African Immigrants Find a Home in Brooklyn’s Catholic Churches

Father Andy Struzzieri smiles as he admires the piece of African cloth that arrived in a pink, plastic gift bag at the rectory of St. Matthew’s Roman Catholic Church in Crown Heights Brooklyn that morning. The cloth, patterned with rows of bright blue diamonds, pictures of the Chalice and Swahili script was accompanied by a simple card that read: “This is a gift to the church, to show my appreciation for its services.”

The cloth originated from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and its owner is one of the rising numbers of Catholic African immigrants Struzzieri has welcomed into his parish in the last few years. Catholic churches in Crown Heights and surrounding areas of Brooklyn are now catering to this increasing flow of Africans, with Holy Mass already being held in native tongue for Nigerian and Ghanaian parishioners.

Vatican statistics released in April 2008 show that Africa has the highest growth of Catholics in the world, and is also producing a majority of Catholic priests globally. When African immigrants arrive in America, one of the first places they seek out is a Catholic Church to attend in their neighbourhood. Rising rates of immigration from Africa (41 652 African immigrants were naturalised in 2007, up from 12 413 in 1998), mean that the Catholic Church is experiencing a new, more globalised type of missionary: the African parishioner.
Struzzieri regularly welcomes new immigrants to his parish. He says the role of the church in the immigrant’s life is to help them integrate into the community.

“When you move, you go through culture shock and you look for something that is recognisable to you, something to hold on to as you try to get acclimatised to the culture. The Church is a foothold for people as they climb the steep cliff to getting acculturated.”

Regular attendance at mass is a way for immigrants to anchor themselves in a foreign culture, and is also a good way to meet people and gain entry into a new community. In areas like Crown Heights in Brooklyn, which are brimming with West Indian and Caribbean ethnic groups, African immigrants quickly learn how similar they are to their neighbours.

“Human nature is the same all over the world, but there seems to be a similarity between the African and Caribbean immigrants”, said Father Ogbogu Victor Ubaka, a Nigerian priest who has been ministering at St. Matthew’s for the past few months. “They always think about home. Whatever they do here, they try to get the best, and they think of home. Church is a huge connection to home.”

Immigrants new to the area are often introduced to the church by established members of their community back home. Siblings Nkemjika Iloka and Chibuden Iloka of Nigeria were brought to St. Matthews by their parents when they arrived in the States after they finished their schooling in Nigeria. Both are enthusiastic about the role the Church has played in their transition to a new culture.

Chibuden Iloka arrived in Crown Heights in 2005, and says coming to St. Matthews for the first time helped him get over feelings of being an outsider and of not fitting in.

“It helped me personally. I felt the connection. The Church speaks to you, wherever you are.”
Henry Agenmonmen, a Nigerian who had just immigrated with his wife to the United States to join his daughter and her husband in Crown Heights, said that missing mass made him feel incomplete, and having the opportunity to attend mass at St. Matthew’s had helped him through his move.

“When I’m here, I imagine what the mass would be like in Benin City. There is no difference between the services really, and the people are so warm.”

Some come for familiarity, others for comfort and guidance in dealing with the daily stress of life as an immigrant. Mohamed Magassa, a Malian immigrant who arrived in America in 2000 had just decided to join St. Matthews despite living in Harlem, an hour away by subway.

“It’s important for me to make benediction … to ask for blessings. I don’t have a nice job. I come here to ask God for help.”

For many African Catholics, the Church is a second family, a moral authority that has every right to intercede in the daily activities of its parishioners, monitoring births and deaths, and looking into the activities – and behaviour – of the parishioners.

St Matthews’ parishioner Mathilda Ajayi, raised in Togo and Nigeria, says that one of the first things she did when she arrived in Crown Heights seven years ago was to search for a church. “My family house in Nigeria was the cathedral.”

Ajayi said one of the biggest differences she noticed between the church in Crown Heights, and the church in her hometown in Nigeria, was St Matthew’s lack of involvement in her life as a parishioner and community member.

“The church here is not involved enough in people’s lives like back home, where the pastor is strength. There are no ‘mothers’ and ‘fathers’ here.”

St Gregory the Great Roman Catholic Church, based in Crown Heights, has also seen a steady rise in the number of African immigrants.

Father Martin Asiedu, a Ghanaian priest who ministers at Holy Name Catholic Church in Park Slope and at St. Gregory on occasion, said that in light of the central role the Catholic Church plays in communities back home, it is a natural step for immigrants to seek out a church as soon as they arrive.

“The church provides a sense of belonging and allows people to worship and celebrate God the way they used to. They can relate to each other as a community.”

St. Gregory parishioners Annie Nnado and Catherine N. Anekwe, both from Nigeria, say they have also noticed the trend, and agree that attending Mass allows one to stay close to the comforting traditions of home in what can be an overwhelming new culture.

One thing they point out that is different is the length of the mass. In Africa, masses can often run between three to five hours long, with Western masses only lasting about an hour. “The mass is longer because the communion and the homily are longer. Many more people attend,” said Nnado.

It is difference that Father Ubaka has also noticed. “Africans have a different sense of time … things are too ordered here. If you’re with your lover you don’t look at your watch and count time. Why should you do that with God?”

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One Response to “African Immigrants Find a Home in Brooklyn’s Catholic Churches”

  1. kem December 17, 2011 at 8:56 pm #

    Please can the writer of this article to get in touch with me?

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