Cedar Rapids parish welcomes influx of new members from Africa
Have joined St. Jude community in last several years
By Jill Kruse-Domeyer
Witness Editorial Assistant
CEDAR RAPIDS — Every Sunday before the 10:30 a.m. Mass, announcements at St. Jude Parish in Cedar Rapids are made in French, a language spoken by many of the church’s members who are immigrants or refugees from western and central Africa.
St. Jude parishioner Judith Badiane, who emigrated from Senegal a year and a half ago, reads the announcements in French each week. The 30-year-old already has a master’s degree in economics and management and hopes to further her education in the United States.
“I feel honored to read this announcement,” commented Badiane, who said she is grateful to have the opportunity to serve as a reader at her new parish and to give of her time to a parish community that has welcomed her and supported her as she has transitioned into American life.
“For example, one of the parishioners, Debby Miller, she helps me to improve my English, and the church allows us to use their room to meet,” Badiane said.
Miller, a retired teacher and fellow St. Jude parishioner, assists with the English language classes offered at St. Jude’s for both parishioners and non-parishioners alike. She said she has enjoyed working with Badiane, who she called “very hardworking, very determined.”
The members of the immigrant community that she tutors “have been most appreciative of learning English,” Miller said. “They are grateful and are excited when they are able to communicate effectively in the language.”
A New Spiritual Home
Over the past several years, St. Jude’s has seen an influx of new members from several African countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Senegal, Togo and Benin. Michelle Tressel, pastoral associate at St. Jude’s, said that about 2 percent of the parish’s members are immigrants or refuges from Africa.
“One hundred one parishioners from Africa have been registered at the parish since July 2017,” Tressel said.
Since not everyone registers with the parish, however, Tressel believes the number of individuals from Africa who attend the church is probably larger than official membership indicates.
When parishioner Kathleen Riffe learned that many of the new worshipers at St. Jude’s did not speak English, she approached then-pastor Father Mark Reasoner to explore what the parish might do to assist them in learning the language. Riffe, a former French teacher, was already a tutor at the Catherine McAuley Center, located in downtown Cedar Rapids, which provides one-on-one tutoring of adult learners of English.
Parish staff decided to develop a relationship with the McAuley Center, in order to provide language and citizenship classes at the church.
“It grows every week,” Riffe said of the classes, which have now been offered at St. Jude’s for two years. “It’s been wonderful to see everyone’s progress. So many friendships have been made as well. We’ve all shared laughs and learned about each other’s cultures.”
Riffe has also used her language skills to help communicate with new parishioners in French when they are registering with the parish or assist them with translation when they or their children are receiving sacraments such as baptism, confirmation or matrimony.
In addition to language assistance, the St. Jude Parish community has found another important way to welcome its new members from Africa by connecting them with some of the material items they need as they settle into their new country.
“The people of the parish have really opened their hearts,” Riffe said. “(The new members from Africa) didn’t ask for help — you had to dig it out of them — but we learned that they had use for things like furniture and dishes.”
“Lots of times they need everything,” added Sue Waldron, who helps coordinate many of the parish’s efforts to provide assistance with some of the physical needs of new members.
Waldron said she puts the word out, sometimes on Facebook, sometimes by making phone calls, when specific items are needed by members of the St. Jude community. “I’ll ask, ‘Does anyone have a twin bed?’ ‘Does anyone have any lamps?’ and people are so good about responding,” commented Waldron.
Parishioners look for items at garage sales as well. And when winter approaches, they collaborate with the Coats for Kids program to ensure that the parish’s youngest new members are prepared for the cold and snow of the season.
Those who have been on the receiving end of the parish’s generosity have appreciated the assistance.
Two St. Jude’s parishioners who emigrated from Africa, Jacqueline and Dieudonné, received some furniture and furnishings as they were settling into their new home in Iowa earlier this year. Afterward, they wrote (in French) to a parish member of the kindness they’d been shown. “Your gift made us smile and cry at the same time,” they said. “We have felt such a unique joy unlike any we have ever experienced. … We don’t know how to express a thank you that equals our happiness.”
Parishioners from Africa like Jacqueline and Dieudonné are contributing in a variety of ways to St. Jude Parish. Some have signed up to help with cleaning the church as a way to give back to their new faith community. Others have expressed interest in helping with St. Jude’s well-known annual Sweet Corn Festival. Parishioner Martin Mutombo, an immigrant from Africa, has organized prayer groups at the parish. Once they are settled themselves, many immigrants and refugees join in assisting others from Africa who move into the area after them.
Waldron said she believes the addition of its new members from Africa has only been a good thing for the wider parish. “It’s made us stronger. And it’s made the rest of us more aware of other cultures,” she said.
This past March, St. Jude’s much beloved pastor, Father Mark Reasoner, who played an integral part in welcoming the parish’s newest members from Africa, passed away suddenly at the age of 53.
Upon his death, Rodolphe Yempapou Yemboame, an immigrant from Africa and a St. Jude parishioner, shared the following at his vigil, “I was hungry and you gave me to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me to drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. Father Mark didn’t teach this Gospel of St. Matthew by words only, he taught it by living it, especially with African people.”
Next month, Father Mark Murphy will be installed as St. Jude’s new pastor. He said he hopes to continue Father Reasoner’s legacy of hospitality at the parish.
Welcoming the immigrant is “central to our Catholic faith,” he said. “It’s a corporal work of mercy and an act of Christian love.”
Father Murphy said he believes immigrants enrich the life of a parish and of Catholic schools and their presence helps a faith community “to appreciate the diversity of the Catholic Church and the human family while being united by our common faith in Jesus.”
(l to r) Chloe Mutombo, Kathy Bennett, Archange Mutombo and Grace Mutombo decorate a pumpkin at a St. Jude Parish event in 2017. The Mutombo family, including parents Martin and Clarisse, and Henri, their other child, are among the many people from Africa who have joined the parish in recent years. (Contributed photo)