‘God is writing history in our lives’

Early lesson in forgiveness helped transcend bigotry, pastor tells conference-goers

August 12, 2015

The Rev. Princeton Abaraoha says the experience of being forgiven by others transformed his life.

The Rev. Princeton Abaraoha says the experience of being forgiven by others transformed his life. —Paul Seebeck

ST. PETE, FLA

Bible Study yesterday morning at the national 1001 New Worshiping Communities Conference began with a simple question: “Where is a time you have been treated unfairly?” 

It opened the door for the Rev. Princeton Abaraoha to tell his story, of how he’d come to America from Nigeria, in 1976, to study—and ended up learning about racial bigotry firsthand. 

On the first Sunday, he explained, he went to a fundamentalist Baptist church near the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma in Chickasha, Oklahoma. 

“The pastor there asked me to leave,” he said. But Abaraoha didn’t realize what had prompted the pastor to say that. Mistreating others based on the color of their skin went against Nigerian values of treating strangers with great kindness, Abaraoha said, so he returned the following week for Sunday school. “This time they all moved away from me,” he recalled. “The third Sunday, the pastor showed me his gun. I didn’t go back anymore.” 

When Abaraoha explained to students at the university what had happened, they became angry. Some introduced him to First Baptist Church in Chickasha. The congregation there embraced him with so much love, he still considers it home. 

“I get emotional when I think about it,” said Abaraoha, who recently returned to Oklahoma for the funeral of a member of one of the families there that had shown him so much love. “[She] asked me to preach at her funeral,” he said, “and to have my family sit with her three boys during the service. It reminded me of how God is writing history in our lives.” 

Abaraoha eventually moved to Dallas, where he started several fellowships for new immigrants from Africa. Running into hard times, however he was ready to give up on ministry. That’s when he ran into a Filipino woman who said she’d heard him speak and wanted him to help her new faith community that was meeting at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Dallas. 

“Being a good Baptist, I showed up for Sunday school,” he said, laughing. “They were studying Calvin’s Institutes . . . . It opened my eyes. I said, ‘This is what I believe.’ They said, ‘You’ve always been Presbyterian; you just didn’t know it.’” 

Abaraoha was ordained as a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) minister in 2003 and became Westminster’s director of evangelism in 2011. He now serves as pastor of  First Presbyterian Church of Midlothian, which is about 25 miles south of Dallas. 

Abaraoha said he decided to attend the 1001 New Worshiping Communities Conference because its theme, “Pursued by Grace,” so resonated with his life. 

“I was child soldier in Nigeria from 1967 to 1969, taken by the Igbo tribe as I went to get water for my mom,” he said. “It’s hard to explain, because it doesn’t seem real, but once I got out, the Spirit of the Lord came upon me and asked me to go back to some of the families that we had committed atrocities against.” 

How the men and women in that village responded to him transformed his life. Experiencing their forgiveness, he said, gave him freedom to allow God to pursue him, and inspired him to pursue others with grace and love. 

“Being encouraged to continue to live into God’s ways of pursuit, that topic alone has filled my spirit,” he said. “I joke at home that for me, and my personality, God is like a cowboy with love that won’t let me go. Whenever I say, ‘I’m leaving,’ God lassos a rope around me and leads me back home.”