Some people were born into the reformed community and that is a good thing. Some become reformed because someone invited them and that too is very good. Some others became reformed because they saw a CRC or an RCA church sign or a publication in local newspaper and decided to look in; after a wonderful welcoming experience, felt the church community was the place for them. Yet others browsed the internet or heard about it from back to God Hour radio broadcasts and decided to check it out. These are all great ways that lead to the Reformed Community of faith but none applied to me. The Lord led me to the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) and hence to the reformed community of faith through a web of unintended and unplanned seemingly human events that spanned over a six year period.
I was born and raised in Igboland of Eastern Nigeria, among the people who were part of the defunct Republic of Biafra. I left Nigeria for the US in 1997 and lived with my mother at the City of Newark in New Jersey. Before then, I have neither known the CRC or RCA nor heard the word “Reformed” associated with a Church. Having attended Boys Technical College, Aba for three years, where I was almost made a religious monk against my own will, I heard about John Calvin and the Calvinist reformation but never really knew that there was a reformed community of faith in the world, with many branches and members even in the middle part of Nigeria. Then, my closest encounter with the word “Reformed” was when a cult in Nigeria added “Reformed” to its name and became Reformed Ogboni Fraternity. Coming from an ethnic culture where names mean a lot and sometimes completely unrelated organizations can be blacklisted by virtue of their association with one word, it was initially not easy for me to take pride in the word “Reformed”, especially among fellow Igbos, knowing that the same word was associated with the name of a Satanic cult in Nigeria. But I learned quickly that I had to give up some of my highly localized cultural biases in order to live in the new land that the Lord had brought me.
Accepting the identity “Reformed” and taking pride in it, was not a transition without some questions. For example, I sought to really know what it means to be reformed. I also sought to know what we are reforming from. The answers I received from Rev Paul DeVries, who was my initial mentor, coupled with the loving embrace of the Everett Family, the Reitsmas and the Drukkers helped to strengthen my sense of appreciation of what it means to be “Reformed”. These families were worshippers at Unity Church in Prospect Park New Jersey, the very first CRC church that the Lord led me to.
The dramatic event that led me to the CRC was orchestrated by the Lord six years before I arrived the United States. In 1991, while my mother lived in New Jersey, she attended a Nigerian Pentecostal church based in New York. Whenever she traveled, she preached on the train or the bus that she traveled with. Sometimes, she preached on the streets. She was an itinerant Evangelist so to speak. If you are looking for an example of someone who is crazy for Jesus, Mama, as we fondly call her is certainly one of them! On one particular Sunday in 1991, she was returning from New York, having attended an all-night vigil and early morning service at the Deeperlife Church in New York. She joined a train with the hope of transiting at Hoboken. She overslept and found herself at Patterson instead. My mother felt that her presence in Patterson was God’s invitation to preach in that area which she was visiting for the first time. So, she preached northward until she arrived at Unity Church in Prospect Park, New Jersey.
On arrival, the church service was over and members were gone. But she had lunch with the “pastor” and his family. It will be clarified nine years later that it was not the pastor that she had lunch with but the custodian, Len and Linda Oppelaar, with their little daughters -Jessica and Erin. The Oppelaars lived at the original parsonage that was inbuilt together with the worship space. As was rightly pointed out by Linda in my facebook chat with her, she could have said to herself “stranger!” and shut the door but she chose not to because she has come to know that to receive and welcome a stranger in the name of Christ is to receive and welcome Christ himself. Though the memory of this unscheduled lunch with this beautiful family stuck in my mother’s head, the location and direction to the church did not. Since she did not worship at the church, she had no understanding of what kind of church that could have been. But, she managed to get back to Newark and did not visit that area again until six years later when the two of us went together.
But why did my mother and I go to Unity Church and what were we looking for? Note that Unity Church is located in Prospect Park, a city about 30 minutes’ drive away from Newark where we lived. Also, note that our residence in Newark was surrounded by at least 20 churches within one mile radius. A simple answer to this question will be that we were responding to a sovereign leading of God just as Abraham responded to God’s leading to move from the Land of Ur fully known to him to the land of the unknown.
Until this day in 1998, several events had happened as part of God’s means for leading us to Unity Church and hence to the CRC. First, it had become clear to me that I was not called to be a Roman Catholic Priest, an idea that I had once considered while in Nigeria. Secondly, I had begun to experience biblical disagreements with the Armenian theology on how we are saved and how the Spirit works in the life of the believer. I searched the scripture to see if the dead could do anything to come to life but all I saw was that every dry bone will remain dead until God acts on it, to give it life. Another significant event was my frustration with my church then over my immigration application. Having switched my immigration process from a Technical Worker to a Religious worker with the hope that it would hasten the process of adjusting my status, it was disheartening to note one year into the process that my application would not go far because this church that filled the application for me existed only in paper. All property supposedly belonging to the church were all in the Pastor’s name. This frustration and the theological disagreements previously mentioned led me to withdraw from the church and to start a church plant in my mother’s living room. Though, the membership of God’s Family Church as we were known continued to increase, the Lord continued to impress it on my heart that my calling at that time was not to be a resident pastor but to preach in the churches of the US. The members, numbering 26 were surprised when I announced to them that we should pray and seek the Lord’s face about the prospect of dissolving the God’s Family Church. After much fasting and prayer, we dissolved the God’s Family Church.
As soon as we took this step, the Lord opened doors for preaching in different churches in the area. I was preaching almost every Sunday. While I preached from church to church, the Lord also put it in my heart that I needed to be accountable to a particular church community, a Bishop or a Pastor. So, I began to pray and meet with the church leaders in the area. It was at this time that I discovered that someone can be ordained a Bishop with only one small congregation of 50 families under his jurisdiction. In the Pentecostal tradition, there are many possibilities! I also noticed that the degree of Spiritual authority claimed by most of the Pastors in the area over their members was excessive, something that I disliked about my Father’s church in Nigeria. I could not find a Bishop or Pastor with whom I felt comfortable to oversee my evangelistic journey but I continued to search as I preached from one church to another.
On one particular Sunday, I did not have any preaching engagement and wondered which church to attend. In the next room was my mother rejoicing loudly over an old calendar that she just rediscovered. As she went through this calendar to remind herself some of her past experiences, she loudly declared the name “Unity Church”. At that moment, it felt like I heard the voice of God say to me “that is the church that you should go, find it”. I rushed into my mother’s room and asked her about the church she then mentioned, where it was located and how we could get there. My mother did not have much to tell me about Unity Church but she remembered how she overslept in the train and ended up at Patterson. She also remembered that she preached on the streets of Patterson, ending that day’s evangelism at Unity Church car park where she met the “Pastor”. She also remembered having lunch with the “pastor” and his family. That was it! That was all the information that I could get about Unity. Thinking back, I wish that there was the internet but then internet was not yet available to the public. Then, who could imagine that GPS could be used for non- military purposes. So, I called 411 and got the phone number of the Church. With the phone number, I got directions to Unity Church.
One thing that I have learned from experience is that when God wants something to happen, He activates a GPS for you and for some others, creating new events or working on existing ones to create necessary the conditions to accomplish that purpose. It was not normal that I had a burning desire to travel for 30 minutes to attend a church that I have never known or heard much about other than my mother having a lunch with the “pastor” and his family. The abnormality of this feeling is traceable to my past. My father was a pastor. For most of my life, with the exception of the school seasons when I was in the boarding houses, I have lived next to the church. Even while I lived in the Boarding Houses, I attended the nearest church to me. I followed my mother to her church in New York but that was only on one or two special occasions. The church that I attended in Newark was a stone’s throw away from our residence. So, it was somewhat a stretch to think of traveling for 30 minutes on a Sunday to get to a church. But my excitement and joy was unimaginable as we were getting ready to go to Unity Church. I could not wait to see this church that God Himself was recommending.
Finding Unity Church was not easy on the First Sunday. I believe that the difficulty and time it took to find Unity Church was a further test of my faith. We left Newark at about 8am because we wanted to be in the area on time and if possible drive around a little bit within the city. But it took us over two hours of driving before we arrived at Unity. Could this just be that I lost my sense of direction or was this the Lord’s way of making it clear as to where my faith was coming from? My natural inclination was to have turned back after an hour drive. Cellphone was not yet popular and we had none. So, calling for further guidance was not an option. But we continued, asking for directions from persons we saw on the way until we arrived at Unity Church. I think that it was about 10.30 am that we arrived at Unity Church. The Service was about to be done when we arrived. Rev Paul De Vries was stepping up to announce the Benediction.
This was the first time that I saw more than ten Caucasians in one room. There were over 300 in worship on this day. Almost everyone looked the same. The church was packed. The members were very welcoming. I noticed a special excitement as more and more members realized that I was from Nigeria. The excitement was later explained to me by the Church Librarian. Unity Church, a merger of Second CRC and Prospect Park CRC, was among the few churches that sent Johanna Veenstra as a missionary to Nigeria at the time when our denomination was unwilling to send her based on feeling that the Chinese will be more inclined to receive the gospel than the black Africans. The spiritual investment of Unity Church and others who walked in faith rather than sight paid off. The Lord used Johana Veenstra to build the most populous reformed CRC denomination in the world. So, when members of Unity Church realized that I was from Nigeria, they were excited that the Lord had brought someone from Nigeria to them in return for Johanna Veenstra. Some of the members, especially the families already mentioned opened their homes to me and were used of the Lord to integrate me into the family of God at Unity. I am glad to have them as my friends to this day. One of my favorite times are moments spent with two of my friends from Unity Church, John and Kay Drukker, who are now resident in Michigan. Whenever we meet, we rejoice in sharing our experiences together in Prospect Park New Jersey. I am also connected with many others through Facebook and this has been a blessing. That is what the Lord does, building and strengthening friendships in Jesus.
Now, back to the day I arrived at Unity Church. I remember meeting Pastor Paul after service and telling him that “I am here because I believe that the Lord has called me to preach in the churches of the US”. He smiled with words of encouragement but added that “We are part of a denomination known as the Christian Reformed Church. In our tradition, we first examine you and license you before you can preach. If this is God’s will for you, I will be here to encourage you and work with you through the process”. This is how the Lord led me to the Christian Reformed Church; not by my choice or by the invitation of man but by the sovereign will of God. Having completed the new members’ class, I was happy to confess my faith in Jesus before the Elders at Unity, weeks before my public re-profession of faith. I remember sharing my story with the Elders and concluding that at last my faith has found a resting place. The Elders rejoiced at this and one of them also confessed that the CRC is not a perfect church. I have found out for myself that he was right. I guess, with my imperfections, it is a perfect match.
On that day in 1999 when I officially became a member of Unity CRC, it felt very good to receive a gift of John Calvin’s Institutes from Pastor Paul. After a time of training and mentoring by Pastor Paul as we fondly called him, I was examined and Licensed to Exhort by Classes Hackensack in September, 2000. Since then, I have undergone different trainings, including a three year informal training under Rev Andy Sytsma while he was at Bridgeway Community Church. This culminated in my licensure as Minister of the Word and Sacraments in the CRCNA as well as ordination as Associate Pastor in 2005. Since then, I have studied for and obtained a Master of Divinity Degree from Calvin Theological Seminary; and have been active in serving, leading and preaching in the Churches of the Christian Reformed Church of North America and in the Reformed Church of America.