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Ibos re-create home villages at L.A. Mass

On any given Sunday in the Los Angeles archdiocese, Mass is said in as many as 80 languages, and liturgies reflect the vision of faith of dozens of different ethnic and immigrant communities. This article is part of an occasional series exploring the particular gifts that these diverse communities bring to our Catholic family.

NCR Staff
Los Angeles

Smack in the middle of south central Los Angeles, Nigerian immigrants from the Ibo tribe are re-creating their village.

They have no land, not even a church. It is the Eucharist celebrated in their language that provides the pivot around which the Ibo can live their faith, affirm their culture and strengthen their bonds of extended family.

Upwards of 100 Ibo gather every other Sunday for noontime Mass at St. Cecilia's Catholic Church, following a widely attended Mass in Spanish. On Palm Sunday, Easter and Mother's Day, however, as many as 1,000 Ibo come from all corners of greater Los Angeles.

During seasons other than Lent, Ibo life comes alive at Mass with conga drums and African music; the pews are transformed by the brightly colored headwraps and traditional dress worn by the Ibo women; the passing of the peace is a time of laughter and joy with children receiving tickles and kin holding each other in long, firm embraces.

Water is central to the celebration. Each member of the community comes before the altar at the offertory to be blessed with this symbol of life, of healing and of fertility from a land that has known drought and famine.

"Our children now know what we are doing. They sing the songs in Ibo. They can say, 'This is who we are. I am a Nigerian,' " said the Ibo Catholic committee's coordinator, Anthony Ikebudu.

It is not just inside the church, however, that the ties among the Los Angeles Ibo community are strengthened. Ikebudu said Ibo children who gather with their parents for Mass now recognize members of the community outside of church. In this way, he said the Ibo, through their faith, live the adage that it takes a village to raise a child.

"The children say, `This is one of us.' They know their eyes are watching them, taking care of them. They have all of their uncles around," he said.

Another woman said her 19-year-old daughter, after years of shunning her Ibo name, obtained a new sense of pride in her culture because of her experience at Mass. She now corrects her friends when they use her American nickname and she affirms her trilingual self -- Ibo, the language rooted in her cultural identity; English, the language taught to her people under colonial rule; and Spanish, the language she learned in the Los Angeles area.

The experience of the faith community has also helped the Ibo heal social and psychological wounds. Yearly retreats -- one for women only, one for men and one for couples -- provide opportunities for reconciliation and growth. Gathering with others from the Ibo extended family provides a safe place "to discuss issues. ... You can open up," one young Ibo woman said. "It's self-healing." She said couples with problems have avoided separation because of the support they feel from the community. "You learn it does not just depend on the two of you to solve your problems."

Disputes between Ibo are also often resolved within the community setting, curtailing, perhaps, the need to employ mechanisms foreign to Ibo culture, such as lawsuits.

This affirmation of culture and community through the experience of faith is lifeblood to these immigrants, many of whom came to the United States as students during the Nigerian civil war in the 1960s and stayed. Others are more recent arrivals from a country now wracked by dictatorial rule. They left behind a world where tribal relations are so tight their language has no word for uncle or aunt. Members of the community are all treated as sister or brother.

Despite their powerful sense of the Catholic faith, first brought to their ancestors by Irish missionaries during the time of British colonial rule, many of the Ibo newcomers did not feel welcome in U.S. parishes. Several Ibo Catholic community leaders who met with NCR following a recent Sunday Mass at St. Cecilia's described how they were marginalized by racism in the American church. "When I first came here, people would not greet me. I put out my hand and a man put his hand in his pocket," one community leader recalled. "I am Nigerian, and I had no experience of discrimination."

Even in churches where welcome was extended, many Ibo did not feel at home. "Those Masses were a shock. They were dead Masses. There was no life. You don't see that excitement of worship in the American churches," Ikebudu said. The individualism of the broader mainstream culture also hit the Ibo hard. "We are perhaps more accepting than other cultures. In Iboland, in Nigeria, you feel the welcome once you are in the land. Here, you are isolated. It's a shock," an Ibo woman said.

Since 1993, though, the Ibo community has worked to overcome that isolation in Los Angeles, coming together through faith. That year, Fr. Michael Ume became the first Nigerian priest ordained in the Los Angeles archdiocese. It was during the planning process for Ume's reception that the Ibos were brought together, Ume said, "under the umbrella of Catholic religion."

From then on, the Ibo Mass became a vibrant thread in the multicultural fabric of the Los Angeles archdiocese. In 1994, the Ibo moved from their first place of worship, St. Anselm's, also in south central Los Angeles, because the pastor "needed the noon time slot for a Spanish Mass." The community was immediately offered a noontime home at St. Cecilia's. Ume insisted on the importance of providing liturgy in the mother tongue, even if bringing communities together for Mass under a common language defies traditional parish boundaries.

"The idea is not to create a new liturgy that embraces white and black and Hispanic, etc., because in the end, we're nobody," he said. Ume said some things should be done together, under the guide of geographic parishes. "We can read the Bible, work on social justice programs, pray together," he said. But the liturgy, he said, is each community's "language with God. ... It is you, God and your culture, the mystery for which you lack words to explain." Ume grinned: "Give it to them."

National Catholic Reporter, March 27, 1998