Today is the feast of St. James and St. John. I think I will always remember that I celebrated that feast day in Nigeria. I find a strong correlation between the mother of James and John, and Nigerians. The mother of James and John was unafraid to ask Jesus for what she wanted… for her sons to sit at Jesus’ right and left. She spoke her mind. She was aggressive and forthright. Nigerians are the same.
It is a bit of a shock to me, because East African people tend to be quiet and reserved. Nigerians are much more bold and loud, as boarding the plane with them reminded me. In many ways I like Nigerians better because I prefer to know where I stand. I feel East Africans resemble Southern Americans in many ways. The American notion of “Southern Hospitality” mirrors the hospitality of Africans. Southerners in America are really nice and polite to any and every guest. The problem is, you never really know where you stand. Nigeria on the other hand is much more like New York. A New Yorker will tell you exactly how they feel about you, and they don’t care if it comes off rude. Nigerians are the same.
Back to the mother of James and John for a second, the other correlation that I find to today’s experience is that she was willing to speak up for her boys. In a sense, she was a model of advocacy for those younger than herself. We need to have more people who advocate for the youth.
Christianity is relatively new in Nigeria. There first colonizers were the Portuguese in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, but the malaria was so bad that they were killed off naturally.
“You could say that Mosquitos saved our country.” Monsignor Boyo gleefully tells me over dinner.
“Great! I’ll try not to get bitten?” I respond, but really I’m thinking, “How does something so small make such a big difference?”
It is rather remarkable. The Portuguese had guns and religious fervor, but it wasn’t enough to defeat the small little bite of a mosquito.
The successful missionaries didn’t really come to Africa until the nineteenth century. In the process of evangelization, Catholicism became rather dominant in Nigeria of the major Christian denominations, but now there is a big shift taking place. Many young people are being attracted to Pentecostal movements because the services are loud, fun, and have a lot of dancing. It fits in very well with the vibrant, tell-it-loud, and tell-it-as-it-is personality of Nigerians. The Catholic Church tends to be… well… boring.
Trying to make Catholicism relevant is one of the tasks of Fr.John Okoro who serves at St. Ferdinand’s parish, where I visited today. He is also the youth coordinator for the deanery.
Fr.John Okoro and I share a commitment to working with young people and welcoming them into the Catholic Faith Community. His work is challenging because he has the interest of the young people, but lacks financial support and no place for the youth to meet. He would love to have the funds to make a recording of the choirs which impress him every year at the choral competitions, or be able to afford to buy pro-chastity T-Shirts for his youth, but cannot afford it.
“The youth are leaving because they don’t feel any connection with this tradition of Christianity. It is difficult for them to find an identity when so many of the adults treat them like they are unimportant. It is the downside of African culture, elders expect the younger generations to listen to them.” Fr.John Okoro says to me.
“I hear you. I decided it wasn’t just an American phenomenon that youth are treated as second class citizens when I listened to a group of Zimbabwe youth tell me, ‘We want to be treated as if we are good for something more than moving furniture.’ That was the day I decided I would never ask another youth group to move chairs unless their voice was a part of the entire process.”
It is funny to me how communities betray their best qualities. When the mother of James and John advocated that her sons be treated well, it was admirable. She was looking after them, and indeed that is what many of the elders of many Catholic parishes around the world think that they are doing. They think they are acting in the best interests of the younger generation. At the same time, what is really happening is that young people are basically ignored.
And why should that be of concern? For the same reason that mosquitoes are a big concern. Little things have the tendency to make big differences, and they make the biggest difference when you ignore that they are even there (as the Portuguese colonists found out). Nigerian young people want to sing, pray loud, jump up and down, and dance, and they are going to, whether we let them or not.
Not only do I personally think that we should let them, I think we should sing, pray loud, jump up and down, and dance with them.
Or we can ignore them, and see how long we will actually last.