After Jan. 7 car wreck, Father Udo Ogbuji 'joyfully carries cross'
Living in Little Rock is a 'different phase in my life and ministry'
Like most priests in the Diocese of Little Rock, Father Udochukwu "Udo" Vincent Ogbuji doesn't have much free time. His day is filled with appointments and unexpected visitors.
He wears a wireless headset to answer his cell phone. He has stacks of mail to sort. He watches what he eats when parishioners lavish him with sweets and fatty foods. He regularly works out in his home gym and laments about his flabby abs.
Father Ogbuji, 38, has many of the same responsibilities as the other parish priests in the state, but he has one major challenge: he can't walk.
On Jan. 7, the Nigerian-born priest was returning to his rectory at St. James Church in Searcy after dinner with parishioners in Heber Springs. He was traveling a different route home and didn't notice the road was making a sharp curve. With a cast on his right hand and wrist he couldn't maneuver his car to stay on the road. After his car flipped several times, it landed back on all four wheels, but the priest sustained major damage to his neck and spinal cord.
"This is the end," he thought. "I said a quick prayer, 'Lord Jesus, accept my soul.'"
He was rushed to a local hospital and transferred to Baptist Medical Center in Little Rock that night. The next morning he underwent surgery on his spinal cord. Four days later he had another surgery on his broken neck. The early diagnosis was the priest could be a quadriplegic.
Father Ogbuji recovered from the surgeries for several weeks before being transferred to Baptist Rehabilitation Institute in February. It was only a few days before his release from the hospital before he was able to move his arms. While he felt sensation in his left leg, he couldn't move it.
With hours of physical and occupational therapy each week, he began to regain motion in his arms and hands.
At his side was a personal altar filled with statues and religious images, including a photograph of the late Pope John Paul II holding a monstrance.
Also at his side immediately following the wreck and through the recovery was Father Felix Alaribe, pastor of Our Lady of Good Hope Church in Hope and a friend since they both entered the seminary 20 years ago in Nigeria.
"He is my best friend. ... There was great solidarity," Father Ogbuji said. "There was great love. The friendship became stronger ... This is the family I have here. ... It's more than friendship. We're like brothers. It pains me that he had to go through so much on my behalf."
He was also supported by Father John Agbakwuo, the associate pastor of Our Lady of Holy Souls Church in Little Rock who was assigned in March to replace Father Ogbuji at the parishes in Searcy, Heber Springs and Bald Knob.
His friendships also became stronger with his former parishioners who wrote letters and formed prayer meetings to ask God for the priest's healing.
"I know I will get to see them again," Father Ogbuji said.
Even parishioners from St. Edward Church in Texarkana and Sacred Heart Church in Foreman where he served from 1999 to 2002 reached out.
"It was encouraging to know how much I was loved," he said. "I never felt abandoned by the diocese and by the parishes."
Amazingly, Father Ogbuji has been able to maintain his positive outlook on life.
"My inner peace and joy is the last thing that will die in me," he said.
On March 13 he was discharged from BRI and moved in to his new home at Christ the King Church in Little Rock where he was assigned as associate pastor. For now, the priest has 24-hour care.
"His only handicap is he cannot walk and he cannot stand," pastor Msgr. Francis I. Malone said. "With his motorized chair he can do anything. There are really no limitations placed on him. ... As soon as possible, we will put him to work. That's what he wants. God willing, he will return to his full ministry as much as possible."
For now, the priest's annual five-week trip to visit his mother and siblings in Nigeria has been put on hold indefinitely. A priest assigned to Arkansas since 1999, Father Ogbuji was making plans to begin a master's degree program in medical bioethics in the fall 2007 and return to Nigeria to continue his priesthood. Those plans are now secondary to his goal of walking and serving the people of Christ the King Church.
Within days of settling into his Little Rock home, he began to move his left leg. After several more days, he perfected his "ostrich kick" that he showed his new parishioners when he made his first public appearance at the parish's five weekend Masses on Palm Sunday.
Before his interview with Arkansas Catholic April 3, he finishes his daily occupational therapy with Georgia Abner of Baptist Health System. In the background, his iPod is playing jazz, soul and contemporary music. After lifting arm weights, he shows Abner his latest feat: opening the back of his Blackberry phone to access the battery. After a few tries, he succeeds.
He then turns his attention to his right leg. With his therapist and parish liaison Sandy DeCoursey at his side, he moves the leg slightly. DeCoursey grabs a wall mirror down the hall and puts it on the floor so the priest would see the movement.
"It's kind of like your body is awakening," DeCoursey said.
With a warm smile and laugh, Father Ogbuji is at ease telling his story and sharing the details of the past three months.
"You know you are going to be a priest forever," he said. "I consider this a different phase in my life and my ministry."
The priest's days are filled with therapy, "riding" a reflexive bicycle every day for one hour, watching the news and reading e-mail messages. Within a couple weeks he is expected to be celebrating Mass at the parish, visiting the school and doing other sacramental duties, such as hearing confessions.
"I am hopeful I can walk again, but I am more hopeful that God will restore in me what he wants to. Even if he doesn't, I will still be the same person. ... Life is not just about physical appearances. It's much more than that. Life is more about the image of God. It's about patience and understanding and accepting the will of God even if it conflicts with your own personal plans. Life is about service only if you are only able to smile at people. Even if I can't use my legs and limbs, I can smile and help people who are going through the same things.
"I see God is directing everything to fall in place."
Msgr. Malone said Father Ogbuji's presence at Christ the King will bless every parishioner.
"It will be edifying to the people," the pastor said. "We want our children to see that. He joyfully carries the cross of Christ."
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