Nygard was ordained as a pastor in 1976 after four years at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., and spent the next four years ministering in North Dakota. He said he became interested in missionary work at the seminary and was required to learn the works of a pastor on home turf before he could be sent abroad.

In 1980, Nygard said he was called to go to Cameroon to fill a position as a pastor there. Nygard, his wife Linda and their 2-year-old daughter went to France for a year to learn French before they continued on to the country.

He and his family left in 1992, after which they spent two years in North Dakota before engaging in a five-year mission in Senegal. After returning to the U.S. again for a period, he and his wife went to Egypt in 2009 and worked there until 2013.

Throughout his time abroad, Nygard’s family returned to the U.S. now and then on furloughs of a few months.

Nygard’s son, Matthew Nygard, was born during the family’s time in France.

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Matthew, who now works in an accounting office at Bismarck State College, spent his childhood growing up in Cameroon, and later went to high school while in Dakar, the capital of Senegal.

“I had the impression that it’s a little unusual,” he said, comparing his upbringing to those in the U.S. during the times his family returned on furloughs.


Cross-cultural relationships

Mark Nygard said, as a missionary, one has an “in” with foreign communities that others might not necessarily have.

He said that, beginning in Cameroon, he learned how meeting new people can change someone for the better. Nygard also said he began appreciating those he met in the country as part of a “robust culture,” where they manage to keep up a pleasant lifestyle despite limited access to facilities such as hospitals and schools.

Nygard said one notable trait in African culture is its openness. In the U.S., he said people are taught not to bring up certain topics in conversation, such as religion and politics.

In his experiences in Cameroon and Senegal, however, Nygard said such topics are exciting to talk about. People will sometimes ask someone outright what religion they are, and why.

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Matthew Nygard said he came to accept the challenges of living a missionary lifestyle with the faith that it was all toward a “bigger calling.”

“If my dad risked the family’s health or safety, or spent less time with us, that’s what he had to do because of his calling as a pastor and as a missionary,” he said. “I identified with that.”
Matthew Nygard said he also considered himself “lucky” in being able to live a similar lifestyle to those around them, where he learned that life is “not all about having things.”

Interfaith connection was a great part of Nygard’s work. Senegal and Egypt are Muslim-majority countries, and Nygard said he interacted with the Muslim community daily in those places.

He even studied before he went to Senegal, and he worked toward a master’s degree in Islam at the seminary in Minneapolis as he was studying for his Ph.D. in systematic theology before going to Egypt.

Nygard stressed the importance of understanding and approaching another faith with respect when engaged in his line of work. He said it also serves to broaden and deepen someone “deep down on the inside.”

“We got to know a lot of cordial Muslim neighbors whom we would consider our friends,” he said.

He said this happens for most missionaries that do work in Muslim communities, the views of which he compared to many Americans who have formed of the religion following the 9/11 attacks.

Nygard noted that here have been atrocities committed in the past by non-Muslims, even by Christians.

“It’s dangerous to judge an entire religion by some act,” he said.


Adverse circumstances

Nygard has also worked in the midst of political instability. He said he was in Cameroon when the country went through governmental turbulence in the 1980s, but he said it was relatively calm in the countryside where he was.

He said the instability was more visible in Cairo at the beginning of the uprising in Egypt in 2011. Nygard said he was situated three miles away from Tahrir Square -- the center of the action -- but lived just off of a main route to it. He said he and those he was with saw thousands of people walk down the road before they were replaced with government personnel.

“You know, as North Dakotans, we don’t know what a tank on pavement sounds like,” Nygard said.

To his chagrin, Nygard’s church decided to evacuate him and his coworkers in January 2011. He described slipping out one night and facing numerous roadblocks -- some guarded by tanks -- on the way to the embassy plane.

“It was the evacuation that was the hard part,” he said of the whole ordeal.

Nygard said it was an “embarrassment” to be taken away from those with whom he was working, “as if I had rights to safety when they didn’t.”

He and his wife returned to Egypt after six weeks to finish work, and left the country for good in 2013 before coming to Bowman in 2014.

Matthew Nygard returned to Cameroon as a missionary himself some time after the family’ss return to the U.S. from Senegal. There, he said he worked in the treasury office of the local church headquarters, where he met the daughter of the local radio pastor.

The two eventually married in Cameroon, and they now live in Bismarck with three children.

“It was quite a remarkable time for me,” he said.


Back at ‘home’

With his work as an overseas missionary permanently finished, Nygard said there are things he enjoys about being back in North Dakota, such as the landscape and the people.

Then again, he said, there are many things he misses from overseas, like the languages and the sociality of other cultures.

“Could discuss a number of things that you miss mightily once you live deeply with people in another place,” Nygard said.

However, he said the same was true for the U.S. when his family was overseas.

Despite hardships he faced, Matthew Nygard said his overall experience overseas was positive, though he added this wasn’t always the case with other missionaries and their families. He said he didn’t know if he would want to put his own family into such a situation, despite his own desires to return to Cameroon as a missionary.

But, he said he finds meaning in the profession.

“As a Christian, I think being a part of spreading the gospel and seeing people’s faith flourish, joy and knowing the Lord -- that’s the biggest thing you can be thankful for,” Matthew Nygard said.

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