A historical route that spanned more than a thousand miles from Bethlehem into Egypt – or relatively speaking, from Missouri to Manhattan – was one taken by the Holy Family thousands of years ago. For the Nigerian Igbo community at St. Fortunata, East New York, remembering the journey into Africa that Jesus, Mary and Joseph had to take while fleeing King Herod’s persecution, has become a 10-year tradition at the parish.
“It’s simply an event in the life of Jesus which really doesn’t attract much attention,” said retired Auxiliary Bishop Guy Sansaricq, who was the main celebrant at the April 22 Mass. “But in Nigeria for some reason, it was retained, and we can use it for the story of immigration because Mary and Joseph ran away because of the wicked king. They went to a foreign land and they had to adjust to a new language, new culture and that was challenging.
“That can inspire us also to know that even if we go through the hardships of immigration, Jesus, Mary and Joseph went through it too.”
During the celebration, entitled ‘The Flight of the Holy Family into Egypt,” the Brooklyn church seemed to resemble the sights and sounds of a Catholic church in West Africa. Some women wore a traditional head scarf called gele, in colors as green as the leaves in the African savannah dipped in gold as luminescent as the Sahara desert. Men also wore their traditional Igbo pullover shirts, called isiagus, which is similar to a dashiki.
At least 100 people attended the event, which started with a procession in which one of the singers in the Igbo choir, alongside her choir members, carried the Infant Jesus into the church. Concelebrating with Bishop Sansaricq were Father Anthony Okolo, from Nigeria, and the diocesan coordinator of ministry to Nigerian immigrants, Father Cosmas Nzeabalu.
“The land of America has been gracious to so many of our Nigerian group,” said Father Nzeabalu, parochial vicar at St. Mary Magdalene, Springfield Gardens. “So many of them you see in the church today are pharmacists, medical doctors, nurses and professionals in different fields of life. Jesus found life in Egypt and so many have found life in America.”
He was grateful for the Brooklyn Diocese, known as the Diocese of Immigrants, for allowing his community to celebrate Mass in their own language.
“We don’t feel strange in a foreign land, so that’s what we’re celebrating today,” said Father Nzeabalu.
The choir sung hymns in English and African dialects as the Mass proceeded in both Igbo and English.
During his homily, Bishop Sansaricq not only spoke about violence occurring in Nigeria, but also about the message of living a life of community and mutual love.
“Participating in the mission of the Church is to bring the whole world, from the people in Nigeria, people in northern Nigeria constantly threatened by Boko Haram, the witness of Jesus’ love,” he said, “so that wickedness will be wiped away from our society, will be wiped away through the goodness, love and charity we demonstrate.”
After Mass, the community headed into the parish basement to share trays of homemade Nigerian food, music and games for the youth. It was also an opportunity for a special book signing from an author who wrote about the man responsible for the “Flight” celebration that has gone on for more than 10 years.
“I’ve written books before,” said Kevin Anyanwu, a parishioner at St. Fortunata. “I think I can write this story about this man, what he has done, because people don’t even know what the man has done to the community, to New York, and to the Christian faith as a whole.”
The man he was referring to was Deacon Okafor Uzoigwe, who was credited for his personal research on the influence of Africans in salvation history.
Deacon Uzoigwe spoke about the Holy Family’s journey in a statement to The Tablet.
“The journey may be daunting to us today, but to the people of those days it was nothing. If I tell you that I walked from Ndeaboh to Agbudu in Udi and Enugu to Ndeaboh in Ani-nri at the end of the Nigeria-Biafra war, you will say I am lying, but I did. The Jews also came to Egypt before for food. An army came from Rome and conquered and occupied Egypt. The Igbos of Nigeria wisely take the name ‘osondu-aguike’ which means, one is never tired of running to save ones dear life. Remember, the Holy Family was running to save the life of the Infant Jesus.”
Such knowledge influenced his perspective on the reasons why the Nigerian community felt so compelled to celebrate the fact that “God chose Egypt as a place of safety for His son.”
Even though the deacon was unable to attend the event because of a health condition that affects his speech, Father Nzeabalu chose him as the recipient of the diocese’s 2017 Shining Star award, for his contributions to the Nigerian community.
In the book, entitled “Destined to Serve,” Anyanwu described Deacon Uzoigwe’s importance writing that “whether it is the simple fact that he has lifted the Igbo community at St. Fortunata or his unparalleled projection of Africa through the introduction of the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt, or even his numerous philanthropic initiatives back home – whichever it may be, he strikes a positive chord.”
While the historical event of the Holy Family’s plight in Egypt occurred during a time that aimed at tearing families apart, thousands of years later, for the Nigerian community in New York, remembering such an event has instead, delivered hope.
“This celebration has brought so many people back to the fold, especially people who have not been coming to the church for some time,” added Father Nzeabalu. “This community becomes a unifying force and we appreciate so much how God has used this flight to Egypt for this community.”