Brothers and Sisters, Aloha!
You will soon see that the thing that I know how to do best is crying!
I thank the Lord every day for my good wife! It was the writer of Proverbs who said: “An excellent wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels.” Sometimes I feel that greater love hath no woman for her husband than the love Deidra for me! Deidra has sacrificed so much for me. She's truly a Godsent, and I've dedicated my life to being a Godsent for her! It’s one of the world's wonders that we never met during the one semester she spent here! I thought I knew everyone and that everybody knew me, but no, I wasn’t as popular as I thought! We had to wait to meet until we were at BYU in Provo, where we were both getting our master’s degrees. Thank God I met her!
What a fantastic blessing it is for me to return to BYU–Hawaii! This is a special place! Attending this institution answered my prayer and the culmination of many years of hard work and sacrifice. I hope you already know, or soon will know for yourself, how special this university is. It’s been 26 years since I left, but when I count my most prized blessings, my time here always ranks somewhere at the top of the list. It still feels like yesterday when I arrived on campus after a series of very long flights from Lagos, Nigeria. Coach Harry Maxwell, from this community, picked me up from the airport and drove me down to Laie. So began my sojourn here! To give a little background, I was born in Nigeria, the oldest of three children. Growing up, my family was very active in the Anglican Church of England.
I’ve always had a firm conviction that there is a God and have felt connected to Him. Thanks to my mother and the persistence of my Sunday school teachers, I developed early in life a love for the scriptures, most especially, the accounts of miracles both in the New and Old Testaments. My mother made sure we read the Bible often. She would point to the miracles in the scriptures and tell me that those miracles actually took place. “Nnamdi, she’d say, these miracles are not for decoration. They happened, and if you have faith, you will experience the same miracles in your own life, for God is the same yesterday, today, and forever!”
Because I believed her, I grew up trusting that with God, all things are possible. My father passed away when I was 12, a heavy blow, and from then on, my mother became the sole caretaker of my two brothers and me. After my father died, I found great solace in the thought that I had another Father in Heaven, whose power was unlimited. The pain of my loss drove me to seek a more intimate relationship with my Heavenly Father. I tried my best to keep His commandments and would often take my petitions to Him in prayer. Even though I didn’t receive everything I asked for, I always came away with the comforting feeling that He was always with me and would always provide for my every need. And He did!
Since as far back as I can remember, I’ve been gaga, as in crazy, about America, and have always dreamed of being an American! For the longest time, however, coming to this country remained a dream, a goal without any plan for its achievement, until I discovered basketball at the relatively old age of 18. I started to play basketball because I got tired of answering in the negative whenever I was asked if I played the sport. You can imagine why, but that was the first question everyone I met asked me! I was also tired of being made to feel as if I was wasting my height.
Because I realized immediately that basketball could be my passport to America, mastering the sport became the most important thing in my life. I knew I had to be extremely good to be recruited. So, I became laser-focused on achieving that goal. What a goal, though, for someone who just started learning at age 18! Time was not on my side! Admittedly I had one huge advantage: my height. But that was not enough. But with God, everything is possible! Where there’s a will, there’s always a way!
With inspiring quotes such as these, I encouraged myself. I also received encouragement from my mother and a few friends, who supported me because they loved me. If I had told them I was going to the moon, they would have told me that the moon was too low for me to aim!
However, there was not a shortage of naysayers, but I guess they probably meant well. They were sure I wouldn’t succeed. “You are too old to learn basketball,” they told me. “ "It's an impossible dream!" How could you hope to be good enough in a few years to compete with players in America who started playing the sport as soon as they started walking?” To make matters worse, I was doing most of the learning by myself, as there were not very many good coaches or good basketball programs around.
The enormity of my task loomed like Mount Everest before me. I knew it would certainly take a miracle for me to succeed. But that was okay because I believed in miracles. I felt certain that if I did my best, God would surely take care of the rest. So, with faith in God, I persisted through the long and painful transformation from a novice to someone who didn’t “travel” every time he got the ball, and eventually, to a somewhat decent basketball player. It was an embarrassingly brutal experience at first, but the intensity of my desire to come to this country and my faith in God gave me a very thick skin.
But after a few years of prayer and hard work that seemed to be getting me no closer to being recruited, I became very frustrated and impatient. I, however, refused to consider defeat, and instead, I worked even harder. But still, there was no breakthrough!
And then, one day, I had an experience that became a turning point. I was on my knees praying when a new idea occurred to me. I immediately sensed it was a brilliant idea! Why hadn’t I thought of it before? I was sure I had found God’s soft spot. You see, previous to this time; I was only thinking of just basketball, the NBA, and many other temporal blessings that awaited me in America. But suddenly, my mind was recalibrated. I knew now what to do. With tears in my eyes, I began to pray again, “Please God.” This time making sure to ask in a way that I felt would be in line with His will, “send me to a college in America where I will not only get to play basketball and live the American dream but please send me to a college where I will also have the opportunity to learn more about You and draw closer to You so that I can better serve You.”
I meant every word of this prayer. Even though I was by no means a saint, my heart was always attuned to God, and I had always wanted to serve Him. This had been my greatest unspoken ambition. A feeling of peace descended upon me even before I finished praying, and with it came the assurance that I was on the right track and would soon receive my miracle. Whereas before, my faith was tempered by not knowing if emigration to America was God’s will for me, I now felt sure that it was. It's now going to be only a matter of time! A few weeks later, out of the blues, I got a letter from the then BYU–Hawaii men’s basketball coach, Chic Hess. I had no idea how he discovered me and wouldn't find out until many months after I arrived. I will always be grateful to Coach Hess, but also to one Jack James in Nigeria, a friend of a friend, whom God also used, unbeknownst to me at that time, to answer my prayer and to bring to my family and me a tremendous blessing.
After this first contact with Coach Hess, many obstacles still persisted, but with guidance from above, I overcame them. However, the last obstacle was so daunting that it was as if it had to be so, to make it forever clear to me that it would require nothing short of God’s miraculous intervention to overcome it. When I finally made it to the American embassy, I was denied a Visa, because the supporting documents I brought with me had expired.
You see, the scholarship letter and Form I-20 BYU–Hawaii had sent me got lost in the mail, and by the time I received them, the dates on them were expired, making the documents invalid. But, believing that this was only a test of my faith, I decided to take the expired documents with me to the embassy anyway. But I was denied a Visa. It was not meant to be. Dejected, I left the embassy, not knowing what to do next. But remember, where there’s a will, there is always a way! There had to be away. As I was praying for direction, another idea, which some might have considered too fantastic, occurred to me. I realized that there had been a precedent over 5000 years ago, which now offered a perfect solution to my problem! The Old Testament stories of Abraham and Lot, his nephew, and the many miracles they experienced had always been my favorite. At this point, it provided me the inspiration I needed.
It was clear that the odds were stacked against me. I now had more than my expired documents to worry about! The rule then was that if your application for a visa was denied, you had to wait for six months before you could return to the embassy for another application. They would even stamp your passport, an easy way for them to detect if you had returned within the six months.
I couldn’t wait for six more months, and I had to do something now! As I thought about it, it became clear to me that the only way I would have a chance was if the stamp on my passport as well as the expired dates on my Form I-20 and on the scholarship letter would just disappear and become invisible. My brothers and sisters, drastic times call for drastic measures! And that’s where the story of Lot came to my rescue!
If God struck the men of Sodom and Gomorrah with temporary blindness, and I believed He did, I would then ask Him to blind the eyes of anyone that would examine my documents at the embassy so that they would not see the expired dates, nor the stamp of rejection on my passport from my previous visit to the Embassy only a couple of days ago.
I was at this point ready to try anything to show my faith in God! To show that faith, I purchased a nonrefundable plane ticket to Hawaii, and against every logic and reason, but armed with the same faith as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, I went back to the embassy with the expired documents. It was reckless and foolhardy, but I didn’t care! Were I not a witness to what transpired at the Embassy that day, I would dismiss the whole thing as totally made up, the same way some folks dismiss the miracles in the scripture as fabricated. But I was there and witnessed firsthand that indeed my mother was right! God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and He is definitely a God of miracles. And so on that fateful day, I not only walked out of that embassy with an American visa, but I also walked out with something else, much more valuable than a visa: An absolute conviction of the reality of God!
It’s still amazing to me that out of the thousands of colleges I could have gone to in America, I ended up here at BYU–Hawaii. Coming here was truly an answer to my prayer. You and I were sent here for a purpose. The folks I met here and my experiences here were all special because they have contributed immensely in bringing me much closer to God. I will now quickly talk about a few of the people, and time permitting, I’ll share a few treasured experiences. Mind you, when I got here, I had never met any Polynesian before in my life.
I remember vividly in the cafeteria one night soon after I arrived when I pointed out a girl and told my friend Seta, that I thought she was beautiful. “She’s your sister from Ghana,” Seta mischievously lied to me. “Go and talk to her!” Never one to back down from any challenge, I did, and was shocked when she told me she’s from Tonga, Not Ghana! Embarrassed, I turned around to see Seta and a bunch of our friends laughing their heads off! Being an African, it was easy to gravitate towards the two other African students, Desmond Mdletshe and Joel Chiba. They, too, played some wicked jokes on me!
Notwithstanding their pranks, we became the best of friends, and our friendship has lasted till today. Desmond is now a mission President in Kenya, and Joel works for the Utah government and lives in Salt Lake City, with his wife Rose, who works for the church. My friends are a testament to the fact that there are great leaders out there who are products of this great institution! Hey, Brother Joe, would you please stand up with your dear wife Rose! One day, I believe it was in Bro Jensen’s class; I was only a few days old in Hawaii when I asked this guy, Kivalu Ramanlal, who sat at the desk next to me if he had a spare pen. He didn’t have one, but he seemed ready to turn the earth upside down to find a pen for me. He eventually found one for me, but that was after he asked almost everyone in the class, including the teacher! I thought to myself, and this dude is crazy! We became great friends soon after, but I think that was only because he shadowed me everywhere I went! We even became roommates at some point, until he had to leave to serve his mission in Australia, and when he got back, he found a more beautiful roommate! But before all of that, once he found out I wasn’t a member of the church, my fate was sealed!
He asked if it’d be okay if he came and got me for church on Sunday mornings. Being a nice guy, I said sure! Every Sunday morning thereafter, my two roommates and I would be awakened by a knock on the door. We would act as if we didn’t hear the knocking. But the knocking persisted until Darrin, my roommate, in his slow Australian drawl, would say to me: Go and tell your crazy Tongan friend to go and jump into a lake! I’d get up, get dressed, and head to church with Kivalu. I guess you can guess that my man, Kivalu, never rested until he almost drowned me at temple beach, when he baptized me into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. That was six months after I got to Hawaii.
Please Kivalu and Heather, would you stand up! Kivalu is a bishop of a local ward and a very successful businessman, and he and his wife Heather, who also attended school here, are great examples of what it means to be disciples of Christ. These friends and many more that I couldn’t mention because of time constraints were instrumental in my decision to join the church. Suffice it to say that were these close friends not good exemplars of what it means to be a Latter-Day Saint, I would have been hard-pressed to join the church.
Now, there were many BYU–Hawaii staff as well as members of the Laie community whose generosity of spirit also made a lasting impact on me. Junior Ayou and his wife, stalwart members of this community, were the first family to invite me to dinner in their home. It’s amazing the things that one remembers! I was very shy, and didn’t trust my English, and was tempted to say no! But how could you refuse the big fella with a smile as wide as an ocean? My bosses at the Physical Plant, David Mohetau and Tom Naeata, also treated me more like a son than an employee. They could have fired me a million times for thinking that every day was Aloha Friday! I was the most distracted worker ever! I probably, many times, pushed my bosses to the wall, but instead of firing me, they took me home and fed me lunch! They taught me that love is a more potent force for change than punishment. And then there were my art teachers Brother Garside, Brother Wells, Brother Jan Fisher, and Brother Villiami Tolutau, all giants in the art profession.
I couldn’t have asked for better teachers, mentors, and friends! Sister Garside, the wife of one of my teachers, who was also a BYU–Hawaii staff member, called me into her office soon after I arrived. I was at a loss to know why, until she brought out a packet from under her desk and handed it to me. I opened it and inside were a pair of pants and two long sleeve shirts! With tears in my eyes, I thanked her. I had left Nigeria in a hurry and had with me only a handful of clothes. Somehow, the Spirit inspired her to purchase for me exactly what I needed. How heartbroken I was when not too long after this incident, she unexpectedly passed away.
Almost one year to the date I arrived, and a few days after Kivalu, my roommate, left us for his mission in December of 1989, I lost my immediate younger brother in a motor accident in Nigeria. I was devastated! My agony, which lasted for years, didn’t take my own life, was a miracle in itself. That’s where Brother Fisher, my sculpture teacher comes in again! But first, I will tell you that I will always believe that God put him here specifically for my benefit, and I can honestly say that without his friendship and mentorship, I would not be the person that I am today. He was one of my most influential teachers, and the fire he lit in me to be the very best that I could be, still burns brightly today! It was him who taught me that life should be joyful and that the most exciting thing about talent is its capacity to serve our maker! There is nothing nobler!
But there is more. When I was dealing with the heartbreak of losing my brother, no one particular person showed me as much understanding and compassion as Brother Fisher did. It drove me crazy to hear, “Nnamdi, you have the gospel now, so you have to move on. You’ll see your brother again someday.” I wanted so badly to scream at those that thought it would help me to hear that. I knew that but still missed my brother. I guess I just needed some empathy and not some Sunday school lesson! I remember the day I was in his office, feeling as low as a cockroach because of my sadness and pain, and he said to me, with his eyes moist with tears of compassion, “Nnamdi, you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to buy you a return ticket to go back home and grieve with your family, and then you can come back.”I couldn’t believe my ears! Even though I did not take it, I was so moved by his compassion, and I can honestly say that that offer was the greatest sermon on love I’ve ever heard! From that day onwards, Brother Fisher became an Angel to me.
It was Shakespeare that said that “Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind….” I have come here in part to tell you, my brothers and sisters, to search for God in your very hearts. And in so doing, you will be an answer to someone else’s prayer, and then your own prayers will be answered. After my brother passed away, I made up my mind to quit basketball entirely. There was nothing temporal worth holding on to anymore. We were getting a new Coach, and I rehearsed how to tell him I was done. I was happy I didn’t have to face Coach Hess, who recruited me. I didn’t want him to think he wasted his efforts. Little did I know that the new coach, Ken Wagner, was a conman! When I finally met him, he talked me out of quitting. I will be eternally grateful that he convinced me not to quit. He was an excellent coach and perhaps even a more excellent mentor and father figure. Even these days, he loves to tease me that I was older than him when he coached me, and in return, I tell him he is the best grandpa I could ever ask for! God bless you, Coach, and God bless all the good people I met here. You can see why this place is so special to me. And I hope that you will discover that it is a special place for you!
I learned a great deal about Christlike love here, and there’s no greater lesson than that! I’m now pretty convinced that life’s indeed a paradox: Whatever you want in life, first give it to others, and it’ll come back to you, “pressed down, and shaken together, and running over….”The joy, happiness, and fulfillment we attain in life can only be proportional to the degree that we love others. And remember, my friends, Love is sacrifice.I have also learned that you can never pray too much because the devil is always at work. Through relentless prayer, we put whatever load we are carrying down at the feet of Jesus. Through prayer, we can receive assurance from God, which in turn gives us the confidence that empowers us to claim the victory that is already ours because of Christ’s atonement.
Remember, you are never a victim but always victorious by virtue of the fact that you are a child of God. My Brothers and Sisters, the church is true, God is real, and he does answer prayers. With God as our power and the Holy Spirit as our guide, there are no impossible dreams!
My fellow Seasiders, may God bless you, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.