Nigerian Church Bridges Two Cultures With Universal Faith

( [email protected] ) Jul 22, 2003 02:08 AM EDT

The painting of the would-be Nigerian saint in stately old St. Cecilia Catholic Church in South Los Angeles stands as a symbol of cultural differences and unity within a universal faith, LATimes reported.

The portrait of the Blessed Michael Iwene Tansi is a study in contrasts. The artist has divided Tansi through the middle from head to toe: The left half of his figure is depicted in the habit of a Cistercian monk. His right side is draped in the traditional robes of a Nigerian king. He stands against a bifurcated backdrop of an English monastery on the left, where he died in 1964, and his native African village on the right.

But what intrigues Father Michael Ekwutosi Ume is another feature of the portrait that might escape notice: Tansi's dual figure casts a single undifferentiated shadow. "It represents spirit bringing the two cultures together," says Ume, a Nigerian native and Los Angeles pastor.

Ume ministers to an estimated 1,200 Nigerian Catholics who share St. Cecilia's with African American and Latino parishioners. Twice monthly, and on special occasions like Mother's Day, Christmas and Easter, he and nine other Nigerian priests take turns saying Mass there in Igbo, one of the main languages of Nigeria, predominant in the southeastern part of the country.

His task — familiar in the multifaceted religious world of Southern California — is to celebrate and affirm the ethnic identity of his Nigerian congregants while also preaching and teaching the universal Christian Gospel.

"All immigrants embody two cultures and the spirit is trying to resolve the tension resulting from the existence of these two cultures in us," Ume wrote about the shrine. "Every immigrant can relate to the situation of Blessed Tansi and then ask for his intercession."

Today, on the 10th anniversary of the Igbo (Nigerian) Catholic community in Southern California, Father Ume will be joined by one of the Vatican's most prominent prelates, one often mentioned as a possible future pope, Cardinal Francis Arinze.

Arinze is scheduled to dedicate Blessed Tansi's shrine at St. Cecilia's, which includes the painting. Tansi was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1998, the penultimate step toward sainthood. If he is made a saint, Tansi would be the Roman Catholic Church's first West African saint.

On Sunday, Arinze will join Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles, for a Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels commemorating the Nigerian community.

Arinze's presence is particularly apt. He is a native of Nigeria and was baptized at age 12 by the Blessed Tansi. Ordained in 1958 and made bishop of Onitsha in 1965 at the age of 32, Arinze was then the youngest bishop in the worldwide church. He was made a cardinal in 1985. He now is prefect of divine worship and discipline of the sacraments.

Arinze, like Tansi and Father Ume, each in their own way, embody the coming together of unique culture and universal faith.

"One thing that is beginning to sink in a little bit now with Tansi becoming a saint is that Nigerians no longer see Christianity as a foreign culture," Ume said. "It is now becoming their culture. Sooner or later, Nigerians will look like Italians, where Christianity is their culture."

Tansi, he said, offers an example and hope to those who are poor or suffering because Tansi knew both. The monk may also be a countercultural example for Nigerians living in America's consumer-driven society.

"He becomes a challenge to those dependent too much on materialism. To those who don't have much and are suffering, he becomes a sign of hope," Ume said.

The tension experienced by Nigerian Catholics in Los Angeles can be seen in the higher divorce rate here among their people, and questions over how to raise children.

Divorce is practically unheard of among the Igbo people of Nigeria, he said. Not so here.

Recently, Ume put together a daylong seminar about divorce, bringing in lawyers, psychologists, school counselors, teachers, doctors and social workers who work with the children of divorced parents.

"A lot of Nigerians enjoyed it more than I ever thought," he said. "Usually with Nigerians you keep them in a room for two or three hours and they want to go home," he laughed.

Bringing up children is another problem in Los Angeles. In Nigeria, he said, parents would spank their children. Here, young parents don't know what to do because of concerns about child abuse.

"It breaks their heart when the kid has done something wrong and they don't know what to do," he said.

Nigeria is roughly divided religiously, with about 45% of the population Christian, 45% Muslim and the remainder following native religions.

There are also similarities in how Southern Californians and Nigerians approach religious differences, said Ume, 40, who came to the U.S. in 1989 and is now a U.S. citizen.

Too many Christians in Nigeria view Muslims as "a bunch of radicals," he said. Likewise, he said many Muslims in Nigeria think of Nigerian Christians as "nothing but a bunch of Westerners who are parading in front of Nigerians."

Neither characterization of the two faiths is true, Ume said.

He recalled years ago traveling in Nigeria when the bus to his brother's city arrived hours late in the middle of the night because of mechanical problems.

"I came into this land of nowhere," Ume said. "I had no clue where to go." A stranger befriended him and invited him to spend the night at his home.

Ume was apprehensive, especially when he also saw a policeman. He wanted to run away. But the man persuaded him to go with him to his home.

"He gave me food. He gave me a bed. I slept. The next day I got up, said my prayers. He took me to the park and showed me the [road] that would take me to my brother's house," Ume said.

The stranger, Ume said, was a Muslim.

"He knew I was a Christian. He knew I was not just a Christian, but I wanted to be a priest. That was not an issue for him. He was able to do that and that is their way of life. They are hospitable. They are honest," he said.

Which brought Ume back to Tansi's shrine at St. Cecilia's.

It was built in part by a group of Latino parishioners who did the carpentry work. The tiles on the floor came from Mexico.

And the artist who painted the Nigerian monk is Father Fernando Arizti, who was born in Mexico, and lived in Nigeria for six months to have a better understanding of its culture before painting Tansi's portrait.