Being a missionary in a strange land
Despite their differences in national and tribal origin, and their deep religious differences, Brother John Danquah, Brother Charles Obimbo, and Father Theophilus Okpara shared the experience of leaving their homes and living as strangers in a distant land. For all three it has been an often painful separation.
Father Okpara, born and raised in cities, was sent to the small agricultural village on the edge of the Mississippi River. He observed, "The first month I was here, it took me a lot to myself adjusted, you know. Cause I was born and raised in big cities in Nigeria, you know."
Brother Danquah, the son of a United Nations diplomat who had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work with refugees in Somalia, had been raised in the cosmopolitan world of international politics. His father had wished that he and his siblings would be active in Ghanian politics. Instead, most became followers of William Branham,and Brother John emigrated to Canada. Brother Obimbo had been selected by the Kenyan government to take a scholarship to study in the Soviet Union, where he earned his bachelors and masters degrees. He then earned his doctorate in Canada. All three men are cosmopolitan, learned, and accomplished.
Their lives in Africa had been comfortable, even, as Father Okpara said, privileged. He told us, "most of us from the east part of Nigeria were so comfortable. It is here that I, for the first time, got myself involved in paying tax. Yes. In Nigeria priests do not pay, they don't know anything about paying tax. You are exempt from tax. In Nigeria you're cared for 100 percent, as a priest. In my part of country, on your ordination day, ordination day, you are given two major gifts. One is what you would call the mass box, mass kit, that is, a box which contains every stuff you need for your Eucharistic celebration. The people of God will give it to you. Two, a car. You're given a car. They are the two major donations that are given to you on your ordination to make sure you don't have anything to stop you from doing your work as a priest. All right? You're cared for. You lack nothing. It's not as if you live in affluence. You lack nothing.
"And so we don't come here for economic reasons. We don't come here for political reasons, because over there you are very safe as a priest. Nobody touches you. You're given a very serious regard. You're given some kind of privileges politically, as a priest."
But it wasn't just the shift from urban to rural, or from the tropics to a colder climate, or from a more to a less privileged status, that Father Okpara experienced. It was the deep differences in culture.
Father Okpara told us, "all the priests from Nigeria, the first problem, or the most pressing problem they have here, experience here, is this loneliness of a friend. Because in Nigeria we live some kind of communal life. You can't be on your own. You can't be on your own. But in America, Americans live individualistic life, everybody on his own. You get into your room, shut your door, get into your house, shut your door. Either you may not know your next door neighbor. Everybody's on his own. But in Nigeria, you know, we have this sense of hospitality. Extended relationship. You can never feel alone."
Brother Danquah said virtually the same thing, "But over here,... you don't know what your neighbor's name is, you can't even talk to them .... Whereas where I grew up from I knew every kid that lived in my vicinity, because we go school together, parents are greeting and "good morning" and stuff like that. Basically we knew everybody. But here I just get up and go to work and come in, I'm shut in my room. I don't like this winter, I get in the room and get out."
Most North Americans experience this individualism as central to their sense of freedom, opportunity, and capacity for self-expression. But Okpara, Danquah, and Obimbo all felt isolated and lonely. And, this experience gave them even deeper appreciation for the missionaries who had brought the Christianity they treasure to their ancestors.