On a clear November Sunday, more than 400 men, women and children gathered at Holy Cross Church in Durham to celebrate the fifth annual African Ancestry Heritage Mass. The pan-African service blended five languages and multiple cultural traditions in joyous celebration of the Eucharist.
Bishop Michael F. Burbidge celebrated Mass and delivered the homily.
For Reginna Ford of Rocky Mount, the event was an opportunity to observe a universality that she said exists in the language of Catholicism, which transcends dialects and languages. “I try to make it every year because it gives us an opportunity to know we are of African ancestry,” she said. “[There are] so many cultures and traditions … and different languages that we experienced during the Mass.”
The Nov. 6 celebration began at 2:30 p.m. with the children’s parade of African flags behind the American flag in an opening symbol of unity.
Valerie Batta observed, “There’s something that’s very unique in the African cultures where children have always been an important part of the equation. They are the ones who take over when we aren’t here. So we want to make sure that they understand that very well, even though they live in America.”
Music and motion stirred the cultural harmony that ran throughout the Mass.
“The way that we experience it in Africa with all of our heritage: drums and singing and dance movement … all this is part of our identity because we cannot be praising the Lord while just sitting and looking at an image,” Joseph Batta said. “He asks us to sing praises. He asks us to raise our voices and chant. He asks us to really be happy! And that happiness comes through all those things that we do. And we all come together as one person, praising one God.”
Chinyere Nwaodu, a pasishoner of St. Joseph Parish in Raleigh, has attended the Mass for the past five years. “It is very special,” she said.
Deacon Phil Rzewnicki, of Holy Cross, said he attended for joy, fun, music and celebration. “It’s a celebration of the heart. The kids are wide-eyed, they’re paying attention, and they’re really enjoying it,” he said. “And you see the same celebration in the adults’ faces.”
Ngozi Ogidi of St. Joseph Parish, Raleigh, observed, “We do this so the children can connect with their culture, so that they know where they come from and even speak their language if possible.”
There were opportunities to connect with culture at a reception following Mass. Delicious and exotic African foods were shared. The faithful also shared family recipes, traditions and memories of the lands from which they hailed.
Many stopped to speak with Bishop Burbidge, who inaugurated this special Mass for all African and African American communities, five years ago. People took photos and wished Bishop Burbidge well in his new post in Arlington.
“Bishop, of course, this is the last Mass, and this is very emotional,” Valerie Batta said. “For us it is personal…we’ve had a great relationship with him. We really wanted to make this a special day for us, African people, but also for the community. Remember it shall not stop here … this shall continue because this is the legacy!”
Watch Bishop Burbidge's homily
photos and story by J. Eric Braun