At the beginning of the 19th century, very few people in Nigeria were practicing Christianity. The same could be said of the rest of the African continent, apart from the Ethiopians, Coptic Egyptians, and a few people living in Konglese empire where there were some Christian presence. However, in the eighteenth century, catholic missionary expeditions were launched with new vigour especially in Senegal and Gabon. The Protestant missionaries took their turn in 1804 with their ministry based in Sierra Leone. These missionaries covered a wide spectrum of denominations or churches, many of them in fierce competition with each other. The banning of slave owning and the abolition of slave trading in 1834 throughout the British empire, was a big turning point. Hence outlawing slave trade and the conversion of freed slaves became the motif for setting up many of these missions. Human compassion for the plight of the freed slaves meant that money were raised to fund the missions, especially the protestant ones from Britain.
The British colonies were settled mainly by the English speaking protestants, most of whom had no previous contact whatsoever with darker skinned peoples. By the time the first black man reached the New World, stereotype had already been formed. It began with colour. Before the 18th century, and before the concept was in any way involved with human beings the suffix “black” with a long list of negative meanings has come into being. Black had come to mean soiled, dirty, foul, having dark or dirty purposes, malignant, pertaining to or involving death, disastrous, sinister, wicked, indicating disgrace, liable to punishment. Tribal peoples were seen as heathens who need to be converted at all costs. Their religion and culture was a handiwork of the devil. As the Late Ikenga Metu argues, "to explain away an aspect of a people's religion to make it look reasonable is not explanation but distortion." This stereotype was formed long before the colonization of the New World.
I was very much aware of this truth as I trained to become a catholic Priest and I share this sentiment while attempting to accompany others in their own vocation journeys. I liken my sacred ordination in some way to the great commission experienced by Jesus’ disciples in some sense. The handing-on of the mission cross to me during this event was quite moving. It brought tears of surrender to my eyes and gave me the sense of the seriousness and urgency of the mission to which I have been called.
After seven years of priestly ministry which was spent in seminary formation in Nigeria and studies in the republic of Ireland, I was assigned to the United Kingdom in 2006. I was a bit nervous because I didn’t know exactly what to expect or what expectations people would have of me. I wondered if I would be treated as a missionary in the same way as I had seen expatriate missionaries treated back in my young and youngest years. My anxiety and curiosity piqued when the immigration authorities in Heathrow Airport insisted that my team and I strip ourselves so that they could carry out a routine health check to determine our state of health before we could be allowed entry into the UK. With bare bodies, we looked like criminal convicts. I hissed and sighed all through the exercise. I thought to myself, were the missionaries to my country ever treated this way? I knew that most times when they arrived in our land especially as far as I can remember, our people thronged to the airport with Songs, fanfares, and great rejoicing as befitted returning heroes and highly respected friends.
No sooner had I received my first assignment/posting than I began to see the huge difference between the church I left behind and the church I have come to serve. After celebrating Mass in the Cathedral Church one Sunday morning, a nice Lady followed me to the Sacristy and in a sonorous voice asked me if I was a Priest. Impatiently, I responded on the affirmative. She then asked me again if I was ordained. I was convinced at that stage that she was either out of her mind, ignorant or out for a mischief. So, I responded “No”. When I looked up again, she was gone. This is just one of the many experiences that I went through as an African priest in a Christian continent. With the stunning scandal of child sex abuse and pathologies of a few of our clerical colleagues in the past, it was as if one has to prove that he is a genuine priest. Being an African priest demanded more efforts due to the stereotype of being “black”. One is sometimes looked upon with suspicious eyes. There are barrage of questions about Africa wherever one goes. This includes questions about countries in Africa that I have never visited and others that I may never visit all my life. I had thought that with all the education and civilisation, people should know better or at least have the basic knowledge about the continent that were colonized by their kinsmen for centuries. The orientation program was all about laws to obey and things to avoid rather than the ministry to enjoy and the culture to integrate into.
One big challenge that a missionary from Africa faces in Europe is that of stereotype or what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie refers to as "the danger of a single story". The African missionary Priest is firstly seen as “black” and then referred to as a foreign priest. Lay people and colleagues refer to us as foreign priests. It is hard to tell whether this is as a result of the phenomenal evolutional and cultural change sweeping through the globe or just one other way of looking down on us as not being proper missionaries. Is it a case of the products/beneficiaries of the European missionary expedition not qualifying to have the same status as their erstwhile benefactors and teachers? It is hard to say exactly what informs this attitude. Names and designations mean something to me. The name we call people determines or shapes the way we look at and/or relate with them. The English poet, William Shakespeare reflects “what is in a name? That which we call a Rose by any other name would smell sweet.” However, this not-withstanding, my experience as a missionary priest in Europe proves to me that there is a little more to that Shakespearian assertion. I fully agree with the poet, T.S. Eliot who says that names are important even for a Cat. A missionary will love to be known and addressed by his title and not his/her race or descent.
On a positive note, there is honesty and transparency wherever one goes. The great sense of ecumenism is amazing and quite humbling to me. The Churches work together and share in one another’s events. The humility and integrity of the Clergy and lay people are quite fascinating, inspiring and challenging. People are honest, courteous, and less manipulative in most places. The simplicity and honesty of the priests and Bishops is a great testimony to the message of the Gospels. An African missionary may have to learn humility, courtesy, respect, modesty, politeness, caution, simplicity, and courtesy in all dealings pertaining to Church life as these seem to define the Churches in Europe. One should shun or work hard against the dangers of pride, thoughtlessness, showiness, noisy exhibitionism, disregard for due process, opulence and materialism.
- By Fr. Innocent Abonyi, MSP