Cameroonian Catholics find home in Arlington

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Often there's an assumption that all or most Catholic immigrants in the United States hail from Latin America and speak Spanish. But that does a disservice to other immigrant groups whose struggle to assimilate and observe their faith in a new land may be misunderstood or even go unnoticed, explained William Dinges, a professor of religion and culture at Catholic University in Washington.

"There is no universal Catholic experience," said Dinges, pointing out the variations of Catholic faith expressions throughout the world.

Dinges said that many Catholic immigrants in the United States not only face language and cultural barriers; they face devotional barriers because their liturgical norms may not perfectly match those observed in the United States.

One such immigrant group is the Cameroonian community, whose unique Catholic traditions have been influenced by tribal customs and have evolved over Cameroon's complex history.

Cameroon is centrally located on the west coast of Africa. After World War I, the League of Nations divided Cameroon between France and Britain without regard for the country's ethnic and tribal factions. After a long struggle for independence from both European powers, the Republic of Cameroon was formed in 1984. French and English remain the country's official languages (despite the dozens of tribal languages spoken nationwide), and the European influence of Christianity also remains.

Today, the country's Catholic population is more than four million people strong. Christianity is the dominant religion, though Islam and tribal animism, an indigenous belief system centered on earth spirits, also are widely observed. Cameroon recently made international headlines because of the ongoing Christian genocide by Boko Haram, a radical Islamic terrorist group active in the northern part of the country. Boko Haram's violence has forced thousands of Christian refugees from more turbulent neighboring countries, particularly the Central African Republic, to flock to Cameroon.

In the United States, Cameroonians enjoy a more peaceful day-to-day existence. The largest Cameroonian immigrant population is concentrated in the Greater Washington area, with other sizeable communities in Houston, Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston and Minneapolis/St. Paul. Here, Cameroonian Catholics may worship without fear of Boko Haram's persecution.

"Nothing compares to being able to celebrate Mass with your music and your traditions," said George Nformi, chairman for the pastoral council of the Cameroonian Catholic Community of Virginia.

In the Arlington Diocese, the Cameroonian community observes Mass once a month at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Vienna. Until last summer, Arlington's Cameroonian Mass was celebrated by Father Eugen Nkardzedze, a priest in residence at St. James Church in Falls Church.

Now, Father Ghenghan Bamenjo Mbinkar, also a priest in residence at St. James, celebrates Mass for the community. A native of Jakiri, part of the Diocese of Kumbo, Father Mbinkar is currently studying canon law at Catholic U.

Father Mbinkar said that it is the Cameroonian musical tradition that distinguishes Cameroonian Mass. Instead of using the organ or piano, Cameroonian Mass uses the xylophone, as well as drums, gongs and "other instruments that are often difficult to get through the airport."

"Whenever Cameroonians get together, there is always singing and dancing," said Father Mbinkar, "even when there is a tragedy."

As for Boko Haram, Father Mbinkar said that the terrorist group's aim is not only to wipe out Christianity but all things "related to Western culture.

"Because Boko Haram is not as active in Cameroon as it is in its neighbors, refugees have fled there. Cameroon has always been relatively stable (compared to some African countries)," said Father Mbinkar. "It had no civil war. And the culture is very welcoming. Even when people have little to give, they give their guests the best that they have."

"We are blessed to have Father Mbinkar, and are happy to continue our relationship with our brothers and sisters from Africa," said Father Patrick L. Posey, pastor at St. James Church.

Cameroonian Mass is made possible due to the support of the diocesan Office of Multicultural Affairs, headed by Corinne Monogue. Monogue's office provides resources for immigrant communities who wish to celebrate Mass in their native language and according to their native traditions. Other African communities that work with the Office of Multicultural Affairs include Ghana and Sierra Leone. Since 2012, the office has organized an annual Unity Mass to celebrate Arlington's black communities, both African and African-American.

At the second Unity Mass in 2013, Father Nkardzedze quoted St. John Paul II's 1986 address to the Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders as words of encouragement to Africans and African-Americans:

"Your culture, which shows the lasting genius and dignity of your race, must not be allowed to disappear. Do not think that your gifts are worth so little that you should no longer bother to maintain them. Share them with each other and teach them to your children. Your songs, your stories, your paintings, your dances, your languages must never be lost."

Monogue upholds the same opinion for cultural preservation, and welcomes non-Cameroonians to learn more about Cameroonian traditions.

"If you've never been to a Cameroonian Mass, you have to go because it's such a beautiful, vibrant experience," said Monogue. "It might just give you a new way to explore your faith and bring you closer to Christ."

Find out more

To learn more about Arlington's Cameroonian Mass, go to arlingtondiocese.org/multicultural/mass.aspx. To learn about Cameroonian immigrant community news, go to leffortcamerounais.com.

Stoddard can be reached at cstoddard@catholicherald.com.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015