By Mark Pattison
WASHINGTON — The African National Eucharistic Congress allows Africa-born Catholics in the diaspora to do something that would have been nearly impossible to do in their homelands: to meet fellow African Catholics and learn about their cultures while growing in love of God.
Some of the estimated 500 participants in the congress — which met in Washington July 21-23 at The Catholic University of America — shared the stories of what brought them together to celebrate their faith.
Michael Miti-Kavuma, who, like many of the congress’s participants, is a native of Nigeria, has lived in the United States for 40 years.
He said few if any Africans would fly to Washington to attend this Eucharistic congress, as airfare runs about $2,000 for a round trip.
But Africans who have moved to America can make their way to Washington or other parts of the country to meet their fellow Catholics in the diaspora, as the experience of leaving one’s native home is an experience they share.
While in Nigeria, Miti-Kavuma might not have made a friend from East Africa, but in the United States “we don’t have a choice. We have to communicate,” he said. And that communication, he added, “comes naturally.”
The experience of worship is different for African Catholics in the states, Miti-Kavuma said. “We don’t know the priest intimately,” as they would have in their towns and villages, he said. In Africa, “the whole village goes to church, so we know who everybody is, pretty much.”
Sister Emily Iyelumi, an African-raised Sister of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, now lives with her congregation in New Orleans 20 years after she entered religious life. Being assigned to the United States came with its own challenges, she acknowledged. “You are going to another culture,” Sister Iyelumi said. “How is it going to be?”
But, she said, “it makes me feel warm” that she is somewhere where nearly every other African has experienced the stress of making their way to America, and yet seems to have adjusted well.
At the Eucharistic congress, “We come together as one, regardless of origin,” Sister Iyelumi said.
“We do have the Eucharist,” and with that in mind and heart, she added, “We imagine what heaven is going to look like.”
Ada Chukwu left Nigeria 46 years ago to join her husband, who had left the country earlier to find work in the United States. Despite not being raised Catholic like her husband, she was given the name “Ada” at birth, which in her native tongue means “daughter,” while “Chukwu” means “God.”
“I’m the daughter of God,” she said.
Chukwu said she wanted to grow spiritually at the congress. “To relate to people, to spread the Word,” she added, “to be kinder to people and to understand where they are coming from. They have their baggage, and I should not be so quick to judge. I hope to spread the Good News and behave better than I did before.”
Also attending the congress was Nma Rose Nnoga, another Nigerian native, who arrived in the United States 44 years ago to reunite with her husband, who had come to the States to continue his studies.
Having settled in Camden, New Jersey, to raise her family, Nnoga said she wanted to return from the congress with “peace, peace of mind, to be more open to the love of God — the love of God in the Eucharist. … And, when I receive the Eucharist, to be more open that I have to share” God’s love.
Not every congress participant was born in Africa or has been in the United States for decades. Nneama Ngene, 21, and her 18-year-old sister, Ogoma, both of whom will be attending the University of Pittsburgh come fall, were both born in the U.S. to Nigerian parents.
For them, college presents its own hurdles. Not only are they hundreds of miles from home, but there are fewer Black Catholics and a weaker faith network around the campus than at home, where they each went through 12 years of Catholic schooling.
Nneama said they have both found the congress’s sessions and workshops to be helpful, and the event has buttressed their faith.
A fellow student, Ikecukwu Wegt has shuttled back and forth between the U.S. and his native Nigeria to get advanced degrees. In the States, he has earned two master’s degrees and is currently pursuing a doctorate at the Jesuit-run University of San Francisco while living in San Jose, California.
Through the African National Eucharistic Congresses participants, he said, “I get to experience the body of Christ.”