Five years ago, Brainerd and St. Paul's Episcopal Church said goodbye to a man and his family who affected the community mightily.
The Rev. John 'Soji Agbaje came to Brainerd fresh from seminary, and was on fire with the spirit of God. He and his family left the area in 1997.
For one day, Agbaje will return to Brainerd, preaching at the 10 a.m. service Sunday at St. Paul's Episcopal Church. There will be a reception lunch in the parish hall following the service in honor of Agbaje and his family.
A Nigerian braving the frigid northern climate, Agbaje came to Brainerd in the summer of 1995, warming the hearts of everyone he came into contact with. In the two years he and his family were in Brainerd, he was founder of the Right Friends, a support group and social organization for adults with mental handicaps.
Agbaje saw a mission in bringing people to God, hoping they would come to know Him and be known by Him. God is his own friend, companion and Lord. Agbaje's work here was to help people see God as he did.
During Agbaje's tenure, St. Paul's was the victim of a severe fire, which turned out to be vandalism. He helped heal and led the congregation in forgiveness for the vandals and taught parishioners Christ's way. The scars of the fire are still evident behind the altar and in a scorched Bible, but rather than inciting anger, they remind the congregation to love one another as Christ has commanded them.
Agbaje led a trip to the Holy Land in 1997 with 15 participants from several churches in the Brainerd area. The travelers said they've never experienced such a learning, giving and sharing trip as that one was.
In his last sermon at St. Paul's, Agbaje expressed his faith and explained he was being led to St. Edmund's Episcopal Church, an inner city church in the heart of Chicago. There he would be of service to others, he said. He thanked his wife and children for their support and said they were the reason for "it all being worthwhile."
Agbaje; his wife, Bunmi; and their children, Esther, Charlie and John Jr., left Brainerd in June 1997.
While serving as associate rector of St. Edmund's, Agbaje oversaw the Block Club (a neighborhood watch service/volunteer organization), a young adults group and an evangelism group. He also taught a course on character education at St. Edmund's Academy, and was an active member of the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy.
Today, Agbaje is serving the Episcopal Church of St. James in Portsmouth, Va., where he is rector. He is also an adjunct assistant professor of Religion of the World at Tidewater Community College at the Virginia Beach Campus.
(Paula Karl is a member of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Brainerd.)
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