“We came in with the understanding that the Catholic Church is universal,” Dieme explained why Blessed Savior was the right parish for them. “I think one of the reasons that made us so faithful not only to Blessed Savior, but to the Catholic Church in general, is the understanding that the church is universal.”
Blessed Savior opened arms to immigrants
According to Dieme, cultural differences and skin color were not factors when choosing a place of worship.
“Blessed Savior happened to be maybe the first one we really attended, and we knew we were different. But we were willing to focus on the faith. The fact that they were willing to open up to us and to invite us and worship along with us, there had not been anytime where we did not feel the warm welcome, and we embraced it, and I think we directly connected to them.”
Since becoming a member of the parish, Dieme has married and is the father of three children: Helene, 6, Nathalie, 5, and Jules Antoine, 2. He and his wife, Marie Louise, are involved with their parish, and look for ways to share their African culture with fellow parish members.
For the past few years the Archdiocese of Milwaukee has seen a significant spike in the number of Africans looking to find help and support with immigration issues, job hunting and housing and a connection within the Catholic community. According to Antoinette Mensah, chair of the Black Catholic Ministry advisory commission, an advisory body for Inter-Cultural Ministry for the Milwaukee Archdiocese, there are more than 100 African Catholic families who belong to various parishes within the archdiocese.
USCCB rep addresses issue in Milwaukee
In February of 2009, Sr. Joanna Okereke, program coordinator for the U.S, Conference of Catholic Bishops subcommittee on Pastoral Care of Migrants, Refugees and Travelers of the Secretariat of Cultural Diversity in the Church, spoke in Milwaukee about the growing number of African Catholics in the archdiocese, and what parishes could do to help support their needs. It was an exciting experience, according to Sr. Joanna.
“First of all, we talked about their presence in the community, in the different local parishes,” she explained. “Because back in Africa, we don’t usually register as members in the different parishes where we belong. When we come over here, they carry that in practice.”
Participating as extraordinary ministers of holy Communion, ushers and lectors are ways that Africans can find their home in the church, according to Sr. Joanna. Special days of prayer can also be used to help Africans share their culture with fellow church members, such as the Feast of Ugandan Martyrs celebrated June 21, at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist.
Children pulled by two cultures
The children born to African immigrants in the United States are a growing concern, according to Sr. Joanna.
“They are here of two different cultures,” she explained. “They don’t know which way to go. Their parents are trying to pull in one end, but they themselves are trying to pull the other end, because they are American. And so the parents want them to (follow) their rules, or their culture or their language.”
Helping young people establish their own African youth group can do wonders for young people, Sr. Joanna added.
While Sr. Joanna describes the ways that Africans can become more proactive in the parishes to which they belong, parish members also have a role in making them feel welcome.
“Sometimes (Africans) tend to want others to invite us to be part of the different organizations in the church, the different ministries,” she explained. “The parishioners and the pastor who look around and say, ‘Look, Africans,’ can then invite them by name, call them and say, ‘Hey, you can be part of this.’”
OLGH begins outreach to Africans
It is this kind of recognition that is causing members at Our Lady of Good Hope, Milwaukee, to become more active in welcoming their African members. Fr. Charles Zabler, pastor at Our Lady of Good Hope for the past four years, is starting a more formal method of outreach for Africans seeking a connection with the parish community.
“We get two types of immigrants,” Fr. Zabler explained about his parish. “We get immigrants who are extremely well educated, and many have been in this country for some time, but are finding a comfort level with the number of African immigrants that we do have.”
The second type of immigrants that belong to their church “come with virtually nothing, other than a green card,” he added.
Those seeking help are often looking for a cultural connection, according to Fr. Zabler.
“A faith community connecting them,” he said.
“There is a real positive desire coming from this (African) community to be of assistance and to take leadership; that’s emerging now. It’s difficult, because as many of them will say, ‘Well, we come to church, we support the church, we’re part of the church.’ But I think because of colonization in a lot of ways, they expect the church to be run by Western- European mentality. And I guess I’m looking to see what is the richness of the African community also brings to our community, our church.”
Sharing cultures unifies community
Sharing cultures is what Blessed Savior Parish is all about, according to pastoral associate Judy Adrian. For the past 15 years, since she began working for the parish, the church has been a magnet for various ethnic groups, including those from various African countries.
“There definitely was, and has been, for the past 12 years, a group of Senegalese who kind of decided to settle in this area and this being their parish,” Adrian said about the group of West Africans, that includes Dieme and his family.
Through a multicultural group started by Blessed Savior members, the opportunity to share cultural traditions, food and music was born, “as a way of introducing his community to our community, and this community to community,” she said.
“It was this worshiping community’s goal to make people of all diverse cultural experiences feel welcome here,” she explained. “And it wasn’t only race; it was meant to be people who were from different ethnic backgrounds or experiences, for those who had moved to this neighborhood, or who had fewer friends, all of that.
“It was really meant to be, ‘How can we be more friendly to one another?’” From out of this question came an annual ethnic celebration.
“All cultures sing and dance and eat,” she explained. “Out of that let us pull together a Mardi Gras, an annual Mardi Gras celebration in which we would really do a potluck dinner and entertainment from different cultural groups (within the church).
“That began some solid stepping-stones in the direction of really getting to know each other,” Adrian added.
Archdiocesan commission provides support
“People who are of African descent overall, they have different ethnic, traditional pieces, but the bottom line is, we’re all Catholic,” said Mensah. “As a commission, our role is to provide support” to parishes, so they in turn can offer it to their members.
“Most of the people who are immigrating to the United States are coming from vibrant communities,” Mensah explained. Parishes wishing to get more involved with the African community can contact the commission and participate in programs designed to meet their needs.
“Understanding that there’s that need and not ignoring people just because they’re not from my community” is an attitude that is starting to appear more and more within churches, according to Mensah.