When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my lambs." A second time he said to him,"Simon, son of John, do you love me?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Tend my sheep." He said to him the third time, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, "Do you love me?" And he said to him, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go." (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, "Follow me." John 21: 15-19, NRSVUE
This passage from the twenty-first chapter of John serves as a guiding force for Rev. Juwle Nagbe, who will enter a retirement relationship with the Dakotas Conference this year. His journey in ministry spans 40 years and reaches from West Africa to North Dakota.
"I have gone through a lot of trials many times," said Pastor Juwle. "I was arrested by the rebels many times. They tried to kill me. But God, for some reason, protected me. They never killed me," he said.
Born in Liberia, Nagbe became a teacher and principal. He felt an urge to do something more. Juwle made his way to Duke University in the United States and earned a Master of Divinity. He started his quest for ordination in 1987 while he was in Liberia as a United Methodist minister. Liberia is his faith home. On Christmas Day 1989, civil war broke out. The war claimed more than two hundred thousand Liberians in a nation of 2.1 million people and displaced millions of other citizens. One of those displaced citizens was Juwle Nagbe. The ordination process halted.
"I was in the Nimba County when rebel rule took over and divided the country into two sections, the North-Eastern ruled by the rebels and the West by the Samuel Doe’s government." said Rev. Nagbe. "Some of my family escaped to Sierra Leone, but I had no idea where they were. I went to Cote d'Ivoire as a refugee and while I was there, I began to search for my family. Not knowing where some of them were, I was able to leave to go to school in the United States at Emory University."
Juwle completed his studies at Duke School of Theology in 2000. He continued in the Clinical Pastoral Education program at Candler School of Theology, located on the campus of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. He contacted the North Georgia Conference to seek ordination as an elder in The United Methodist Church. Because Juwle entered the U.S. on a student visa, the conference could not process his ordination. He needed to become employed in the U.S. or become a United States citizen.
While going through all that, Juwle was still searching through UNHCR’s records for the Liberians who were being resettled from Africa to the United States to see if he could find his sister’s name. Then it happened. Juwle learned that his sister was resettled from the hottest spot in Africa (Ghana) to the coolest sport in the United States at Fargo, North Dakota. Upon connection by phone, the sister, Maude Thomas, decided to go to find Juwle in Georgia first.
After the visit Pastor Juwle said, "I told my sister. I will come to you. So, I traveled from Atlanta for a visit," he said. "I was planning to go back to Atlanta. But she said, 'Brother, think about the years we were separated. We have lost our mother and father. Do you really want to be separated again?' We prayed that God would open doors for us."
By June of the same year, he was employed as a chaplain with Sandford Health, which was the beginning of Juwle’s stay in North Dakota.
Pastor Juwle, who attended Flame of Faith UMC in West Fargo, noticed that several Liberian refugees had no place to worship. So, with the support of the congregation and Rev. Mina Hall, he started a worshipping community for those that made their way from West Africa to North Dakota.
"I knew that God must have brought me to North Dakota for a reason. Mina Hall and the people at Flame of Faith were so open. She encouraged me to start the ordination process here," said Pastor Juwle. "But the ordination process did not move along because I was not a citizen of the United States."
He adjusted in North Dakota and throughout his time in the United States. "Well, in Africa, we read about snow. We would see all the pictures of snow on trees. When I was in North Carolina, we saw a little snow but not too much. So, when I came, God said, 'Ok, now you come and see what snow is.' I told my friends in Atlanta that I was coming to North Dakota, and they said, 'What's wrong with you? Are you crazy? Nobody lives in that place. That place is so cold.' Working as a chaplain, I saw the trucks plowing the snow. I took a picture of the plowing truck, sent it to Georgia, and said, 'The people here know how to handle the snow.' I love the people here in North Dakota. They say, 'Our hands are cold, but our hearts are warm.' Truly, I have felt that."
In 2012, Bishop Bruce Ough became the resident bishop for the Dakotas-Minnesota Area of The United Methodist Church. At the Northeast District welcoming and installation service, held at First UMC in Fargo, Pastor Nagbe was asked to read scripture, John 21:15-19 in his dialect at the request of Bishop Ough. Why Bishop Ough would ask someone to read that passage in his dialect, and why it was Juwle Nagbe to be called upon to read that in his dialect is still a mystery to Pastor Juwle. But that was the beginning of his connection with the Dakotas Conference.
A few months later, there was a need of a pastor at Lisbon/Enderlin charge. According to Rev. Marilyn Spurrell, the Northeast District Superintendent, Bishop Ough asked, “Who was that man who read that scripture?” Pastor Juwle shared, “I do not know if he understood what I read in my dialect, but he remembered the man who read the Scripture. Only God could work those things out."
Rev. Spurrell approached Pastor Juwle to serve three churches—two United Methodist congregations and one Presbyterian congregation—at Lisbon and Enderlin, North Dakota. "I said sure if they can understand me," said Pastor Juwle.
"In 2013, I was appointed. The thing I loved about serving there was the openness, the love of the people, their readiness," said Pastor Juwle. "We just got connected—our hearts, our spirits,—just got connected, and that was just by the grace of God. We all grew so much together."
In 2014, Rev. Nagbe was commissioned as an elder in the Dakotas Conference. He was ordained as a full member in 2019. Juwle's wife, Martha, of 37 years, his two sons, daughter, and three grandchildren attended the ordination service. His sister, who currently works as a nurse and lives in Bismarck, attended with her daughter and granddaughter.
"Family and friends came from Maryland, New Jersey, and of course, North Dakota. It was a wonderful time," said Rev. Nagbe.
When asked how he has dealt with turmoil, conflict, and tension in his life and the world, Pastor Juwle said, "If we all say that we know this one, Christ, what is going on in our hearts? We have so much in our minds, our souls, and in our spirits. We must trust God. We must be able to be with a group of people with whom we may not agree and trust the spirit of God, who is in the midst of all this confusion—the spirit of God who can guide us to invite friends who know this Jesus Christ. We can pray together. We can encourage one another, and that will keep our heads above the waters."
He is grateful for the support and encouragement of Rev. Joel Winckler, the Northwest District Superintendent. "We need others to come alongside. And I thank God for my district superintendent Joel Winckler. He was my mentor when we were in Fargo. He moved away, and now he's become my district superintendent. He's very supportive," said Pastor Juwle.
In 2020, Rev. Nagbe was appointed to serve at Streeter and Napoleon in North Dakota. He will be living in Streeter and continue serving the congregations in retirement. "God has blessed me with the opportunity. When I was in Lisbon, and our ministerial team met the first time, they were introducing themselves and would say, 'I am a Norwegian from….' So, it was time to introduce myself. I said, 'Well, I am a Norwegian from West Africa.' So, now living in Streeter, I am a German from West Africa. I thank God for blessing me with people who are very loving, very receptive, very supportive, and are so open."