By Father Jacob Dankasa
Special to The Texas Catholic
People have different perceptions of other people. In one way or another we all have our stereotypes of people, especially people of other nations who are different from us. If you haven’t traveled to some countries, but only read about them or see them portrayed in movies, chances are that you have created an opinion of them based on what is projected in the media — movies, books, internet posts — or by word of mouth.
For instance, people in Africa have a perception of what America or the Western world is like, and people in America have views and perceptions about Africa and other parts of the world. In many cases, the perceptions are outward generalizations, not based on the entire picture. I remember that when I first came to the United States a friend of mine (an African from Tanzania) and I were having dinner with an older American friend who probably had never been to Africa. In the restaurant, there was a sporting event showing on TV. The older American asked us if we had TV in Africa. My friend and I looked at each other and smiled. We assured him that we did. The question was embarrassingly funny to us because we thought he should know better. On the other hand, it reminded me of how ignorant we all can be sometimes, based on things we hear about others. His idea of Africa is probably of one “country” where people sleep in trees and dine with animals. Of course, movies and books can influence the development of such stereotypes.
But this is not a problem of people in the Western world alone. Many of us from outside America, from Africa, have our own different kinds of stereotypes about America and the Western world. Before coming to the U.S. I had heard that religion is dead in America, that the U.S. has all empty churches because Americans are not religious. Although Africans see America as a land of opportunity for the privileged, those who go to America are mostly portrayed in our African movies as people who will likely end up immoral. You hear statements such as “America has spoiled him.” In most cases, parts of the story are presented as the whole story.
However, after spending many years in America and traveling to many other countries, I have come to see how wrong we can all be in our perceptions of other people. I have been in the U.S for about 12 years, and 10 of these years I have spent in ministry in the Catholic Diocese of Dallas. I have served in five parishes, and in all these communities I have seen people and their faith that defied the stereotype that Americans are not religious. Although I cannot see the hearts of men, I can assess their external goodwill. My experience has shown me men and women of faith that strive to serve their God and are wholly dedicated to their faith. In the diocese of Dallas, for instance, churches are full, not empty; parishes are created, not closed; people are in the confession line for hours, not minutes. Holy hour and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament are carried out consistently on a daily or weekly basis in parishes of this diocese. I have served in parishes that have five to eight weekend Masses, many of them filled to capacity, with attendance of four to six thousand, and even more in some parishes. Some parishes celebrate several daily Masses, and the sick, both at home and in the hospital, request visits from a priest. These are signs of a vibrant, not a dying, Church. This does not feel like the America I had heard about, where people don’t go to church or seek God. Granted that this experience may not cut across all America, it’s still good to remember that the stereotype of America is not entirely true, just as the stereotype of Africa is also not completely true. This just makes clear to us the inaccuracy of stereotypes.
I write this article to appraise the great faith and religious life of parishioners in the diocese of Dallas. I see faith and a desire to serve God in the many parishioners I have worked with. In all the parishes I have served — St. Michael the Archangel, Garland; St. Joseph, Richardson; St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, Plano; St. Anthony, Wylie; and hopefully now in my new assignment at St. Gabriel, McKinney — I have met parishioners whose example of faith and dedication to the church fill me with enormous gratitude and blessings. Even as a priest, the example of faith of many of these parishioners has enriched my life. And I believe the same can be said of other parishes.
The COVID-19 pandemic has truly tested our faith and stretched our beliefs — so many questions are still unanswered. I never expected in my lifetime to see a Sunday when the churches would be shut down completely, but this year we have all seen months of this. This is a kind of history that no authentic Christian wants to see repeated.
As we begin, gradually, to open our churches, I want to admonish all the people of God to let this time of “sheltering in” — as difficult as it has been for our spiritual lives — bring to us, even more, an intense desire for God in our lives. I remember giving communion to a parishioner during the intense COVID-19 pandemic lockdown when the Church doors were closed for masses. I saw tears flow from her eyes, tears of joy for being able to receive communion after a long while. I could see how much she missed the Eucharist, as did many people. The pandemic is truly a test of our faith. But as we gradually return to normal church activities, and when all this is over, let’s rekindle the faith that has kept us going all this while, and let’s remain even more resolved to become better Christians and better Catholics. Let the post-pandemic time be even more faith-filled than the pre-pandemic days. COVID-19 can dampen our minds, but it cannot break our faith. I urge you to hold onto your faith — God sees your efforts, and if you persevere you will reap the blessings meant for the persevering children of God.
I will see you in church!
Father Jacob Dankasa is the parochial vicar at St. Gabriel the Archangel Catholic Church in McKinney.