Justina Sergeon’s faith has never wavered, but her route to becoming a pastor led her through a few detours.
“Our book bags were packed with a cup of rice and some little personal items, so we could be able to just grab our bags and run,” she said. “It was nighttime, early morning, when we woke up to gunshots, and my dad grabbed us. We took off, and we ran.”
The memories bring tears, even today, as Sergeon recalls how close they came to death.
She and two of her siblings were captured. On her knees, waiting to be executed, she prayed for deliverance. She watched her cousin get shot as he and others tried to escape, but the distraction allowed Sergeon to flee yet again.
She narrowly missed being abducted by a rebel who wanted her as his wife. The pleas of her father, Justin Knuckles Sr., and an unknown woman convinced the rebel to let Sergeon go.
On her knees, waiting to be executed, she prayed for deliverance.
While Sergeon and her family were trying to escape to the neighboring Ivory Coast, shots from a helicopter rained down on the bus they were riding. Yet no one was injured.
“When you experience something like that, there is no way you cannot serve God,” she says. “There is no way you cannot know that God led you out of Egypt into the land of Canaan.”
On Sept. 17 members of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Laurel, Md., voted to call Sergeon, then their vicar, as their next co-pastor. She will be the second Liberian woman ordained in the ELCA.
Sergeon’s ordination service will be held on Reformation Sunday at Peoples’ Community Lutheran Church in Baltimore. The congregation was founded by her father and other Liberians who fled the civil war and immigrated to the United States.
The new pastor’s sister, Leator Knuckles, says that Sergeon’s story of perseverance resonates with many people, particularly those trying to start fresh in their own lives.
“No matter the circumstances, she does not allow that to hinder what she believes—she is a God-fearing woman,” Leator said. “As Christians, we believe strongly in … trusting in [God’s] process and knowing it’s going to be OK. And Justina speaks to that in her journey.”
The nudge of a higher purpose
During the war Sergeon’s father secured immediate safe passage to the U.S. through Firestone—for which he worked in the company’s chemical research department—but Sergeon and her family were forced to escape to her grandmother’s house in neighboring Sierra Leone. She was 16 before she and her family were able to immigrate to the U.S. and reunite with Knuckles Sr. in Maryland.
Even while Sergeon was displaced in Sierra Leone, her faith never wavered. Her church leadership skills had been nurtured before the civil war, when Sergeon’s parents were active in their Liberian church.
“I sensed God’s call on me at a very young age, probably 6 or 7 years old,” she said. “[I remember] reading from Ecclesiastes … standing at the podium in front of the church, I just felt this sense, ‘This is what I’m meant to do.’ Every once in a while, in my youth, I felt this nudge.”
For a long time Sergeon planned to answer her call after getting married, finishing college and having kids. In the meantime she became a church lay leader, got heavily involved with ELCA Global Mission and worked at a bank to help support her family, which had grown to include four daughters.
When the bank laid her off, she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees to prepare for seminary, and in 2017 she found a position as associate for administration to Bishop William Gohl in the Delaware-Maryland Synod.
“I just felt this sense, ‘This is what I’m meant to do.’”
“My call was always in the back of my mind, but I felt God placed me there in the bishop’s office,” she said. “Learning ministry work, being in the synod office, I had firsthand exposure to all those things—helping with planning, working with them from the ground up.”
She also became the secretary for African National Ministries of the ELCA, which supports African pastors and connects their congregations with ELCA resources.
Sergeon seemed to be doing God’s work, and doing it well, but at a congregational vitality meeting in Seattle she had a dream about Ecclesiastes 5:4: “When you make a vow to God, do not delay fulfilling it; for he has no pleasure in fools. Fulfill what you vow.”
“That jolted me out of my sleep,” said Sergeon, “because I had made my decision that I was just going to immerse myself in church work and not go to seminary, and that very night, the Holy Spirit spoke to me in my dream.”
A trip to an international women’s seminar in Wittenberg, Germany, in October 2018 helped solidify Sergeon’s plan to become a pastor. She entered United Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia, Pa., and graduated this past May.
“You could just see the presence of God in the whole mix,” said Gohl of Sergeon’s journey. “She was so faithful and responding. It would have been so easy to say ‘no’: single mom, four kids, too expensive, too busy. She risked everything, and she came through it like gold. She finished seminary in three years—typically it takes four.”
In April, during her busy last semester of seminary, Sergeon made time to travel with African National Ministries to Liberia—the first time she’d been to her native country in more than 30 years.
She preached at Faith Lutheran Parish in her hometown, Harbel, Margibi County, and showed one of her daughters her old neighborhood, her old house and the forest into which she had fled in her nightgown in the middle of the night.
She felt a “fierceness” to complete her calling while there.
Sergeon said she felt a “fierceness” to complete her calling while there. “Even in Liberia, at a point of death, running for my life, hiding from rebels, hiding between dead bodies, being separated from my father and mother, going through all of that—going [back] to Liberia really made me realize everything for the last 30 years has led up to this point.”
Gohl said he could tell the trip was transformational for Sergeon.
“She has been faithful to the church’s call and God’s urging, and I think she’s been surprised at how it’s unfolded,” Gohl said. “In a world that longs for certainty, a story of faithfulness and surprise in the uncertainty is one worth telling.”