Photo by James Estrin/New York Times.
This is the second of a three part series begun in the Sunday New York Times. (Here's part one.)
Serving U.S. Parishes, Fathers Without Borders
By LAURIE GOODSTEIN
December 28, 2008
OAK GROVE, Ky. — The Rev. Chrispin Oneko, hanging up his vestments after leading one of his first Sunday Masses at his new American parish, was feeling content until he discovered several small notes left by his parishioners.
The notes, all anonymous, conveyed the same message: Father, please make your homilies shorter. One said that even five minutes was too long for a mother with children.
At home in Kenya, Father Oneko had preached to rural Africans who walked for hours to get to church and would have been disappointed if the sermons were brief.
“Here the whole Mass is one hour,” he said, a broad smile on his round face. “That was a homework for me, to learn to summarize everything and make the homily 10 minutes, maybe 15. Here, people are on the move very fast.”
Father Oneko is part of a wave of Roman Catholic priests from Africa, Asia and Latin America who have been recruited to fill empty pulpits in parishes across America. They arrive knowing how to celebrate Mass, anoint the sick and baptize babies. But few are prepared for the challenges of being a pastor in America.
Father Oneko, 46, had never counseled parishioners like those he found here at St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church. Many are active-duty or retired military families coping with debt, racial prejudice, multiple deployments to war zones and post-traumatic stress disorder. Nor did he have any idea how to lead the multimillion-dollar fund-raising campaign the parishioners had embarked on, hoping to build an octagonal church with a steeple to replace their red brick parish hall.
Cutting his sermons short was, in some ways, the least of Father Oneko’s worries when he arrived here in 2004. He did not understand the African-American experience. He had never dealt with lay people so involved in running their church. And yet, in the end, the families of his church would come to feel an affinity with their gentle new pastor, reaching out to him in his hour of need, just as he had tended to them in theirs.
To the volunteers at St. Michael’s, it was clear that Father Oneko was out of his element in many ways. Marie Lake, the church’s volunteer administrator, and her husband, Fred, often invited him for dinner.
“My husband was driving him down 41A and there was a big old statue of Uncle Sam,” said Mrs. Lake, who owns an accounting business and keeps the church’s books. “He thought it was Sam from Sam’s Club wholesale.”
To help him along, the Lakes gave Father Oneko a high school textbook on American history and government.
“Many years ago we sent our missionaries to Africa, and now they’re sending missionaries here,” Mrs. Lake said. “It’s strange how that goes.”
In this largely rural, largely white area of Western Kentucky, the Rev. Darrell Venters, who is in charge of recruiting priests for the Diocese of Owensboro, knew that some of his parishes would never accept Father Oneko, who is short, stout and very dark-skinned.
But Father Venters thought that Father Oneko and St. Michael’s, a parish on the outskirts of a big military base, with its racial mix and many families who had lived abroad, was a good bet.
“We knew if any parish would accept him, it would be this one,” Father Venters said...
(complete article here)