JSU student from Nigeria embraced by area church

JACKSONVILLE, Ala. — It was a rainy Sunday morning, and Olalere Bolaji Funsho had made his way from Nigeria to the Atlanta airport and then by shuttle to Jacksonville State University. He had searched online for a church, but when he arrived on foot no one was there.

“There he is on the corner by that church. It’s pouring down rain. A car pulled up and stopped, and a young man was in the car,” Carol Haynes recalled to The Alabama Baptist. “The man said, ‘Do you need a ride?’”

Funsho told him he was trying to find a church, and the driver said he knew of one down the road, West Side Baptist in Jacksonville. He dropped him off, never to be seen again.

Soaking wet, with scars on his cheeks from a Nigerian birth ritual, Funsho, 34, walked into West Side Baptist with a big smile, just in time for Sunday School. Haynes, whose husband David is pastor, was leading the class for Funsho’s age group along with her husband. 

“He loves the Lord,” Haynes said of Funsho. “He has an amazing Scripture background. He knows God’s Word. He’s just an amazing guy.” 

Church members warmly welcomed Funsho.

“Though they didn’t know him, they loved him, they embraced him and then they tried to help him. That has never stopped,” Haynes said.

Funsho’s story

Church members quickly learned Funsho’s story: He grew up poor in southern Nigeria, and after his Muslim mother accepted Christ he soon followed in 2009. He earned a college degree there while working several jobs, and aspired to earn a master’s degree in biology in the United States to later serve as a research scientist and help the people in his country. 

From 2015 to 2022 he applied to many schools in the United States, but the scholarship he would need never materialized — until Jacksonville State offered a scholarship and an opportunity to work as a graduate assistant.

Funsho had never been out of Nigeria when he left there in December 2022, and when he arrived in Jacksonville he had only a large backpack with his belongings. 

“It was the first or second week of December when he got here, and at that point the universities are gone for Christmas,” Haynes recalled. “Jacksonville becomes a very small town when the students go home.”

When he told church members his name, Funsho could see the blank looks on their faces, Haynes recounted, so he told them, “Just call me B.J.”

They learned he had secured a small, shared apartment, but had no furniture, not even a bed.

“One of our church members provided a bed. Another one provided a table,” Haynes recalled. “We kind of halfway furnished the place where he lived.”

Since cars are driven only by the wealthy in Nigeria, B.J. walked everywhere, including to classes and Walmart.

Family time

And since he arrived at Christmastime knowing no one, Haynes invited him to celebrate Christmas with her family.

“I have five kids and a lot of grandkids, so he came into a bustling house of 16 of us and had an American Christmas,” she said. “He was just blown away because we do Christmas big at our house. He had never been a part of anything like that.

“He didn’t know what cheese was. He didn’t know what a strawberry was.”

Haynes’ son-in-law gave B.J. a bicycle so he could at least ride instead of walking everywhere. Last summer, a church member offered to buy him a used car, but he needed a driver’s license.

“My husband gave him driving lessons for several weeks, and he passed his driver’s test,” Haynes noted.

“He’s one of the most grateful people you’ll ever meet,” she added. “He thanks us constantly. The church people have over and over given to him. I see people slipping him money regularly. He’s never asked us for one thing.” 

A couple of months after he arrived, B.J. learned his wife in Nigeria was expecting their first child, a daughter. He had no way of going back to Nigeria for the baby’s birth in June, but he FaceTimed his wife daily throughout the pregnancy, and the church followed along excitedly.

As December approached, church members decided to send him home for Christmas to meet his daughter and visit his wife. 

‘A precious story’

“It’s a precious story,” Haynes said. “I wish you could have seen his face when my husband told him. He couldn’t believe it; he was just beside himself. He FaceTimed his wife. She thought he was kidding; she didn’t even believe him. When she finally realized it was for real, she just bawled.” 

B.J. had never intended to be separated from his family for so long. His plan had been to secure a life in America then have his wife join him, but after the baby was born, when she tried to obtain a visa, it was denied without explanation. She had to wait nine months before applying again. 

When B.J. went to Nigeria for three weeks at Christmas, those were the only three Sundays he has missed at West Side Baptist since that rainy December day in 2022, Haynes said.

“He’s been faithful. He comes every time.”

West Side recently completed a “prophet’s chamber” in the office area of the church, offering it to B.J. for $100 a month until he completes his degree in December. 

“He was thrilled because it’s really nice,” Haynes reported. “It’s got a bed and bath and a little seating area, perfect for a single guy, and it’s all been redone.” 

The story of B.J.’s arrival in America and the reception he received at West Side Baptist “is just one of those things that only God could have orchestrated,” Haynes said.

(EDITOR’S NOTE – This story first appeared at The Alabama Baptist.)

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