Soulful Servant: Chaplain Idomele spreads joy through saxophone melodies

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Madelyn Keech
  • 86th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

Proudly serving as a chaplain for the 86th Airlift Wing at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, U.S. Air Force Capt. Joseph Idomele's journey is a testament of undertaking challenges head-on and pursuing dreams despite the challenges. 

Hailing from the vibrant city of Kano, Nigeria, West Africa, Idomele's (EE-doh-meh-lay) inspiring journey launched from encounters with jazz, courtesy of his brothers' always playing soul-stirring afrobeat music. The pull of unfamiliar melodies intrigued him, and he soon discovered Fela Kuti, a Nigerian composer also known as the “King of Afrobeat.” 

Idomele found himself captivated by Kuti’s rhythms – a combination of American jazz and traditional Nigerian music – and by the positive messages of hope intertwined within the lyrics of the music, which Kuti used to confront political injustice in his country. 

“Like Nelson Mandela, Fela was an activist who always sang and talked about man’s inhumanity against man,” Idomele said. “He always fought against inequalities the 'masses' faced against rich and corrupt leaders, sentiments composed into the previously unknown form of Afrobeat.” 

Inspired by Kuti’s contagious spirit and willingness to stand up for his beliefs, Idomele picked up a saxophone and learned to play, not realizing how greatly music would one day become a part of his life.  

“Generally speaking, music is all around you in African cultures and communities,” Idomele said. “You just cannot help but gravitate towards music and it just becomes like the air you breathe.”

From the bustling city of Kano to the disciplined environment of the U.S. Air Force, Idomele’s story is one of the power of music, and equally as important: service before self, and the pursuit of his lifelong vocation.   

Idomele’s roots in a religious environment in West Africa propelled him to become the man he is today, he said. His father worked as a Mobil Oil Executive, which afforded him opportunities like traveling internationally, including to the U.S. and Europe, and attending a private Catholic school where he discovered his call to ministry.  

“[Why I wanted to work in ministry] is not explainable or something palpable,” Idomele said. “While [events in my life] certainly were influencers, there was just an innate, soul-seated calling to serve God. I wanted to serve God while serving humankind and ministry provided the pathway.” 

As a child, Idomele’s father took him to gigs at his private hotels and businesses. It was there that he became drawn to a different way of life than his father’s in the business world. “I did not want to live my life that way,” he said.

‚ÄčIdomele’s discernment to enter ministry was further cemented when his father passed away. Following his father’s death, he remembers his mother regularly taking him to church to attend Catholic Mass.

During one Mass Idomele was particularly struck by the words of the priest who while preaching said, "What does it profit a man if he gains a whole world and loses his soul?,” referencing Mark Chapter 8 verses 36-38.

“I became haunted by this question: what happens to one’s soul?” Idomele said. “I started asking, what happens to dad now and all his money, the properties, the houses and the wealth? What happens? And who or what is a priest? Someone told me a Catholic priest is a man who spends his life helping to order the soul of humankind correctly by serving God.” This resonated deeply in his spirit, he said.   

As a student of human behavior, Idomele continued wondering why couples who vowed to spend their lives together would decide to dissolve their marriages – a bond that was intended to last for life. At a crossroads of such study and speculation, he consulted with his spiritual advisor who suggested he study relationships more deeply and pen his research findings on marriage and relationships to clarify his thoughts. 

Idomele did just that and spent three years interviewing 500 married and divorced couples on the concept of marriage, an experience that helped confirm for him that his contemplations and choice to enter ministry were on target.  

In 1995, those resonations and continuous contemplations of the meaning of life and death were codified into his ordination as a Catholic priest by Archbishop Mario Vigano. In this difficult commitment, he forsook dreams of creating a family of his own and instead embraced a celibate lifestyle for the sake of service to God and humankind, Idomele said.

“I had been torn because I love children,” he said. “But it dawned on me that marriage and relationships are transient toward an ultimate end. This realization made me gravitate more towards [priesthood] and clearly caught my heart more.” 

Following his ordination, Idomele served as a youth/hospitals/prison chaplain and served in various organizations in Nigeria. He also held a position as the vice president of the Northern Chapter in the Nigerian Christian Association in Jigawa, all the while nursing his passion for music by playing the saxophone, guitar and African-talking-drum for his friends and congregants. 

During his time there, Idomele recalls witnessing a great deal of religious violence towards Christians by extremist groups. Churches were set on fire and many Christians were massacred. Some of his friends, parishioners and priests became victims, to include his senior Sister who narrowly escaped with scars of a matchet blow to her head.

Idomele managed to escape such violence and immigrated to California in 2001.

“I did not emigrate [from Nigeria] because I was hungry,” he said. “I made the decision because of the religious violence and persecution wrought on Christians. Ultimately, I think that is also what propelled me to join the military – sensing ways I could bring attention to that issue: man’s inhumanity to man in the name of religious fanaticism.”

Driven by his desire to draw needed attention to religious violence, Idomele began pursuing a career in law while living in the U.S. He enrolled in the University of California Los Angeles paralegal program and became a paralegal, practicing pro bono for three years in litigation, corporate and immigration law while also serving as a Catholic priest.

Idomele finally joined the U.S Air Force in 2014 after 13 years of service as a civilian priest.  

“I finally decided to join the military,” he said. “I always wanted to fly a plane and said if I cannot become a fighter pilot, I’d rather work with those who fly the planes. That way, I’ll still get to see the planes and hopefully complete my private pilot training and be able to fly someday.”

Now, as a dedicated chaplain for Airmen across Ramstein AB, Idomele not only sees the planes, but also reaches out to the Airmen who fly them, nudging their souls by playing his tenor saxophone at community events and providing music lessons to beginners. From church services to promotion ceremonies, weddings and funerals, Idomele freely and graciously shares his passion for and love of jazz music with the world. 

“Just knowing I’m able to provide something that brings joy to people and myself makes me happy because I love to serve and I love to make people happy,” he said.

In addition to bringing joy to others, Idomele hopes to also continue fine-tuning his craft after he departs Ramstein AB with aspirations to release his own jazz gospel album someday. Most importantly, much like Fela Kuti, he hopes he can one day become a voice for the voiceless.   

Idomele continues to recall the quote by Saint John Bosco, “Do not try to excuse your faults: try to correct them,” as words of inspiration for himself and those he serves.

“I always encourage Airmen by constantly reminding them to remember their future is not predicated on their past, and their past will not equate their future if they are willing to put in the work to change and learn from and rise from their mistakes,” Idomele said.

He also encourages Airmen to extend mercy and kindness to anyone struggling. “Be that positive light wherever you go. Just be kind to people and smile and be happy no matter what your situation may be – for nothing is permanent.” 

Whether in or out of uniform, Idomele exemplifies service before self through his kindness and positivity. His commitment to people is never off-duty, constantly advocating a paying-it-forward attitude, hoping this resonates with every person he encounters.