By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published August 23, 2018 | En Español
ATLANTA—In August 1993, Father Anthony Gabisi traveled from west Africa to Atlanta thinking he’d raise money for the small Catholic community in The Gambia. He instead found natives of his country distant from the faith and ignoring celebrations of their national identity.
“Nobody talked about church. This is not how we are at home,” he recalled.
Through persuasion, he gathered a group of immigrants during the big national holiday, Sang Marie, the celebration of the solemnity of the Assumption of Mary, which shuts down the Gambian capital city of Banjul. Citizens of all faiths fill the streets of the city with prayers, procession, joyful drumming and feasting.
“You are part of things at home. It is an extension of home,” he said, remembering the inaugural celebration of Sang Marie in Atlanta in 1993.
Twenty-five years later, the Gambia Christians Organization (GCO) continues to gather members of the immigrant group together for faith and fellowship with the high points being the August holy day and Easter. Leaders consider it the oldest Gambian Catholic group in the country, with the group spinning off into communities across the country, from Washington, D.C., to Dallas, Texas. In the United States, in the 2010 census, some 3,000 people identified themselves from The Gambia.
On Aug. 9, the local organization received a proclamation from the City of Atlanta for its dedicated years of service to the community.
“The U.S. can be lonely place, if you don’t have people to connect to,” said Ogis Gomez, 45, a telecommunications analyst, and longtime organizer with the group.
Home traditions shared
The nonprofit links immigrants in this country and renews the faith, as children are raised in the traditions from home. Key to its mission are members who raise money and host opportunities to serve people in need in Atlanta, in addition to back home. A group from GCO visited the archdiocesan Chancery Aug. 14 to share their Sang Marie traditions and food for a lunch program.
Hundreds of Gambians showed up for three days of celebration in Atlanta, continuing the quarter-century tradition. Mass at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, Atlanta, on Saturday, Aug. 18, was bookended by a celebrations on Friday and Sunday, including a cultural night and family picnic.
In The Gambia, the celebration of the Blessed Virgin shuts down the center of the capital city. Catholics are joined by other Christians and Muslims in a procession and street festival. The Gambia has a tolerant interfaith community, where the Catholic community is less than 2 percent of the population. The church’s ministries to the poor and the religious schools are esteemed in the eyes of all Gambians, no matter the faith, said Father Gabisi.
Elizabeth Owens, 50, attends St. Theresa of the Child Jesus Church, Douglasville. The organization tugs on her heartstrings, reminding her of childhood. Celebrating with her fellow Gambians makes faith “so alive and real,” said Owens.
The organization “gives you a platform to bring the best of yourself,” she said.
Wearing a flowing native dress, Owens arrived here in 1997 and earned her bachelor’s degree from Kennesaw State University. She worked in the hospitality industry and now is a homemaker. She serves on the GCO executive board.
A family far from home
Gambian culture is family oriented, extending beyond the nuclear family to include extended cousins and aunts and uncles. The Atlanta Gambian community surrounds families grieving or other sadness, substituting as an extended family when far from home.
“That’s when you really appreciate belonging,” said Owens.
For Gomez, the organization helped him recommit to the church. “It was an anchor that allows us to stay in the Catholic faith,” he said. “It allowed me to connect back to where I came from.”
Now a member of St. Oliver Plunkett Church, Snellville, Gomez first encountered American Peace Corps volunteers serving in his country and taking on local students in basketball. He came here for college with dreams of playing basketball, but that never happened.
He appreciated how the Gambian organization ties itself to the wider church. It shows families how their faith is celebrated at Gambian Masses and matches the faith seen in in their local parishes, he said. It highlights the universality of the church, with prayers, languages and songs mirroring home traditions, Gomez said.
Portuguese explorers brought the Catholic Church to The Gambia in the 15th century. The nation is a Muslim majority country. Today, the country of two million has one diocese, the Diocese of Banjul. The 1992 visit of St. John Paul II was a highlight in the history of the Gambian church.
GCO has about 60 active members, although the annual celebration attracts hundreds from around the country and even from The Gambia. In Atlanta, Gambians aid their native country. They send school supplies to help students. They also are financially supporting the building of churches in villages. A junior seminary in 2016 suffered fire damage, and the Atlanta organization helped in the repairs.
The members pull each other along to Jesus, said Owens.
“We try to emulate what the Gambians do, what makes people feel at home. It is a community that stays together and prays together for 25 years,” she said.
Looking ahead, leaders dream of having a facility of their own. Supportive parishes work with them and are kind, but the goal would be to have a facility to meet monthly and host special events, said the organization’s leaders. Another goal would be passing on their faith to youngsters, particularly by attending Catholic schools.
For Father Gabisi, he never expected to be celebrating a quarter of a century later. He thought the community group may last a few years but is pleased it continues to serve the immigrant community in the archdiocese.
“We have a tradition and it must be handed down,” he said.