by Moira Cullings
OLATHE — Their cultures and traditions are as unique as the languages they speak, the songs they sing and the clothing they wear.
But the African Catholic Community of Kansas is bound by their shared faith, and each month, they come together to celebrate it the traditional African way.
“There’s always singing, clapping [and] dancing, which is not very typical in the Western world,” said community president Abiodun Akinwuntan. “Sometimes, the African families miss that.”
Each gathering “creates a sense of belonging, a spiritual connection, to build a true African family and to also retain our African identity,” he added.
And while each of these monthly Masses is special, this latest one, celebrated by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann on Nov. 7 at Prince of Peace Parish in Olathe, was exceptional.
It included a ceremony that inaugurated the community into the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.
Father Greg Hammes, pastor of Prince of Peace, and Father Beyuo Kuukole, chaplain of the African Catholic Community of Kansas, were concelebrants. Father Kenn Clem, associate pastor of Prince of Peace, served as master of ceremonies. They were joined by a handful of priests from around the archdiocese.
Deacon Mike Denning of Prince of Peace also assisted during the Mass.
The passionate singing, colorful clothing and traditional customs included in the Mass reminded Archbishop Naumann of his time in the seminary, when one of his classmates, who was African American, spent part of the summer in Africa.
“I remember him coming back from that experience,” the archbishop shared during his homily, “and he said experiencing the church in Africa was like walking into the Acts of the Apostles.
“He said the church there was so vibrant, so alive, with so much joy.”
“I’ve never myself been to Africa,” the archbishop said. “But I’m glad Africa has come to us.”
United in faith
The African Catholic Community of Kansas was created as a ministry in the archdiocese in July 2019.
Its members meet every first Sunday of the month at 1 p.m. at Prince of Peace, but all archdiocesan Catholics are invited to attend.
For Akinwuntan, who was born in Nigeria and grew up Catholic, the community has become an extension of his family.
He moved with his wife and three children to Kansas in 2016 and joined St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Leawood.
When he’s not working as dean of the School of Health Professions at the University of Kansas Medical Center, Akinwuntan volunteers as a lector, usher and member of the Knights of Columbus.
Although life is busy, discovering the African Catholic Community provided something his family was missing.
“For me, as a true cultural man who’s bringing up his children in the Western world, it’s an opportunity to help my children see how Mass is done in their native land of origin,” he said.
The community has introduced his children, who have all attended Catholic schools, to other youth from Africa. It also gives members a chance to support each other in their lives in the United States.
“We try to have a relationship with one another beyond just meeting in church once a month,” said Akinwuntan. “We learn to serve as a resource and help one another.”
For community vice president Kenneth Gitobu, who is originally from Kenya, the group’s monthly gatherings have “filled the void” that resulted from moving to a new country more than 19 years ago and losing aspects of his native culture.
“The African Catholic Community is composed of people from different countries and tribes in Africa,” he said. “Each group brings its uniqueness and culture, but the beauty is in the similarities that are seen in how we celebrate Mass.”
Gitobu has worked in healthcare for more than 18 years and recently joined friends to start an Ascension HomeHealth Care in Overland Park.
He, his wife Margaret and their three children belong to St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Leawood, which, he said, “has been a wonderful parish to grow in faith and fellowship.”
“They took us in and made us feel welcome,” he added.
Finding an additional community of support — the African Catholic Community of Kansas — has been a blessing, and sharing his culture with the wider archdiocesan community is a big part of that.
Deacon Denning has assisted in multiple African Masses at Prince of Peace.
“It is a beautiful reminder of the Church’s catholicity — our universality,” he said. “Christ is the light to the nations — all nations.
“As I draw around Christ’s table with this amazing group, I appreciate their incredible cultures, and, at the same time, our common enrichment.”
Deacon Denning would recommend other Catholics in the archdiocese come to one of the Masses to see what it’s all about.
“I have personally experienced a sense of “aggiornamento” — an opening of the windows of my sense of liturgy,” he said. “The music, the manner in which the Gospel is processed, the joy of the parishioners, their dress — which reflects how they approach the Mass — this is a unique experience available to everyone in the archdiocese.”
Archbishop Naumann was moved by the joy the community exhibited at the November Mass.
In his homily, he told the inspiring tale of one African woman, Immaculée Ilibagiza, whose book “Left to Tell” detailed her survival of the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
“Immaculée Ilibagiza’s story is a remarkable testimony of what the power of God’s grace can accomplish in the faint of heart — even in the most horrible of circumstances,” he said.
The archbishop hoped those in attendance would recognize the blessings in their own lives, despite the challenges they face.
“If our hearts are open, we will discover that each of us has been remarkably blessed by God,” he said, “even in the midst of these adversities.”