AUg. 5-18, 2004
Help is Coming
By Connie Cissell/ SUN editor
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Syracuse Diocese Opens Mission to Help Brothers and Sisters in Africa
According to the Office of Black Catholic Ministry, there are currently 11 priests and seven women religious from Africa residing in the Syracuse Diocese. They have at some point served in every region of the diocese. Parishes have hosted African liturgical celebrations and the clergy and religious have spoken to people through ministry and evangelization. They have explained some of the cultural differences they saw when they arrived in the U.S. and they have shared their upbeat, spirit-filled worship with the diocese. Now, some of them have come together to develop a mission office in Canastota that will make a difference to the poverty-stricken, AIDS-stricken population back home in Africa.
Recently, the Catholic News Service reported that the global spread of HIV/AIDS continues to escalate with 37.8 million people now believed to be infected including 4.8 million new infections last year. The epidemic in Kenya has been devastating according to Father Cleophas Oseso Tuka, who is serving at St. Ambrose Church in Endicott and is from the Diocese of Nakuru in Kenya.He called the issue of HIV/AIDS a “major, major problem” for his country, explaining that 2.4 million people there are infected with the HIV/AIDS virus and 700 people die each day from it. “Fifty percent of the hospital beds are occupied with people suffering from HIV complications,” Father Cleophas said.
His experience and similar stories from the rest of the African clergy and religious serving in the Syracuse Diocese serve as a foundation for the purpose of the new Catholic Diocese of Nakuru Mission Office based at St. Agatha Church in Canastota. There is an enormous need for aid to the people back home. Father Cleophas and also Sister Anisia Muthoni, a Little Sister of St. Francis of Assisi who is serving at St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Endicott, both concurred that the government aid to help those with HIV/AIDS doesn’t always end up helping the poor and infected. Therefore, the role of the Catholic Church and religious communities has taken on a new meaning there, one that places the church at the forefront for providing compassion, care, medical help and more to the poor in Kenya.
The Catholic Church in Kenya is only 110 years old, Father Cleophas explained. “The American Church has been here for quite some time,” Father Cleophas laughed. “We can learn from your church’s challenges and look at being here as an opportunity to get that exposure and to exchange views and our cultures. Many people think of Africa as one country and really we are many different countries.” There are 42 tribes in Kenya alone and each one has its own culture, Father Cleophas said.
The church in Africa is growing, Father Cleophas said, and more churches are being built. Currently the African Synod is working to find ways to put all the different aspects of the varying cultures into the Catholic tradition. “Our African culture is quite dynamic,” Father Cleophas said. “The way people participate comes down to how it relates to our culture which is very, very dear to the African people.” The arrangement between the Diocese of Nakuru and the Diocese of Syracuse enables the clergy to stay two or three years, Father Cleophas said, longer if they are pursuing some sort of studies while they are here. Ralph Jones, director of the Office of Black Catholic Ministry, said he feels the religious and clergy from Africa have brought great gifts to this diocese. “We are blessed by their spirit and their experiences in life and their hardships,” Jones said. “I’ve never met a group of more spiritual people in my life. They go where they need to go and be where they need to be because they work for God. I wish more people in the diocese were exposed to their spirit and their presence in this diocese.”
Sister Anisia has enjoyed her pastoral work the six years she has served at St. Anthony’s Parish. She visits residents in nursing homes and hospitals and said she now has a list of 130 people that she tries to minister to over the course of her time at the parish. She is attached to them, she said. “I love the people here so much.” And, Sister Anisia is trying to help the sisters back home with a project to start a center for orphans and the elderly. “We have two groups of people in Kenya,” Sister Anisia said, “the very rich and the very poor. If the church was not there to help, the poor would not have anyone to take care of them.” Her religious community follows the charism of St. Francis, she explained, in its service to the very, very poor. Sister Anisia serves as the superior of the small group of nuns serving in this diocese. She is pleased that they are serving here in their role as missionaries, she said, “spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ.” Nearly half the population of Kenya falls in the 0-14 year-old age range and this reflects the problem of those left behind when parents die of AIDS. “We have one million orphans,” Father Cleophas said. “These children do not have access to basic needs — food, shelter — they depend on relatives and if relatives are not there, they have no one.”
His diocese has developed an HIV/AIDS education program that focuses on behavior change for the young people. “We have a peer counseling program that promotes abstinence and we have community-based health programs. We encourage the community to take care of those who are suffering.” Father Cleophas said when AIDS arrived in his country, it was seen as a stigma. ”Now with more education available,” he said, “people realize these are their brothers and sisters.” There are drugs available to treat HIV/AIDS, but the poor cannot get the medicine they need because they do not have the means. Fifty-six percent of the people live below the poverty line, Father Cleophas said. “They live on less than $1 a day. Anti-viral drugs can cost $50 per month.You can see how they cannot pay.”
The Catholic Diocese of Nakuru was created in January 1968 and covers an area of 18,149 square kilometers. The estimated Catholic population in the 36 parishes is approximately 320,000 — a number similar to that of the Syracuse Diocese. The Catholic Diocese of Nakuru Mission Office is planning to host a dinner on Sept. 19 at St. Agatha’s Church in Canastota. “The dinner is open to all who want to know more about what is happening in Kenya and Africa,” Father Cleophas said. Meanwhile, any help in any form is welcome. Contact the mission office by writing to the Catholic Diocese of Nakuru Mission Office, 406 Spencer St., Canastota, N.Y. 13032.