from kenya with love

MINISTERING: The Reverend Chrispin Oneko greets a young parishioner in his Western Kentucky church.  Pic. James Estrin.  © The New York Times.
MINISTERING: The Reverend Chrispin Oneko greets a young parishioner in his Western Kentucky church. Pic. James Estrin. © The New York Times.

OAK GROVE - The Reverend Chrispin Oneko, hanging up his vestments after leading one of his first Sunday masses at his new US parish, was feeling content until he discovered several small notes left by his parishioners.

OAK GROVE - The Reverend Chrispin Oneko, hanging up his vestments after leading one of his first Sunday masses at his new US parish, was feeling content until he discovered several small notes left by his parishioners.

The notes, all anonymous, conveyed the same message: "Father, please make your homilies shorter." One said that even five minutes was too long for a mother with children.

At home in Kenya, Oneko had preached to rural Africans who walked for hours to get to church and would have been disappointed if the sermons were brief.

"Here the whole mass is one hour," he said, a broad smile on his round face. "That was a homework for me, to learn to summarise everything and make the homily 10 minutes, maybe 15. Here, people are on the move very fast."

Oneko is part of a wave of Roman Catholic priests from Africa, Asia and Latin America who have been recruited to fill empty pulpits in parishes across the United States. They arrive knowing how to celebrate mass, anoint the sick and baptise babies. But few are prepared for the challenges of being a pastor in this country.

Oneko, 46, had never counselled parishioners like those he found here at St Michael the Archangel Catholic Church. Many are active-duty or retired military families coping with debt, racial prejudice, multiple deployments to war zones and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Nor did he have any idea how to lead the multimillion-dollar fundraising campaign the parishioners had embarked on, hoping to build a new octagonal church with a steeple to replace their red brick parish hall.

Cutting his sermons short was, in some ways, the least of Oneko's worries when he arrived here in 2004. He did not understand the black American experience. He had never dealt with lay people so involved in running their church.

And yet, in the end, the families of his church would come to feel an affinity with their gentle new pastor, reaching out to him in his hour of need, just as he had tended to them in theirs.

To the volunteers at St Michael's it was clear that Oneko was out of his depth in many ways. Marie Lake, the volunteer administrator, and her husband, Fred, often invited him for dinner.

"My husband was driving him down 41A and there was a big old statue of Uncle Sam," she said.

"He thought it was Sam from Sam's Club wholesale."

To help him along, the Lakes gave Oneko a high school textbook on US history and government.

"Many years ago we sent our missionaries to Africa, and now they're sending missionaries here. It's strange how that goes."

In this largely rural, largely white area of Western Kentucky, the Reverend Darrell Venters, who is in charge of recruiting priests for the Diocese of Owensboro, knew that some of his parishes would never accept Oneko.

But Venters thought that Oneko and St Michael's, a parish on the outskirts of a big military base, with its racial mix and many families who had lived abroad, was a good bet.

When Oneko was growing up, the priest in his Roman Catholic parish was an American who spoke the native Luo language and was beloved by the villagers. He showed the children home movies of his parents and his seminary back in America.

"He inspired me," Oneko said.

In Kenya, Oneko became the sole pastor for 12 satellite parishes.

It was a hardship post.

When his bishop asked for volunteers to serve in a diocese in Jamaica that badly needed priests, Oneko put up his hand but he found conditions in Jamaica even more desperate than in Kenya.

Oneko lasted nearly five years as pastor of five churches in Jamaica. But after so much time in hardship posts, he wanted to taste life in a developed country.

- New York Times

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