When I became an altar boy to the Irish missionaries who introduced our close-knit Afaha Esang village to Catholicism, I never knew that, one day, I would be preaching the love and comfort of Christ in the west, giving back to the white brothers and sisters of those hardworking missionaries. As a child, nothing meant so much to me as serving at Mass or being around the church, St. John’s Catholic Church. My poor parents, Sebastian and Regina, traders and distillers of our local gin, kai-kai, loved me and my seven siblings with discipline and tenderness. I have a twin brother, John. Unlike many parents then, mine ensured all of us, four girls and four boys, were educated. My parents embraced Catholicism with gusto. Every 5:30am, my family and other Catholics went to the church to say the rosary, recite the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary, sing hymns and answer the roll call by the catechist. We did not have enough priests to say daily Masses in all the villages of southern Nigeria.
Sometimes, I sense a deeper well of grace: in 1919, my maternal grandpa, Chief Afangideh Udofia, had donated his land for the building our dear St. John’s Church. Unfortunately, he died before his son, my uncle, Father Emmanuel, became one of the first indigenous priests in 1954. Witnessing him say Mass or administer the sacraments like the white missionaries on this plot of land his father gave the church meant so much to my priestly vocation.
I was ordained a priest on July 11, 1981, by His Eminence Dominic Cardinal Ekandem for the Diocese of Ikot Ekpene. I also remain eternally grateful to the cardinal, because as a young priest he saved me and my twin brother John from infant death. He made sure we were not killed as prescribed by an obnoxious local custom. Twins were regarded as a bad omen that had to be eliminated at birth. I am told that when we were born, the cardinal quickly joined forces with my parents to ensure that we were not killed. They won. That brought an end to the killing of twins in our village.
But, even in my childhood, I could see that it was not always easy for missionaries. I still remember the hot tears and total meltdown of one old woman, Mma Mary, because Father Walsh rejected her food, abobok-ukom. It was a dish I personally loved so much. And Mma Mary had spent so much time and money making this dish, because she wanted to appreciate the priest, because she saw the priest as Christ. Yet the Irishman was not used to eating our local food. It took the intervention of other people for him to understand he could not reject the food, to see this food as an extension of the Eucharist and diversity and acceptance. Just seeing the priest take the food into the rectory meant a lot to Mma Mary and to all of us children who were watching…God had accepted her widow’s mite!
This is my 40th year in the priesthood. Christ has been faithful. And I continue to learn from the people of God in Nigeria and America. I am a very pastoral person. I have a doctorate in Radio, Television & Film Studies from the Wayne State University, Michigan. I have been a parish priest, diocesan dean, Catholic youth facilitator, university professor, editor, movie consultant, etc.
I am so happy to be working with our hospitable parish priest, Father Tom, and his dedicated staff. I am blessed to be a missionary among you, like those Irish men in Afaha Esang. Let us remember to embrace each other in our prayers.