By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published October 13, 2011
Worshippers recited prayers in five languages as they praised God, African-style.
Five women danced down the center aisle of Corpus Christi Church at the start of Mass to the drumbeat of African rhythms. One woman carried the book with the day’s Scripture readings on her back, presenting it to Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, the Mass celebrant.
Choirs from Cameroonian, Gambian and Nigerian communities raised their voices to lead the faithful in song.
And Archbishop Gregory’s homily was interrupted with applause when he announced that Sudanese bishops once identified him as a descendant of the Bantu ethnic group in central Africa, although he has never traced his African heritage. It was one of several times folks in the pews showed him their support with loud clapping.
The word of God has taken root in Africa, he said, adding that God knows when to gather the good fruit.
“You are here because it is harvest time. You are the bounty of God’s harvest,” said the archbishop.
The Pan African Catholic Organization of Atlanta in the archdiocese held its inaugural Mass on Saturday, Oct. 1, bringing together nine different African Catholic ethnic groups that are now well-represented in metro Atlanta.
The immigrants share the same faith, but have different worship customs from American Catholics.
Music plays a larger role in African liturgies, not the American custom of singing the first three stanzas of a hymn. The 45-minute Mass is rare. Africans are surprised at the casual clothing Americans wear to Mass.
Justin Irie, a bilingual sales agent for Delta Airlines who is a member of the new organization, said he knows African Catholics who have joined other churches because of the cultural differences.
“They’re most of the time attracted by some churches in our community where they can worship as they used to do back home,” he said.
“Africans, like Latinos, are more enthusiastic and exhibitionist in their culture and this shows up with rhythms and dances when worshipping,” said Irie, who is from the Ivory Coast and attends St. Patrick Church, Norcross.
“That said, it is not difficult for me to adjust to any American custom because adjustment leads to survival. But believe me, and most immigrants will agree on (this), if there is a choice, I’d rather worship the way I used to, with all the rhythms, dance and colors,” he said.
Father Henry Atem, the organization’s president, said the differences can be jarring to Africans so the new organization unites people with the same shared heritage, even if they speak different languages. Father Atem is a native of Cameroon and a parochial vicar at St. Patrick Church.
Facing cultural challenges, Catholic Africans can find the church almost “irrelevant” to them and simply drop out of the faith community, said Father Atem.
The organization’s goal is to help immigrants “to foster a relationship with God through the church based on (their) African cultural experience yet within this new society,” he wrote in an email. Different African Catholic communities already exist so this is an organization that draws them together, he said.
The exact number of African Catholic immigrants in metro Atlanta is unknown.
Using census data and other information, a 2007 survey for the Black Catholic Ministry Office estimated that in the archdiocese there were 22,289 black Catholics, a group that included both African-Americans and Africans.
But Father Atem estimated there were 50,000 African Catholics in the archdiocese. Most African Catholics come from Nigeria, Eritrea and Ivory Coast.
The Black Catholic Ministry Office is where the immigrants turned to learn how to participate in their parish. Some wanted assistance to get their children into Catholic schools, others wanted to remain connected with their heritage, while others needed legal assistance. The ministry remains the organizing force behind the new Pan African Catholic Organization.
Charles Prejean, the head of Black Catholic Ministry, said planning started in September 2010 to join existing African Catholic groups together to begin sharing experiences and drawing strength from one another.
“Their collective voices would gain them more attention and response than the voices of unorganized individuals,” he said of the impetus for the organization.
Twelve communities are founding members, including African Catholic communities from St. Joseph, Marietta, St. Theresa, Douglasville, St. Thomas the Apostle, Smyrna, Corpus Christi, Stone Mountain, and groups of Catholics from Cameroon, Ghana, Gambia, Nigeria, Congo, and several French-speaking Catholic communities.
Worshippers put money in the collection basket at the end of Mass to raise funds for the new organization. People left their seats and danced down the aisle to the basket at the front of the altar.
“Mother Africa has blessed us with many gifts,” Father Atem said. “Let us make her proud.”
To contact the Pan African Catholic Organization of Atlanta, please phone the Black Catholic Ministry Office at (404) 885-7283. The website is http://www.archatl.com/ministries/obcm/.