A wife's ultimatum takes one couple on a journey from Nigeria to Cincinnati's St. Andrew's Church

EVANSTON, Ohio - Over the years, any church that has hired Episcopal priest Rev. John Agbaje has received not only his leadership and community service but those of his wife Bunmi as well.

Two for the price of one, you might say.

Both are from southwestern Nigeria and members of the Yoruba ethnic group. Yet, they met in the United States, standing in a line at college. Between the two, they have five degrees, have lived lives of “firsts,” and have met not one, but two U.S. presidents.

Their latest stop is at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Evanston, where Rev. John was hired in 2013 and will be formally installed as rector in October.

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A strong believer in community outreach, one of the first things he did at St. Andrew’s was to take flyers to the malls and invite people to attend his new church.

But it is Bunmi who gets the credit for getting him back to church in the first place.

The roots of a relationship

Rev. Agbaje came to the U.S. from Nigeria in 1977, one of 28 students sent abroad on a program similar to the Peace Corps. He was sent to Minneapolis to receive training as a medical lab technologist, with the requirement that he return to work in a hospital in Nigeria.

He went home for two years, where he worked as head of a blood blank at the State Hospital in Akure. After his stint there, he returned to the U.S. to earn a bachelor’s degree at the University of Minnesota, with a special concentration in hospital administration.

Much of what shapes him came from this family.

His father, Joseph, taught high school, and later become a county treasurer.

“From him, I began to learn honesty, integrity, love, responsibility and punctuality,” Agbaje said. “My dad said there is no impossibility in the world.”

His father, a lifelong member of the Anglican faith, served as a lay leader and later a senior warden at St. Phillip’s Anglican Church in Aramoko-Ekiti, Nigeria. John’s three brothers all grew up to be clergy; one died in 2001.

His mother, Esther, studied home economics and became matron and head of girls of St. Aquinas College in Akure.

“I learned hard work from her. She was very caring and had a sense of hospitality,” he said. His sense of confidence abated when his father died in 2002, and his mother passed away in 1997.

“My cheerleader died."

Agbaji met Bunmi while both were waiting in line to talk with a professor at the University of Minnesota. Bunmi Agbaje earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Minnesota. 

After graduation, she looked for a job in the U.S. Eventually, she found a direct care position in a group home. Four years later, she became a unit coordinator and moved on to a bigger group home as the program resource coordinator. Beginning with the end in sight, she struggled to push herself forward.

A loving challenge

For two years, John Agbaje did not attend church. By this time, Bunmi had become founder of an African Christian Fellowship, and she gave him an ultimatum:

“If you are going to be my boyfriend, you have to join the group.”

They ended up at St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church in St. Paul. There, they met Father Richard Lambert and his wife Molly, who gravitated to the young couple.

“We’re not a melting pot. We respect and celebrate differences. You have to be patient with yourself. The world does not run on your clock.” - Bunmi Agbaje

“We were the only black people at St. John's,” said Rev. Agbaje. It didn’t faze the pair. Soon, following their lead, other young couples joined the church.

Father Lambert asked John Agbaje to become an acolyte, lay reader and lay Eucharistic minister. Another mentor urged him to consider the priesthood. Another year went by before the young Nigerian earned a place at VirginiaTheological Seminary.

St. John’s was a white congregation and the first to send a black man to seminary. John graduated at age 39 in 1995 with a master's in divinity. He then went on to earn a doctorate in ministry from the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago in 2001.

Meanwhile, the couple had married in St. Paul in 1984. 

Fixing houses, dodging gunfire

Father John Agbaje's first assignment was as associate rector at St. Paul Episcopal Church in Brainerd, Minn.

“They loved me,” he recalls. Living in nearby Baxter, Minn., they were the only black family in town. It wasn’t a problem.

“People are people everywhere,” Agbaje said. “I treat people with respect. I lead within a group that allows people to express an opinion. We knocked on doors, introduced ourselves, and had tea with the women. When you’re comfortable in your own skin, I trust you until you give me reason not to. We formed relationships and trust with our neighbors. We are still friends with people in Minneapolis.”

“A church is not an island,” her husband said. “No priest can do this ministry alone. All hands have to be on deck.” - Rev. John Agbaje

Bunmi Agbaje managed Focus Group Home in Brainerd, Minn., while

her husband split his time between two parishes: one in Minneapolis and one in Duluth. In addition, Bunmi Agbaje worked in several public library systems. She received a grant in storytelling and taught children values such as respect and staying in school.

Fast-forward to Chicago’s South Side where Rev. Agbaje  served St. Edmund Episcopal Church as associate rector.

“We dodged gunshots,” he said of his four years there (1997-2001). The pair were heavily involved in the community with city and police activities.

“We built on my ministry from Brainerd, by rehabbing houses, visiting parishioners, conducting Bible study, hosting inner-city ministry and community organizing.”

Rev. Agbaje even met Barack Obama, then the junior senator from Illinois. In addition, he was invited to the White House by former president Bill Clinton to discuss inner-city issues.

Taking the lead

By the turn of the century, Rev. Agbaje he was ready to assume a rector’s role, which he did at St. James Episcopal Church, an African-American house of worship, in Portsmouth, Va., where he served for 13 years. There, too, he was involved in the community, through a strategic planning review and a transportation referendum.

“The city welcomed us,” Rev. Agbaje said. “We fed the homeless, gave out Thanksgiving baskets, collected coats for kids and reached out to the parish youth on their grounds, meaning on the football field."

He became a steward of worship, Christian education, evangelism and development of lay leaders.

Today they have three grown children: John, Esther and Charles.

The formal installation of Father John Agbaje as rector of St. Andrews will take place on Oct. 5 at 4 p.m. at the church: 1809 Rutland Ave., Cincinnati. Contact (513) 531-4337 or visit the church website.

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