Danielle Vaughan had never met a guy like Tshilumba Ngandu before. When she and her roommate approached the table where he was sitting during a 1997 youth leadership conference in Richmond, he stood up and pulled out chairs for them. He spoke with maturity and mentioned he wore suits to class every time he took a test.
“I was like, ‘What guy does that?’ ” she recalls. “He just didn’t act like a lot of the other 19-year-olds.”
He also didn’t act like he was interested in her; Ngandu had eyes for Vaughan’s roommate. So she watched with slight disappointment as the two struck up a romance.
The conference ended, and so did the brief relationship. Ngandu returned to Howard University and Vaughan went back to the University of Pittsburgh.
But 11 years later, Vaughan was on a winery tour sponsored by the Chicago Urban League; on the bus, she looked up and noticed a man with a familiar face.
“I know you from somewhere,” she said as Ngandu sat down opposite her. It was the conference, she remembered, noting that he was slimmer now.
Ngandu had moved to Chicago after college and became a product development manager for Kraft Foods. But he was contemplating a career change and prayed the night before the bus trip that he’d meet someone who worked in organizational development. As he and Vaughan caught up, he asked about her work.
“My speciality is organizational development,” she told him.
Ngandu said he’d love to pick her brain and the two exchanged contact information before returning to their separate friends.
A month later, in November 2008, they agreed to go to dinner. But when the night came, Vaughan wasn’t in the mood to network. “I just thought, ‘Oh I’m tired. It’s been a long day at work. Let me answer a few questions about my career and just be on my way,’ ” she recalls.
He remembered her mentioning an upcoming birthday and brought a card, along with two bottles of wine. The gesture was impressive, but the conversation was dry and serious. Still, it was a nice night, so after dinner Vaughan suggested they walk around Chicago.
The two ended up ducking into a costume shop, where they saw a lighter side of each other. “We were just being silly and having fun and that’s when I thought, ‘Okay, we’re on a date now,’ ” recalls Vaughan, now 32. She invited Ngandu to watch television at her apartment and as they sat on the couch, they kissed.
The pair spoke by phone every couple of days. “The way I could talk to him, I’ve never been able to talk to anybody else,” she says. “I didn’t feel like he was trying to get anything from me. . . . I was just like, ‘I want to be able to talk to somebody like this for the rest of my life.’ ”
After two weeks, Ngandu offered to help Vaughan move into her new condo. They spent a few hours unpacking before he suggested a break for dinner. At the restaurant, Ngandu kissed her on the forehead. And on the street that night, when the conversation became emotional, he said, “I love you.”
“I was like, ‘Did I just say that? Oh my gosh, I did,’ ” he recalls.
After a beat, she told him the feeling was mutual. “I knew it was real and I knew it was there, so it didn’t feel wrong,” she says.
The two quickly became serious. They supported each other through Vaughan’s four months of unemployment and Ngandu’s transition to a career in public education. But Vaughan was Christian, and Ngandu had been practicing Buddhism for 10 years; they found themselves facing scrutiny from their respective religious communities.
“I loved him and if that’s what he felt was the right path for him, I was going to be supportive,” says Vaughan. “But I also had these Christian friends of mine who said, ‘The Bible says you need to be equally yoked. You need to be equally matched and be having the same spiritual path.’ ”
Vaughan never pushed Ngandu to come to church with her, but about a year into their relationship he began suggesting the visits. And during one service, something shifted in him, prompting him to return to Christianity, the religion in which he’d been raised. “And that was a big stepping stone for us,” Vaughan says. “Because we were able to bring something new to our relationship, to be able to practice our faiths together.”
In February, Ngandu invited Vaughan to dinner once again. When dessert came, he pushed the table back, got down on one knee and — after a little trouble getting the ring unstuck from his pocket — asked her to be his wife.
“I think a relationship of growth is a healthy relationship,” says Ngandu, now 33. “We challenge each other — it’s like iron sharpening iron. It’s not like, ‘We hit the home run, we found each other, that’s it.’ She’s encouraging me, inspiring me. We hold each other accountable and that makes us better people — for the world, not just for the relationship.”
On Oct. 1, the two were married at the Columbus Club in Union Station before returning to the Liaison Hotel for an intimate reunion with 35 guests.
“Since I was a teenager, I prayed about the man I would one day marry,” Vaughan said at the ceremony. “And now, here we are and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God loves me and that he answers prayers, because he sent me you.”