Up till the last time he showed up in church, he was still himself: an old man in the winter season of his life, hoary headed, coping well with old age, a regular fixture at the RCCG Cornerstone (My Father’s House), Okota where he would saunter in for the second service, clutching his Bible in one hand and his walking stick in the other hand.
Then he would find his way to the extreme right of the front row, his regular seat. At 83, Elder Lawrence Orgaandi Abili, was the picture of a man who had grown gracefully, filled with God’s glory and blessings. One look at him and you will see a man who must have been very handsome as a young man and still carried his gap-toothed good looks into extra time.
Like the Great Zik who was not in a hurry to leave this world, Pa Abili did not hide his desire to stay long in good health and in grace, surrounded by his children and grandchildren—a dream that was fulfilled in his lifetime. With his vivacious wife Mrs. Tina Abili, 80, they are Nigeria’s Romeo and Juliet even in old age. They may be two opposites but in their diversities, they perfectly suited each other. Mama speaks Yoruba fluently than a native Yoruba. You will think she was born in Lagos but she came to Lagos from Asaba as a young girl and blended with the culture to the point where she reads, writes and quotes Yoruba proverbs with the ease of eating roasted yam with palm oil.
At 80, Mama Abili—a prayer warrior and a woman of charisma who can light up a room with her zest and cheerful mien—says: “I have limited time now. I don’t want to be 100. It was daddy who wanted to be 100. I don’t want to be a burden in old age. I don’t want my grandchildren to be running away from me.”
The two met in 1957 in Surulere, Lagos. Mama was with her friends playing Bingo at a church bazaar when young Lawrence spotted her among other girls and was transfixed by her beauty and wifeliness. He followed her secretly home. And the rest is history. They married in 1963 and she had to give up nursing because her husband didn’t want to stay lonely at night while she went on night duty. Luckily she got a job as sales executive with the UAC while her husband worked as a manager at the Nigerian Port Authority.
The Nigerian civil war separated them. She had to leave for the East while he remained in Lagos, protected by his Yoruba landlord who kept him safe from harm’s way. As a patriot, Pa Lawrence wanted one united Nigeria. He was saddened by the civil war, the killings and the losses the family suffered such as their looted shop. Thankfully, they reunited after the war. All in all, they have five children who are all doing well in their various chosen professions at home and abroad.
Mama returned from war to find she had lost her job at the UAC because she didn’t take permission to leave her job at the outbreak of the war. Luckily, she was made a distributor where she sold UAC brands like Snowfire, Kiwi and Vaseline. This is what took her to all the nooks and corners of Yoruba land. (She breaks dramatically into a popular Ijesha folk song and dances at this point of the interview). Awww!!! What a sweet old lady!!!
Her business was called Tina Cosmetics. She made a success out of it. So successful that she proudly tells you she built a two-storey house and retired early at 57, because “I didn’t want hypertension.” Ever since, she had dedicated her life to the service of God, along with her husband who also played an active role in church as the pioneer chairman of the Elders’ Group. The Abilis were part of the spiritual and moral pillars of Cornerstone Church that has been transformed visually and architecturally by Pastor Danjuma Tafawa-Balewa.
In a church that usually clapped at the announcement of good news, it was with a sense of shock and pity we received the news that the old man had slipped and fallen while struggling to climb the staircase to his house. We prayed and prayed for him to get well and resume churchgoing, but to our deepest sorrow, Pa Abili died on December 16, 2018 at 7.45 pm.
He was a man of faith who searched for truth, fought stubbornly for truth, argued on the side of truth. A highly principled man, you really needed to convince him with strong arguments and overwhelming facts to win him over from where he stood on an issue.
Looking back, he was not much of a churchgoer initially. He once testified how as a member of the Grail Movement, he spent time and money buying books in the quest for truth. But like Saul who turned Paul, God arrested him in 1992. He had driven his wife to Surulere for a three-day crusade. Each day, he would drop her, go for a drink and returned to pick her. On the third day, just as he dropped her, he heard from the loudspeaker the word demonology! It was his eureka moment. He joined the crusade without his wife noticing. After the crusade, he told his surprised and elated wife: “I have found what I have been looking for. I had been searching for an explanation to this thing called demonology. Now, I know the truth.”
From then on, he accepted Christ as his Lord and Saviour. He became a new creature, burnt all his Grail Message books and carried Christ on his head. His son Nana Abili says: “My dad interrogates. He was a why person. You need to tell him why. He was always looking for answers to things. When God came in, everything he used to believe became questionable. Now, he says people have turned round what God teaches to suit their own doctrines.”
His daughter Mrs. Ndudi Abili-Chike-Okoro says: “Even though he didn’t go as far as some of us did in doing our masters and all that, we revered him when it came to knowledge and current affairs nationally and globally. He was the one to go to for advice. He had much integrity. That was why he didn’t stay longer at NPA.”
Another recollection: “My dad documented everything he did. He kept a diary of his life and activities. Two weeks ago, I found in his room a diary where he recorded the exact time of our birth. He remembered every birthday, including that of his grandchildren. Dad was usually the first caller on birthdays.”
Pa Abili would be buried in his hometown in the Abili Family Compound, Arondizuogu on February 8, 2019 after a commendation service in his church and a service of songs on January 30 at the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) Sports Ground, Eko Club Close, Off Bode Thomas, Surulere in Lagos. He would be buried far from the city he knew so well, loved so well and died in.