by Olivia Martin
OLATHE — It’s not easy to move to a new place — especially when it’s a continent away.
But this is the reality that hundreds of Catholic families originally from Africa are now living in the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.
When they arrived, many felt like outsiders — and it’s caused them to leave the church.
“Our archdiocese should have approximately 800 African families,” said Thomas Miano Ngundo, a Prince of Peace, Olathe, parishioner from Kenya. “But they are at evangelical churches.”
On July 7, however, the archdiocese is launching a new ministry for African Catholics based at Prince of Peace Parish. It will kick off with a 1 p.m. Mass celebrated in the African tradition with fellowship to be held afterward. Going forward, African ministry Masses will be celebrated the first Sunday of each month.
And it’s been a long time coming.
A place for the African in the United States
It was over a year ago that Ngundo and Ngugi Kamau, also a Prince of Peace parishioner, began organizing a plan for African ministry in the archdiocese.
Ngundo has been involved with the National Association of African Catholics in the United States (NAACUS) for some time and recently became the Region IX NAACUS coordinator. Region IX is comprised of the states of Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and Iowa.
In his new role, Ngundo approached the archdiocese about launching a ministry for African Catholics to show them they still have a place in the church.
Many feel more embraced by evangelicals, said Ngundo, than their fellow Catholics.
“We have evangelical communities here who are from Africa and they continue quite successfully,” said Kamau. “Africans like to sing, we like to dance, we like to do things the way we do back home. . . . The evangelicals have that.”
While various African Catholic communities exist in the archdiocese, they are separated by parish and/or nation. And sometimes, they struggle to organize themselves.
African ministry hopes to unite Catholics from Nigeria, Eritrea, Kenya, the Congo, Sudan, Togo, The Gambia and more under one roof: Prince of Peace.
And African ministry will provide a space that will honor African Catholic traditions and educate on how to evangelize, empowering Africans in their own parishes.
“If they join the community here, then we can give them a voice and help them,” said Ngundo.
“Somebody telling them they are welcome will not work unless they feel it,” he added.
Open wide the doors
Prince of Peace pastor Father Jerry Volz couldn’t be happier about opening his parish’s doors to the new ministry.
“I know our parish here is excited,” said Father Volz. “I think it will allow the community of Olathe to be exposed to a greater sense of the universal church.”
The African ministry will also have its own chaplain: Father Beyuo Kuukole.
In addition to his experience ministering to Americans as a former chaplain of Bishop Ward High School in Kansas City, Kansas, Father Kuukole has considerable experience ministering to multicultural communities.
While still in his native Ghana, Father Kuukole ministered to a diocese that included about 23 ethnic groups — and almost every one spoke a completely different language.
“When you have those different cultures coming together, you really feel the beauty [of the gathering] — of all people before the throne of God,” he said.
“This ministry,” he continued, “will allow [Africans] to know there is at least a place they can go and find one or two people who might speak their language.”
Because of the wide diversity of languages among African nations, the African ministry Masses will be celebrated in English.
“We also want the parishioners and communities around to come,” said Kamau. “We don’t want to isolate ourselves.
“We are just celebrating Mass the way we do it in Africa and we hope to make people feel they belong.”
The search for belonging
Kamau knows what it feels like not to belong.
In 2015, Kamau and his family immigrated to the United States and settled in Olathe.
Born and raised in coastal Kenya, Kamau grew up in a region dominated by Islam.
But the Catholics stuck together.
“In Africa, people live in communities,” said Kamau. “I was raised in a community, in a village where everybody took care of each other.”
Accustomed to meeting in “small Christian communities” — a tightly knit prayer group — in Kenya after every Sunday Mass, Kamau was surprised to find things were not the same in Kansas.
“Coming to the States was a kind of challenge for us,” he said. “I didn’t know anyone at the beginning; I went to Prince of Peace with my family, but when the Mass was over, people would just go back home.
“We felt like we were isolated.”
This was an experience Ngundo knew well, too.
He came to the United States from Kenya with his family in 2003, first settling in Lawrence.
The only Africans in the parish, Ngundo found it difficult to ask questions or express concerns because no one in the parish could closely relate to his situation.
“That really makes you feel vulnerable or exposed,” he said. “[The parishioners] did not do anything wrong, but [we didn’t] feel protected. You feel like you are mimicking their environment.”
In fact, it wasn’t until the Christ Renews His Parish program came to the Olathe church that Ngundo and Kamau really began to meet their fellow parishioners.
“We always felt kind of not part of the community,” said Kamau.
Through Christ Renews His Parish, “I started to get to know people by their names, families and by what they do,” he said.
It was that process that also taught both men that becoming part of a parish community in the United States requires a lot of personal effort, too.
Kamau’s diligence in searching out community has led him to be elected parish council president at Prince of Peace.
And now he, Ngundo, Father Kuukole and others will launch the African ministry Mass next month.
“It will be a long battle,” said Ngundo, “but we are hopeful that if people help us talk about this, they will get the message that they have a home back home.”
That is, back in the Catholic Church.