The National Association of African Catholics in the United States held its national conference in Milwaukee at Mary Mother of the Church Pastoral Center from July 15-17. (Photos courtesy of NAACUS)

Reine Marie Assana was part of the team that put on the National Association of African Catholics in the United States Conference, held at Mary Mother of the Church Pastoral Center in Milwaukee July 15-16.

Assana is originally from Senegal and serves as a board member for NAACUS. She discussed the aim of bringing the culture of Africa to the American Catholic Church so that it can be whole. She spoke of how the Mass is the same from Africa to China to Ireland, and if all we see is the Irish brand of the Church, we are not living in the whole body of Christ.

“All I care about is bringing souls to the Lord,” she said.

The keynote speaker, Fr. Albert Nzeh, spoke on the topic of “African Catholics in the United States and the gift of our communal spirit: What’s next?” His talk focused on the rich cultural heritage of Africa, particularly the deep spirituality and communal spirit of its people.

“This is why Christianity was welcomed in Africa. Even the colonizers spoke about how deeply religious the African people are,” Fr. Nzeh said.

But many times, the narrative is accepted that Africa was the latecomer to the Church. Not only is this not true, it is damaging — making it seem as though the Church is a part of the result of colonization and something to be shed in order to be authentically and fully African. Fr. Nzeh reminded attendees at the conference that Africa has been part of the Catholic Church from the beginning.

He pointed out Africa is the only other continent where Jesus is known to have visited. When Joseph, Mary and Jesus were refugees in Egypt: “He drank our water, ate our food, enjoyed our company; and he stayed until it was safe to return to his own land,” Fr. Nzeh said.

The only person to help Jesus carry his cross was an African, Simon of Cyrene. Africans were present when the Holy Spirit created the Church at Pentecost. And the early Church was vibrant in Africa — boasting such giants as Augustine of Hippo, Perpetua and Felicity, and Tertullian. “The Catholic Faith is authentically African from the beginning.”

Again, the faith was able to take root deeply because the culture was so deeply congruous with the teachings of the faith. The traditional African way of life is deeply communal and matches the way of life of the early Christians described in Acts 4: 32-35: “There was no needy person among them.”

Life in the United States holds many difficulties for African Catholics, particularly for recent immigrants, including culture shock, trauma, loneliness, language barrier, new identities, loss, racism and acculturation. Americans tend to prize individualism and pragmatism, setting up a culture at odds with the central values of spirituality and community.

That is why, as Fr. Nzeh said, “The American Church needs us just as we need them.”

Sally Stovall, the president of NAACUS, shared the history of the organization and its aim to be a place of unity for all African Catholics. She also reiterated a plea from both Assana and Fr. Nzeh — that African Catholics be involved and visible in their local parishes, not just to show up to Mass and leave again. The rich cultural heritage of Africa brings gifts sorely needed in the American Church, particularly its profound spirituality, communal spirit and respect for human dignity.

Fr. Nzeh proposed a number of strategies for how to remain Catholic and African in the United States, including faith formation with cultural flavor, increased presence on social media, greater engagement of young adults and increased visibility in the parishes. He also emphasized the importance of having an action plan — urging that the conversations coming out of the convention focus on what to do practically going forward.

He used the image of a broom — many small and fragile twigs bound together into something that cleans and renews a space — to encourage those gathered that “If you remain together, nothing can break you.” This echoed the theme of the conference that “Two are better than one. Together we shine.”