September 20, 2013

Sharing the Jesus in them

Contagious spirit spreads at National Association of African Catholics conference in Indianapolis

Members of the Congolese Catholic Choir in the U.S. sing a song of praise during the Mass held at St. Bernadette Church in Indianapolis during the third annual convention of the National Association of African Catholics in the U.S. on Sept. 7. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

Members of the Congolese Catholic Choir in the U.S. sing a song of praise during the Mass held at St. Bernadette Church in Indianapolis during the third annual convention of the National Association of African Catholics in the U.S. on Sept. 7. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Natalie Hoefer

Dressed in colorful traditional attire, the primarily African-born Catholic congregation clapped and danced to the beat of bongo drums, making their way to the altar for an offering of thanksgiving and blessing toward the end of the Mass.

African youths danced and dipped in choreographed moves, and shrill cries of joy burst forth sporadically from individuals around the sanctuary.

“I felt right at home because we share the same Spirit; we share the same faith,” said Franciscan Brother Moises Gutierrez, director of the archdiocesan Office of Multicultural Ministry. “As a matter of fact, their spirit was contagious!”

The contagious spirit was spread in Indianapolis as the city hosted the third annual conference of the National Association of African Catholics in the United States (NAACUS) at St. Bernadette Retreat Center on Sept. 6-8. (Related: See a photo gallery from this event)

“Indianapolis for a long time has been well organized,” said Handmaids of the Holy Child Jesus Sister Joanna Okereke, program coordinator for the Pastoral Care of Migrants, Refugees and Travelers subcommittee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Cultural Diversity in the Church. “We could not choose a better place that is well organized and willing to receive us.

“From the faces of the people, from how they talk, you can see that they are enjoying the conference. It has been so lively. It has been so wonderful, enriching and spiritually filled,” said Sister Joanna, a native of Nigeria.

More than 200 African-born Catholics from around the U.S. gathered for the conference, titled “One Faith, One Body in the Era of the New Evangelization.”

“I’m fascinated by the new evangelization,” said Dabrice Bartet, a native of Togo who is now a member of St. Monica Parish in Indianapolis. “I like trying to find new ways to reach people.

“This morning the keynote speaker gave us some good ideas,” she said of Nigerian Father Pascal Nduka, administrator of St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Morris and sacramental minister of St. Nicholas Parish in Sunman.

Zimbabwe native Stella Mabudzi traveled from California with her husband, Charles, daughter, Camelita, and son, Brandon, to attend the conference.

“I learned so much,” she said. “We had so many different priests who are spiritually gifted. We learned how to encourage others to join [the Church], how to share the light in the world, and how to keep our smiles, no matter what.”

Mabudzi embraced the goal of the conference, according to Sister Joanna.

“We commissioned them to go out and preach the Gospel, to go out and share what they have heard, to go out and share the Jesus in them.

“I hope the conference [inspires the participants to] bring back those African Catholics that are lost from the Church, [to encourage] those that are shaken in their faith to be stronger in their faith.”

Among those potentially lost and shaken whom the conference focused upon were African Catholic youths. A special panel discussion was held with 14 youths ranging in age from 7 to 17 answering questions from participants.

Christine Wallace, a 16-year-old panelist from Liberia who now attends Pike High School and is a member of Holy Angels Parish in Indianapolis, said she was nervous at first, but soon warmed up to answering the questions.

“We were asked what the Catholic faith means to us, how does it impact us, and how can we get other youths to join the Church, or [bring back] the youths that have strayed away.

“We need to have our parents be committed because if they’re committed, we’re going to be committed.”

That commitment shone through in the exuberance of the African Mass celebrated by Bishop Christopher J. Coyne at St. Bernadette Church on Sept. 7.

Drums rumbled. Gourds rattled. Hands clapped. Youths performed dances typical of Masses celebrated in Africa. The Book of the Gospels was processed to the altar in a cloth sack slung over the shoulder of a young man. He stooped as he walked, as though carrying the weight of the world.

“This Mass reminded me of attending service back in Cameroon,” said Christopher Atte of Pittsburgh, Pa. “It reminded me of back home, of the churches, of the faith, of what we are called to do in order to be blessed.” Atte is Presbyterian, but attends Catholic events with his wife, Irene.

Brother Moises commented on the African Catholics’ use of their culture during the Mass.

“Pope Francis recently talked about unity and not uniformity. This event was a clear example of this. It was evident that we are united in our Catholic faith, but living it out and expressing it may take different shapes. [It was a] reminder of the one faith made rich through many peoples.”

During his homily, Bishop Coyne recounted a time when he was at an airport and was asked by a man, “Are you saved?”

After the laughter subsided, Bishop Coyne pointed out the teaching of the Catholic faith—that salvation takes work, it is not a matter of faith alone, and that Catholics, too, are called to evangelize.

Before the closing hymn, Sister Joanna presented Bishop Coyne with a stole from Ghana as a token of gratitude.

“I want to thank the archbishop [Joseph W. Tobin], the bishop, the archdiocese, the Black Catholic Ministry and the Multicultural Ministry in a special way,” she said. “It has been wonderful.”

(For more information on the archdiocesan Office of Multicultural Ministry, log on to

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