When Antoinette Mensah was 5 months old, her parents left Ghana for the United States and relocated to Milwaukee where her father received a scholarship to Marquette University and eventually became a deacon for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.
As one of the first Ghanaian families in the area, they may have felt out of place but soon embraced the American culture while simultaneously educating people about theirs.
Eventually, when other Ghanaians came to Wisconsin, their first stop was the Mensah household.
“We were some of the early Ghanaians in the community and our house became that place where people came to when they first hit the ground,” Mensah said, now more than 50 years later. “My parents were a guide for a lot of first-time immigrants.”
The mission feeling she experienced growing up lives within her as she is head of World Mission Ministries for the archdiocese, having assumed the role previously held by Sr. Frances Cunningham, a School Sister of St. Francis, last October.
Network of support in archdiocese
Mensah graduated from St. Agnes School, Butler, and went to Messmer for a year before transferring to Bay View High School, Milwaukee.
Going from a Catholic school to public school was a profound change, she admitted.
“Everybody’s acting totally different than what you’ve experienced in Catholic schools and so for a minute, I was mad,” she said. “Then you start to understand how to work with people and it probably made the activities I did as a teenager more important in terms of bonding with my friends in choir and youth ministry.”
After graduating from high school, she went to DePaul University, Chicago, and studied leadership training and development, and resource management. From there she pursued her master’s degree in management at Cardinal Stritch University, Milwaukee.
Currently she’s working on a doctorate in leadership for the advancement of learning and service at Cardinal Stritch.
Her years of Catholic education and her involvement in parish life have given her a network of individuals on whom she can rely when needed, she said.
“I’ve got a foundation of support that’s throughout the archdiocese, in part because there are people who were my teachers or former pastors or because I was active in parish life activities, they know me,” she said. “They know me, their prayers of support come from that perspective of knowing who I am and what I’m about.”
First-hand look at archdiocesan mission
Mensah got an up-close look at the ministry of her office during a March 15-21 trip to La Sagrada Familia, the archdiocese’s sister parish in the Dominican Republic.
“We went there to learn, to observe, to understand what the real issues were and just to see in action how the relationship works, and we support what’s going on,” she said, adding she took her 16-year-old son, Anthony, a St. Lawrence Seminary junior who was on spring break, with her.
Mensah said the purpose of the trip was like other mission trips she’s taken; it’s about “bringing dignity to the people.”
“Every project we’re involved in is about enhancing the quality of life for the people,” she said. “People take for granted having a bathroom in your house.”
It was her first visit to the Dominican Republic and while there, she visited various health and nutrition centers as well as a prison and educational centers.
“You’re just looking at all of these ways that we’re touching lives and then the bridges we provide between the Haitian and Dominican community,” she said. “It’s not about giving out money.”
Trip inspires son
Mensah said she wants to develop a stronger relationship between La Sagrada Familia and the archdiocese through mission trips.
Even her son was inspired from the trip and is planning a youth mission trip.
“I guess he had his transformative moment as he’s preparing for confirmation,” she said.
Mensah said she hopes to return with a mission, possibly, in 2016.
“All are welcome,” she said. “Hopefully, we’ll have more trips going in the future.”
Her life has included several aspects of mission work, including receiving help from others.
“It also sets the framework for how I view what I do, because it’s not about a handout,” she said. “Anytime somebody tried to make it about a handout with my father, he said, ‘No, this is a shared experience; this is not your coming to save the poor so and so. This is about building relationships.’”
Mensah said those interactions helped changed people’s minds.
“He built some really good, strong friendships and relationships with people such that we were more than the African family,” she said of her father, Deacon Anthony J. Mensah, who died last April.
Although Mensah has only been in her position about six months, she hopes those values continue to flow through World Mission Ministries.
“It’s about building that relationship in Christ with that other person,” she said.
She calls it “twinning,” which, in this case, means individual parishes would have close relationships with other parishes abroad through mission work and communication.
“Everything that I’ve ever done has been about how do we build a bridge to collaboration,” she said. “A lot of times people think mission is ‘Let me go build a house and come back,’ instead of ‘Let me go be acculturated, let me go immerse myself and understand, try my best to walk in that person’s shoes.’”
More than giving money
Mensah hopes her office can double its twinning relationships to more than 80 parishes during the next five years.
“It’s not all about giving money,” she repeated. “And it’s not all about ‘doing for’; it’s about ‘doing with.’”
Throughout her life, she’s taken missions to Ghana, Senegal and Kenya.
In 2000, Mensah, a member of St. Martin de Porres Parish, Milwaukee, was working with the YMCA when she collaborated with World Mission Ministries. They took a group of youth to Ghana and had a “spiritual retreat,” to create an understanding and appreciation of culture and history.
She said the mission gave her a greater understanding of what it meant to serve.
It gave her a “deeper sense of what our faith means to us and being able to look at that in terms of how do we translate that to what we can do through each other,” she said.
But with each mission, the mixing of cultures can allow for the smallest misunderstandings to explode into something much larger.
During one of her missions to Ghana she remembered visiting the town in which she was born.
“I brought chocolate milk for my son and he wasn’t going to take it back so I thought I would share it with the kids,” she said, adding she learned that wasn’t the right move. “Well, I recognized I did a couple of things wrong. One, I didn’t connect with the elders to get permission to give this milk to the young people and it reinforced to me that I always have to pay attention to the culture.”
She said she wasn’t thinking, at the time, that giving milk would be a problem.
“Would I want somebody to come into my house and just give my child something without asking my permission?” she said.
Then she started thinking about her parents and the fact that they left this town to go to the U.S. to pursue a better education.
“If they hadn’t come, would I be one of these hoping someone takes pity on me? That made me say I don’t ever want to be in a position of taking pity on somebody. If I can help somebody, that’s what I want to do, but I want to be a help that they want, not what I want.”
Mensah said she hopes that through World Mission Ministries she can help establish productive and meaningful relationships between parishes in the archdiocese and abroad.
“When you look at the world of mission, it’s got to be that investment of your own love and building the relationships that last a lifetime,” she said. “My family has been in the United States for 50-plus years now. Those relationships have set us up to be able to give back to other people.”