Chapel on the Hill pastor Gabe Oberholzer displays a glass sword he was given by a church member after he was sworn in June 11 as a U.S. citizen.
SEMINOLE – The seed was initially planted in 1985 when Gabe Oberholzer first gave thought to immigrating to the United States.
It was a passing thought at the time but it continued to grow.
Three weeks ago, the 55-year-old pastor of Chapel on the Hill, 12601 Park Blvd., saw it become reality when he took the oath as a naturalized U.S. citizen.
It ended a lengthy eight-year, eight-month emotional roller coaster that started in 2003 when he first began the process of emigrating from South Africa to America.
“It was well worth it,” said the 6-foot, 5-inch minister. “My family is here, we all have jobs, we live in freedom and we’re happy.”
Gabe’s big day was June 11 – a day he will never forget.
“There were a lot of emotions that day,” he said. “It was a total mix of everything. On one side there was the sadness of giving up your past, giving up your roots. On the flip side, there was the feeling of happiness and the feeling of freedom.”
The next day he quickly registered to vote and the following day he applied for a U.S. passport that he should receive within a couple of weeks.
A celebration followed the following Sunday at the church that was highlighted by a presentation from a church member who presented Oberholzer with a glass sword. The sword included the colors of the U.S. flag and the handle included the head of an eagle.
“He told me freedom is fragile. Glass can break,” said Oberholzer. “The eagle symbolizes strength and the sword symbolizes freedom, which needs to be defended. It was an extremely powerful moment for me.”
The popular pastor has been “in the business” for 30 years. After graduating in 1982 from a seminary in Pretoria, South Africa, he was assigned to a Dutch Reformed Church with 1,500 members and later led a congregation at a church with about 1,000 members.
“My ex-wife was a physical therapist and she received numerous calls to work in the U.S., but she had no interest,” Oberholzer said.
Then, in 2000, he and his family made their first visit to the U.S. – to St. Augustine. Oberholzer made connections with the Presbyterian Church-USA but for reasons unknown to him his application to become a pastor was never accepted.
“Then in 2003, an old friend of mine in New Smyrna Beach, said why don’t you try the United Church of Christ,” Oberholzer said.
He did and after a 26-month immigration process with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Oberholzer and his family arrived in Atlanta on Nov. 30, 2005, assigned to a United Church of Christ congregation in Pomona Park, Fla., just outside of St. Augustine.
Two weeks later, he received his Green Card, identifying him as a permanent legal alien.
“It took 26 months of waiting in South Africa for this to happen,” Oberholzer said. “Your fate is in the hands of someone else. They wanted all kinds of information about you, clear down to my underwear size.”
The process included a formal interview at the U.S. Embassy in Johannesburg and once approved, he was given six months to arrive in the U.S. Oberholzer didn’t waste any time. He was there in three weeks.
Oberholzer spent three years in Pomona Park, building the congregation from 52 members to about 75, before moving in late 2008 to Chapel on the Hill where he now oversees a congregation of about 200.
In February, he began the process of becoming a U.S. citizen. After producing photographs and fingerprints for USCIS officials, he was called in for a face-to-face interview and testing.
“They ask you questions (about American history) that most Americans can’t answer,” Oberholzer said.
Once he passed and it was determined he could read English, he had to prove he could write English as well.
“I had to write ‘The people elect Congress,’” he said. “I’ll never forget that.”
Two days later he received notification he was approved and was invited to the oath ceremony in Tampa. Unfortunately, he was in California at the time and had to postpone the big day to June 11.
“So now I’m an American and it feels good,” Oberholzer beamed.
But it came at a cost, he said.
“I don’t think I’ll ever recover from the financial cost of the process,” he said. “It costs $800 alone to apply to be a citizen but in my case there was a lot of flying five people back and forth across the Atlantic. It cost a lot of money.
“There was an emotional cost too. It cost me my marriage of 32 years,” Oberholzer added. “But we did it the right way and without the support of the churches, it would have been more difficult.”
Members at the Chapel like Oberholzer a lot.
“We have people who will walk on hot coals for this man,” said Doris Berry, who works as a volunteer in the church office. “He came in and hit the ground running. When you see someone working hard, it makes you want to work hard. It’s infectious. But most importantly, he’s a super person and a kind person.”
Oberholzer is very big on community outreach.
After becoming pastor at the Chapel, he personally visited every member of the church.
Most recently, he brokered an agreement with the American Red Cross for the church to act as a refugee shelter.
During Tropical Storm Debby, the church provided emergency services for nine residents of Mariner’s Cove Mobile Home Park in Largo who were forced to evacuate due to flooding.
“It’s just a way of serving the community,” said Oberholzer. “If a church doesn’t serve its community, it’s nothing more than a country club.”
Since arriving on the scene in 2008, he has transformed the church’s worship services into fun but meaningful gatherings.
“Our motto is ‘When was the last time you had fun in church?’” said Oberholzer. “We’re not hellfire and brimstone, and you’re allowed to think for yourself here.”
It was that type of thinking that led to his arrival in the U.S. and his eventual U.S. citizenship.
“July 4 will have special meaning to me as far as new freedom and new independence,” he said.