Sunday, March 25, 2007

Father Udo

(Father Udo played for Redstar a little over three years ago. During our game on September 24, 2003 is when Chad Buckley passed away. After the game, both teams huddled up and Father Udo prayed for me and Chad's family and friends. I will never forget that.) The following story was in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Saturday, March 24, 2007.

Neither broken nor bowed
Nigerian-born priest, recovering from crash, spinal cord injury finds people he nourished now eager to serve him
A Catholic priest from Nigeria knows how life can change in a moment. Two and a half months after a car wreck broke his neck and paralyzed his legs, he is entering a new phase in his ministry with the conviction that it’s all part of God’s plan. The Rev. Udochukwu Vincent Ogbuji was the pastor for churches in Searcy, Heber Springs and Bald Knob. Driving from Heber Springs to Searcy after dinner with a parishioner on Jan. 7, he chose a less traveled route. “I was not familiar with that road,” he said. “I decided to take it that day.” Church members who have been to the scene, on Gravel Hill Road west of Joy, say there’s a place in the road that’s like an optical illusion. The road turns, but looks like it goes straight, and it’s hard to see it until a driver is actually in the curve. “By the time I stepped on the brake,” he said, “the car was off the road.” The Toyota 4Runner flipped end to end. People from nearby houses heard the crash. “Very wonderful people rushed to the scene,” he said. His neck hurt, one of his legs was stuck and he was afraid the car might catch on fire; he wanted them to pull him out. But someone told him he might have a spinal cord injury, and held his head until the emergency workers could arrive. He was taken to a Searcy hospital, where tests showed that the C3 and C4 vertebrae in his neck were broken and his spinal cord was injured. He was flown to Baptist Health Medical Center in Little Rock. Father Udo as he is called, was days away from going home to Nigeria for a three-week vacation. “I had to call my mom,” he said. “I knew I was going to go into surgery and I didn’t know when I would get out.” He asked his mother who was talking to her. “My son,” she said. “If you recognize my voice and know it’s me,” he told her, “you know I’m alive. I have a little injury.” He didn’t tell her the extent of the damage. “Don’t worry. Everything is fine,” he told her. “Pray for me.”
Ogbuji is playful and loves to joke. Ask him how he got from Nigeria to Arkansas: “I flew.” He also knows that people often can’t tell whether he’s serious. “I’m kidding,” he says often. A bishop’s request brought him to Arkansas. His bishop in Nigeria told Ogbuji that he had a difficult mission to ask of him. “I told him of course that I would do whatever he asked of me,” he said. Then he found out that he had just consented to coming to Arkansas, where Catholic priests were scarce and then-Bishop George MacDonald had asked foreign bishops to send some of their priests. Ogbuji, 38, arrived in the spring of 1999. He worked for two years at St. Edward Catholic Church in Texarkana. In June 2002, he became the priest for St. James in Searcy, St. Albert in Heber Springs and St. Richard in Bald Knob. He presided at five Masses every weekend. Attendance at the Searcy parish roughly doubled in his time there, from 115 families to 230 or 240 families, he said. The church embarked on a $1.4 million building campaign. The parish was divided into “town hall” groups; each group attended a meeting to learn about the project and see a model of the proposed building. He told them “that’s affordable and that we can do it,” he said. “After the speech we handed out the pledge cards.” The priest doesn’t take credit for the church’s growth. “Other people worked so hard to lay the foundation,” he said. “Just like St. Paul says, why would you make the distinction between me and others who work for the Lord? I planted, Appollos (another first century Christian) watered. It is God who gives the increase.” Ken Simmons, a longtime parishioner who is on the St. James development committee, said Ogbuji was integral in raising funds — $600,000 has been raised so far — and in emphasizing the need for a larger facility, since the Searcy area is steadily growing. Members of the parish have poured out prayers for their injured priest. “We have had adoration and rosaries said in abundance,” he said. “He’s a fairly young man, and to see this happen to somebody at that point in their life is doubly shocking.” Now the priest’s friend, the Rev. John Agbakwuo, is pastoring those congregations. He and another Nigerian priest, “took care of me in the hospital,” said Ogbuji. “They were here every day.” As Ogbuji recovered from surgery on his broken neck, he was unable to fly home — so a family member made the trip instead. His sister Helen, who will become a nun later this year, came from Nigeria to stay with him for 12 days. Eventually he was moved to Baptist Health Rehabilitation Institute where he worked for weeks to improve his strength. He has feeling in his legs but no movement, and there is a 50-50 chance they will remain paralyzed, he said. “I’m praying and hoping for the best and preparing for the worst,” he said. “I take it that I won’t walk again.” His therapy included weight lifting and range-of-motion stretching. One afternoon shortly before his release, he winced with pain when his therapist pushed his arm a little farther. When she asked why he had been more flexible the day before, he cited that morning’s activity: “Because I worked my abs playing pingpong all day,” he said. “You don’t know how exhausting it is to play the pingpong.” He uses an automated bicycle to exercise his legs in a research experiment intended to maintain bone density, improve muscle mass and reduce spastic reflexes associated with spinal cord injuries. Most patients in the study use the cycle for one hour a day, five days a week. Ogbuji does it daily. “He’s an overachiever,” said the doctor in charge of the study, Tom Kiser. “That’s what got me into the hospital,” Ogbuji said. He lost 40 pounds but has regained about 10. His hands are weak; he eats with a fork strapped to his left hand. In occupational therapy he sometimes picked up small plastic circles — exactly the motion he would need to pick up a Communion wafer. Ogbuji had an impromptu shrine in his hospital room, with objects that reminded him of different aspects of his faith. A “sacred heart” statue of Jesus, with the heart outside Christ’s robes, is a reminder of the Lord’s loving essence. A statue of St. Anthony is a reminder of prayer requests. “He became a saint that you call upon when things are lost, like car keys,” he said. “So I ask people to pray to Saint Anthony that I would have the movement of my legs restored.” A photograph of the late Pope John Paul II holding a monstrance, or an ornate container for the consecrated bread of Holy Communion, symbolizes that “the Eucharist is the source and summit of our Catholic faith.” Eucharistic ministers from Christ the King brought him Communion every day in the hospital, something he used to do for sick parishioners. “That makes me truly happy in the sense that I could be cared for in the way I cared for many people who were sick,” he said. Seeing Ogbuji in his wheelchair, or being lifted from his bed to the chair by a sling, frightens some children who have visited him. “Kids get so scared when they see me,” he said. “I tell them, ‘Don’t worry, Father Udo is having fun. It’s like being on a ride at Disney World.’ Then they start to smile.”
He was a child himself when he decided to become a priest. In third grade, as an altar server, he was impressed by “the aura that surrounds the priest,” he said. “How he helps people calm their fears.” He felt that calming firsthand. One morning in church, with his parents watching, he dropped and broke a cruet containing holy oil. “I didn’t know what to do. I just wanted to die,” he said. The priest “came and touched my shoulder, and he said, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ From a man with such love and care and gentleness and kindness — that made me think I wanted to be a priest.” He changed his mind for a time in high school. And he had doubts again in seminary. He left campus without permission, to visit his family. “I wanted to be asked to leave. I didn’t want to leave on my own,” he said. “I knew I couldn’t run away from God.” When he returned, he was sent to talk to the priest who served as his spiritual director. He confided feelings of inadequacy. “The priesthood is a job that angels should do, not human beings,” he said. He was surprised to learn the priest also struggled with sin and temptation. “God chooses us not because we’re holy or sinless or perfect,” he was told, “but he chooses us, as weak as we are, to make us stronger for the Gospel.” In the hospital he has learned that the medical profession can also be a calling, as he has watched doctors and nurses work hard to improve patients’ lives. “They go over and beyond. It’s really a call,” he said. The rehabilitation experience has been a lesson in several virtues. “I’ve come to learn patience and humility and to take orders instead of giving them,” he said. Above all, he said, he has learned “how much I am loved by the people I work for.” His concept of life has changed, he said. “There are many things I took for granted before. Like having a nice shower, brushing my own teeth, wearing my own clothing. I never knew what those meant, those little things in life. “I will never take those for granted again.” Earlier this month he was discharged and went to stay in a house owned by Christ the King Catholic Church in west Little Rock, which parishioners and volunteers renovated to meet his needs. He has a regular wheelchair and is awaiting an electric one. “I have to have something to cruise around the mall in,” he joked. Days after his release, he celebrated his first Mass privately with several other priests, said Monsignor Francis Malone, rector of the church. “I wanted to see how he was going to do,” Malone said. “He wanted to be the main celebrant at the Mass, so we helped him get vested, and he acted like he had done it just the day before.” When it was time for him to raise the chalice of wine symbolizing Christ, Malone wasn’t sure he could do it. Another priest went to assist him, but he said, “‘I’ve got it,’” Malone related. Once Ogbuji has learned to drive his new wheelchair and to negotiate the new ramps and sidewalks from the house to the church, he will resume the work of a priest, celebrating Masses, hearing confessions, counseling, and visiting the children in the parish’s K-8 school. “There’s nothing he can’t do except stand and walk,” Malone said. “What better example to our parishioners and our children to see someone who is handicapped and yet so at peace with his situation.” Tell Father Udo that he seems amazingly upbeat for someone who has been through what he has, and he jokes, “Well, I’m faking it.” Then he is serious. He has always been a happy person, he said, with a sense of inner peace and joy. “If I get saddened, what am I going to tell people who get sad?” he said. “This is going to be a new phase in my life and ministry,” he continued. “Whatever happens, whether it be tragic, or whether it be joyful or beautiful, I see it as God’s plan.”


Anonymous Thomas Ross said...

May God lay his healing hands on you Father Udo and bless you forever... :)

4:27 PM  

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