By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published August 30, 2013
ATLANTA—Hundreds of Gambian believers crowded into the Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, Saturday, Aug. 17, to celebrate “Sang Marie.”
Led by the 30-member choir, the immigrants sang and prayed in their native language as Bishop Robert P. Ellison, of the Diocese of Banjul in Gambia, was the homilist at the Mass, which gathered the local faith community of immigrants for worship. Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory concelebrated, along with the IHM pastor, Msgr. James Schillinger, and several other priests.
A national holiday in the West African country, Sang Marie marks the Feast of the Assumption of Mary. The Gambian community brought its celebration to metro Atlanta.
Vincent Ndow led the choir on Saturday. At one point he turned to face the congregation and was struck by the number of faces.
It was an “indelible mark,” he said. “The magnitude of people that attended,” said Ndow.
For Genevieve Cardos, the celebration binds her faith with her Gambian culture.
“Since I was born, I’ve always taken part in it,” said Cardos, a sophomore at Spelman College. In her homeland, the holy day of obligation brings out thousands of people to the streets to pray and worship, she said. “All Catholics, from here and there, old and young” come to be a part of it, she said.
“It’s kind of mandatory to attend, but by being part of the celebration of the Mass, it’s a prayerful time for me and many Catholics,” she said. For her, it’s a time to reflect also on Mary as a woman and a mother. “In giving birth, as most all woman do, this is one way we can connect with her,” she said.
The annual celebration was also the Gambia Christian Organization of Atlanta’s 20th anniversary.
Charles Prejean, the director of the Office for Black Catholic Ministry, praised the organization for its community service.
“The very uniqueness of the Gambian spiritual and cultural heritage, as is the case with other cultures, gives us another glimpse and appreciation for our God’s goodness and greatness,” he said in a letter to the organization.
Archbishop Gregory also tweeted congratulations to the organization: “Cheers to our Gambian Catholic Organization on their 20th Anniversary. A sincere welcome to Bishop Ellison on his 1st Atlanta visit.”
The Gambian Christian Organization marks its 20th anniversary this year, as the group continues to serve its members in Atlanta and people in the West African country.
Ndow was one of the founding members. He said the organization started to organize the Gambian community for a Mass at home for Sang Marie, which means St. Mary. The celebration was such a success that the following year, the same Catholics wanted to attend, and they spread the word so the crowd grew.
“When we started, in its infancy, we did not even imagine it to be this big,” said Ndow, who attends St. Michael the Archangel Church, Woodstock.
Yvonne Ndure, another founding member, leads the organization now. The Mass was a wonderful time, especially with the archbishop and the bishop attending, she said. The community was honored to have the bishops and the priests, she said.
Her goal for the Atlanta organization is to draw teens and young adults to the Gambian culture, she said.
“For us, the extended family is very important. We want the kids to enjoy both cultures. They are Americans, but we want them to know the Gambian culture as well,” said Ndure, 48, who works in the hospitality industry. She also teaches second- and third-grade religious education at her parish, Corpus Christi Church, Stone Mountain.
The Sang Marie festival unites all Gambians in the majority Muslim country in West Africa. Ndow, who owns a corporate cleaning service, has memories of his native city shutting down for the day, as Christians and Muslims celebrated.
“Religious tolerance is allowed. They all come together. There is no line in the sand” separating people of different faiths on Sang Marie, he said.
Cardos said preparation for the day of Sang Marie in Gambia begins weeks earlier with choir practice before the actual feast day. Then the Catholic community and others would gather at 10 a.m. for Mass, which would last until midday. At 4 p.m., people would gather for vespers, followed by a slow walk to Our Lady of Assumption Cathedral. “It’s a very prayerful time,” she said, as walkers would say the rosary and sing hymns.
While the feast is the Atlanta’s organization’s biggest celebration, its members meet monthly to pray, socialize and volunteer at local nonprofits. The community’s spiritual home is Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, on Briarcliff Road, Atlanta. Its members build connections to the community through song as the choir serves as its ambassador. The choir sings in the five languages found in the Gambia, in addition to traditional Latin and English hymns.
For more information about the Gambia Christian Organization, go to http://gco-atlanta.org/.