‘I wish we could’ve had a church wedding, a dress, walking down the aisle to say our vows.’: Strangers help pull off surprise wedding after groom’s ‘abrupt departure’ from their home

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“This is a story of great love.

Joseph Iboyi is an agronomy doctoral student from Lagos, Nigeria. His master’s degree is in plant breeding, and he is conducting his research on carinata through the University of Florida Research Center in Allentown, FL. Last year, he received a link to an application from a friend, and on a whim, he completed and submitted it to UF. He was utterly shocked when he was selected as the single scholarship recipient! He and his fiancé, Fisayo, had planned an Easter wedding this year, and his abrupt departure meant they would have to postpone their plans. The opportunity was indeed bittersweet, but the two decided it was best for Joseph to come to the US to study.

Kelsei Frazier Photography

Joseph arrived on December 8, 2018. His most important goal was to find a church. He attended a Methodist Church at home and hoped to find one nearby. He spent a couple of weeks googling churches to find one small enough to feel like home, and close enough that he could ride his professor’s bicycle. He had to assure his mother and Fisayo that he was trying to find a church, as they were afraid, he would get here and forget his Christian values. On his third Sunday here, we were his choice! He followed the GPS on his phone, which took him on the farthest possible route to our church. After two hours of peddling on the coldest day of December he arrived at our front doors. He was trembling with cold and anxious to come in late but knew the torture of a return trip home alone if he didn’t enter the church. Surely, he hoped, someone would offer to take him home after services ended.

It was 11:15am when he entered the church and quietly sat at the end of the back-left row. He was less than a foot from me, this stranger who slipped in to join us while our heads were bowed in prayer. I was startled. Too many news stories ran through my mind. I didn’t dare open my eyes to look over at him. I peeked through slightly cracked eye lids to see the knees and hands of a well-dressed man wearing a nice watch, fiercely tapping the text screen on his phone. I prayed, Lord, please let us be safe! Who was he texting? Why was he coming in late? Who was this stranger sitting next to me? I remember asking God to let me feel His peace if all was well, and I did! After what seemed like the longest prayer ever, I was able to look at Joseph’s smiling face and welcome him to Jay United Methodist Church. As I held his frozen hand in both of mine, as if I could warm him through and through by cradling his hand, I asked who he was. He explained in a heavy British accent that he was a student at UF Research Center and found us online. (Thank you, J P Roberts, for keeping our website updated!) Forty-five minutes later, his hands were still freezing cold! He explained about the bicycle trip and my husband loaded him and the bike in his truck and took him home.

My husband and another church member, Cindy, rotated going to get Joseph for church each week, and he joined us for all of our family celebrations. He sent pictures home to his family, and his Mom was so glad he had a surrogate family in the US.

As time went by and we all opened up to one another, he mentioned he was in a relationship with Fisayo, and that they had married legally prior to his leaving Nigeria. That action is much like getting a marriage license here, but it is a legal status of marriage for them. He also explained the process of a traditional marriage, which would take place via internet on September 7, 2019. And, he did not even have to be there. Imagine that! The celebration began at 4:00 am CT due to the time difference. All Joseph’s family had to attend to confirm his intentions and wishes. The traditional service included family introductions, the payment of the dowry, a sermon, prayers, and much celebration afterward. It was a special service, but the pathway to it was not an easy one.

You see, Joseph and Fisayo are from different tribes, or ethnic groups, and inter-tribal relationships are not readily accepted, especially by the father. Joseph’s family is Ebo, and Fisayo’s family is from Kwara, and Yoruba. They met on a street near the University of Ibadan, where Joseph had been working in the fields collecting data, and Fisayo was out running an errand for her mother. She thought he was a ‘hot mess’ in his work clothes, all sweaty and dirty. He could have been a gardener for all she knew. As they passed one another, he turned around and boldly spoke to her. It was pretty forward for him to ask her name and suggest he get to know her. She said she wanted to let him down easy, as he was kind and seemed to be genuine, but she could not date a gardener! Joseph was impressed that she talked with him and regarded him as human and could immediately sense her kindness and thoughtful heart. It was a short time later that they met again in the academic setting, and at that point she realized the well-dressed man in front of her was a student, and not a gardener. Additionally, Joseph’s lead professor for the master’s program was her father. Because of the differences in their cultures, and his relationship with her father, they were initially friends. Fisayo knew it would be difficult for her father to accept him as a suitor. However, through her prayers and those of her mother, over time her father came to accept Joseph and gave them his blessing.

As soon as Joseph told me of the internet wedding, I knew I had to do something to help him stand face to face with his wife and say their Christian vows to one another. Although the legal and traditional marriage is sufficient to be a married couple in Nigeria, the church wedding is what is most important in terms of their religion. They were very disappointed they could not pledge their lives together to the Lord. I was overwhelmed with the desire to help them have a wedding. I could not imagine not being able to hold my husband hands and say vows while looking into his eyes. I would never be able to accomplish an event like this alone and wondered if our pastor could even hold a ceremony such as this. Rev. Cecil Jackson is our pastor, and he was the first person I spoke to about the ceremony. He thought it was a wonderful idea. Then, I met with Joseph to be sure he wanted to have a wedding at our church. He was so happy I mentioned it. It was something he wanted to talk with me about but had no idea how to bring it up. I spoke to the ladies in our church, the Joy Circle, and they were thrilled to be of help. So, all we had to do was plan it!

The final decision was made on 9/14, the Saturday after the internet wedding. The one little caveat to this elaborate plan was that Joseph wanted the whole thing to be a surprise for Fisayo. I immediately panicked and began to hyperventilate as I thought of what I would do to my husband had he tried to surprise me with a wedding. Joseph was convinced that his bride would ‘love it’. I yielded to his determination, and by 7:00 pm on 9/16 we had a wedding planned. We knew we wanted to have the wedding on 10/19 following Fisayo’s birthday on 10/17, but we had to be sure we could find a dress on such short notice. In order to find a dress to fit, Joseph had to entrust his secret to Fisayo’s mother, who gave us her measurements. I have no idea how she was able to keep such a secret, but she did.

We were so excited when we walked into the Bridal Loft of Pensacola, FL, full of dreams of the perfect gown in the perfect size, AND IT WAS THE FIRST ONE THAT BRANDI SHOWED TO US! We showed her a photo of Fisayo, so she had an idea of her size and personality. She just walked right to the dress, and when she pulled it out, we both knew it was perfect. Joseph even got a photo holding the dress and the ‘I said YES to the dress’ sign. It was a precious moment.

Everyone, everywhere was so excited about the story of this surprise wedding that it was easy to enjoy every moment. Publix at 5 Points had the perfect cakes — Sweetheart Sensation and Macho Chocolate, and the bakery staff went above and beyond to make sure we were overwhelmingly happy with the cakes.

Kelsei Frazier Photography was an angel sent from heaven. She was available, and little did I know at the time, she would be able to capture all the joy and love of their special occasion in a creative and expressive way that fully portrayed the emotions of each moment.

All I had to do for flowers was call Designs by Glenda, tell her when and where, and she provided such a splendid floral garden that highlighted the beauty of our couple and our church. It was spectacular!

So, how did we get her there?

I texted so many lists to Joseph the week of the ceremony. I really was planning a wedding for my own children at this point. I had not even met Fisayo, but something in the hearts and spirits of them both that pulled at my heart from the first time a met him and heard about her. Every time I would think of something, I would text him. He had no idea what an American wedding was, what it entailed, how it would proceed, what his responsibilities were, what he would say, do, and most of all how he would make sure this would be the happiest day of her life. I tried to be concise and clear and thorough. I made sure he had a script in his dressing room, so he could review it with the pastor when he arrived. I listed and revised lists to be certain he brought everything she would need.

And, then it was the day!

Joseph’s pretense for going to Jay, was that he needed to take something to someone at church. They had a grand date night planned, so they were going to drive to Jay early and be back to Pensacola for dinner. This, of course, gave Fisayo a reason to be dressed suitably for a wedding. On the drive they talked a lot about being in the US, but Joseph was able to ask her a few questions, too. One of them was, ‘What is something you regret not being able to do, and that you can’t go back and do.?’ And, her response was, ‘I wish we could have had a church wedding; that I could have had a wedding dress and walked down the aisle and said our vows.’ WOW! Later, after she realized he had been so lovingly deceptive, she said, ‘…and he just kept looking through the windshield and kept driving like it wasn’t exactly what he was doing!’

I was hiding in our basement with the photographer, Kelsei Frazier, Connie and Ann, the photographer and a couple of the ladies helping with the wedding, when they came into the church. One of my lengthy texts had explicit directions for how far to walk, where to stand so the photographer could capture her response and the decorations, how to stand, hold her hands and tell her his plan. It was perfect! Kelsei slipped up the stairs and at the perfect moment captured forever her overjoyed, overwhelmed, and raw emotion. Her deepest desires had been granted by the love of her life and a congregation who loved them, although she had only recently met them. Can you imagine what she was going through? It was such a blessing to hug her and tell her we had much to do to prepare her for her wedding.

Kelsei Frazier Photography
Kelsei Frazier Photography
Kelsei Frazier Photography

As she hugged and said so long to her husband, she was trembling. We supported her as we walked to her dressing room. Joseph went ahead to meet us there. Once in the room, she was able to see her wedding dress for the first time, and Joseph was able to see her reaction. She sobbed into his white shirt, already dotted with make-up and mascara, traces of emotions leaking from her beautiful brown eyes.

Kelsei Frazier Photography

She soon gathered her thoughts and we began the dressing of the bride. As soon as she was dressed, she phoned her mother. The conversation was as you can imagine, excited, amazed that her mother knew all the plans and hadn’t told her, continuing over speaker phone so we could hold the phone for her mother and sister to see the dress from all angles, and then the sweet good-bye with promises of pictures later.

Kelsei Frazier Photography
Kelsei Frazier Photography
Kelsei Frazier Photography

Weeks ago, Joseph asked my husband to walk Fisayo down the aisle. He said Rick was like a father to him. My heart melted. However, I had no idea how proud I would feel seeing him with her, supporting her as she walked to her husband as her dream unfolded. I know she was full of excitement, joy, but how could she not feel some trepidation entering a church, a community she had only met 3 weeks ago. The church was not packed, yet each row had church members and friends who were happy to see the culmination of our vision and planning come together in such a precious display of love for our Lord.

Kelsei Frazier Photography
Kelsei Frazier Photography
Kelsei Frazier Photography

This was not the ceremony that formed a legal bond, it was not the ceremony to join two families, this was so much more. This ceremony was the most important of all to Joseph and Fisayo. As Christians, they pledged their lives and love to the Lord and vowed to love each other until the end of their days.

Kelsei Frazier Photography
Kelsei Frazier Photography

It was a beautiful service, reverent and sweet. They looked at one another with such great love. It was such a blessing to witness this very special union. At the end of the service, everyone in attendance gathered around them for a group photo to help them remember all the loving faces there to share this time together.

Kelsei Frazier Photography

Fisayo was once again surprised with the reception. After she and Joseph had wedding photos taken, they joined everyone at the reception, where the Joy Circle had prepared a wonderful meal. They were seated at a sweetheart table and waited on hand and foot. They enjoyed the attention and talked non-stop, I’m sure about how he was able to pull this off without her knowing. They were walked through our traditions of cake cutting. They said their farewells, gathered gift cards — another unexpected blessing — and packed the car. As they blindly trusted me and followed directions, I led them through the crowd of guests to the front of the church, where they descended the front steps into a cloud of bubbles. They glowed with appreciation, love, joy, and could not stop thanking everyone for giving them this opportunity. And then they were gone.

Kelsei Frazier Photography
Kelsei Frazier Photography
Kelsei Frazier Photography

That was not the end of the story. You see, it was during this last month that our church realized we had been delivered a gift from God, in Joseph. His determination to be in God’s house spoke to many of us. We realized what we take for granted. Would any of us have ridden a bicycle two hours on the coldest day of the year to get to church? Would we have entered into a strange place, in a strange country, not knowing anyone and trusting God to place us in a congregation who would love us and consider us family? He trusted completely, moved beyond his comfort zone on so many occasions, presented his wife to us trusting we would love her, too. He embodied so many characteristics of the Christian faith that we overlook in our busy lives. It was so easy to surround them with love, cover them in prayers, and include them in our church family.

Kelsei Frazier Photography

We are Jay United Methodist Church. We are a small, rural church who loves Jesus, we love our community, we love one another. Joseph and Fisayo gave us the opportunity to focus on a goal and work together to draw closer to one another and them. We gave from our hearts, we celebrated the union of a Godly couple, and God blessed our work. We have added to our congregation in more than numbers and are anxiously waiting to hear what God wants us to do next.”

Kelsei Frazier Photography

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Kelsei Frazier, 29, of Kelsei Frazier Photography on behalf of Nina Hendricks. Follow Kelsei on Instagram hereSubmit your story here, and subscribe to our best love stories hereDo you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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‘I wore my wedding dress to make dinner. ‘Honey, this mac and cheese is amazing.’ He’s lying because it came out of a box and is made from orange powder. ‘Thanks babe. It must be the dress.’

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