With her son leading the bridal train as the little groom, the resplendent bride made her way into the packed Texan church to a different kind of wedding song.
The lyrics, "God sent you to love and comfort me," couldn't be more apt. The bride, Sarah (name changed for her safety) was remarrying in America after Boko Haram killed her husband in Maiduguri, North-east Nigeria a few years before.
The wedding was on Martin Luther King holiday weekend this year, the holiday commemorating the civil rights icon who advocated for racial equality. However it was just days after the US President made disparaging remarks about African immigrants' countries.
At the Houston wedding reception, I was seated next to a medical doctor and his wife also a doctor (relatives of the bride.) To my left was a medical doctor and her kids (friends of the bride.) The wedding guests in Houston were a true microcosm of highly educated Nigerian American immigrants. As lawyers, my wife and I were probably the least educated professionals on our table.
The Liberian American Master of Ceremony made a joke about this phenomenon saying if you asked a Nigerian what they had studied, you were likely to hear, "I have a degree in Chemistry but I have gone back to earn a degree in Physics."
He pointed out for illustration that Sarah the bride had a degree in Finance and another degree in Nursing.
The crowd was a mix of family, friends, coworkers and members of the ethnic church where the couple served and met. A toast to the couple hinted that this all began when the Liberian groom served in the parking ministry of the church and helped Sarah find parking before service. After that she was regularly needing parking assistance from one volunteer in particular.
Her marriage to a Liberian is especially intriguing. Her late husband had served in Liberia during a military peace keeping mission to bring stability back to the war-torn country. The U.S. supported that mission in view of its historical ties to Liberia founded by freed African American slaves. However the U.S. relied on officers from Nigeria to be the boots on the ground in their place.
I met him in 2014. He had just finished a tour of duty fighting the terrorists in their north central hub. You could tell right away he was a consummate warrior - a soldier's soldier. He had served in many peacekeeping missions in Liberia, Sierra Leone amongst others in his 25 years of military career. He had spent most of his life in the army having joined as a teen.
At his command, he barely slept, keeping ahead of the terrorists at their game of war. He inculcated friendships with the community using community policing as his key counterinsurgency strategy. This way he suppressed attacks before they happened. There was calm and tranquillity during his three-year duty tour.
As I shared about our work helping victims, unknown to me this officer and gentleman who was on a break to visit his family in the U.S., was in the audience.
Even though he had himself sacrificed much including his family for the sake of the people, he still donated to our project.
His wife told me how when she'd visit him in Nigeria, sometimes she'd see pockmarks on his bulletproof vest. When she asked what happened, he'd remain silent...
On Christmas the following year, I met her again.
Months before, she'd gotten an abrupt four-word call from his batman. "Madam, Oga (boss) is dead." It was the shortest most devastating phone call imaginable.
Mysteriously, only he died that day in the defence of the city of Maiduguri which came under a second attack in a week from Boko Haram terrorists. How they broke through his helmet, vest and protective gear is a puzzle but the bottom line is that they scored a major victory in taking out this Lt. Colonel who had frustrated numerous attacks over the years.
His widow looked at me and said, wistfully, "I told him to join me in the US and leave the army. " She says if he had been here, those wounds were recoverable - she sees far more trauma cases. She is a nurse, you see.
But the nightmare of widowhood is far worse than you'd expect.
Widows continue to be deprived matrimonial property under ignominious disinheritance practices in Nigeria. Then there are demands to engage in burial rituals that can be unwholesome. Worse still, is getting the government to process death benefits for the families of heroes who died in service of their fatherland.
She even had to work on Christmas Day and couldn't find childcare for her kids.
If only he were here... if only he'd agreed to come to America! He sacrificed too much, she said. The army was his life and the army was his death. But the army appreciated him only in life and not in death when he could no longer be used.
Even in his final battle when he radioed for back-up from a borrowed radio because his wasn't working, no reinforcements came...
I told her that in every generation, there are people who must sacrifice more than most for the good of all. Someone has to do it for our common humanity. Many go through life oblivious of the sacrifices these heroes make on our behalf.
I tried to encourage her that there are countless people alive today because of her husband's efforts. A lot of what we do on earth will ultimately be measured in eternity and that's what counts the most.
As I tucked her kids into their car seats, I said to myself, this is what he would have been doing if he was home for Christmas. The families of our servicemen and women make sacrifices just as though they themselves are in the battlefield. In fact they worry more from not knowing.
She didn't get to have his body for burial. The army kept it for speedy burial in the north where he was killed - not his hometown in southern Nigeria.
She didn't get his wedding ring back, nor the matching gold chain which he had purchased for them both.
She has no souvenir left of him but the boy and girl who are too young to understand that dad traveled to Nigeria for work and isn't home for Christmas and is never coming back...
I have brought more victims of Boko Haram to the US than anyone. I am in touch with many survivors. Seeing this American woman married to a Nigerian officer suddenly have her life turned upside down was a new experience for me but it brought it real close to home. I know of no other widow of the Boko Haram insurgency in the U.S.
Her late husband, a Lt. Col was killed in combat (KIA) by Boko Haram in February 2015 almost three years before Sarah remarried. Sadly his death benefits and life insurance as well as scholarships for their two children have not been paid years later by the government of Nigeria and its contractual parties. I offered to serve as her pro bono lawyer to obtain the death benefits but the bureaucratic bottleneck is such that I was limited in what legal options to employ. I have seldom felt so helpless!
Thinking back on her wedding song, "God sent you to love and comfort me," that is the true redeeming grace in what would otherwise have been a heartbreaking story.
Seeing this American woman marrying again and rebooting her life was an emotional experience for me. When governments fail, God doesn't. Hope is indeed the heart's great quest and love it's healing balm. I admit it, I teared up during the wedding - overwhelmed by God's solution to this situation.