By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
OSKALOOSA — A group of African students, dressed in traditional costume sang an offertory hymn in their native tongue at St. Mary Parish in Oskaloosa. Father Jeffry Belger, the pastor, didn’t understand the language, but based on their passionate delivery and gently swaying bodies, he said he didn’t need to. “I knew they were praising God.”
Students from the African country of Rwanda have been a fixture at St. Mary for several years as nearby William Penn University hosts an international student program. Rwanda is about 50 percent Catholic. During warmer months groups of four or five students regularly walk to Mass.
Seeing an opportunity to make the parish more inviting and accessible, Fr. Belger spoke to parishioners about 18 months ago, encouraging them to offer the Rwandan students rides and fellowship. Since his call to action, attendance by Rwandan students has tripled at weekend Masses. Perry Thostenson, who helps transport students alongside his wife De, said the students regularly fill two or three cars.
Rwandan student Christian Uwimana said he worried about finding a Catholic church to attend in the United States and considers the transportation and welcoming atmosphere both a blessing and a relief. “It has been a great experience to be part of a community not only with whom you share the same faith but also which is always ready to welcome new people.”
The students have become involved in the parish singing, lectoring and sharing information about their culture during talks at St. Mary’s Café series. Additionally, parishioners who work at William Penn were able to secure a school bus to take the African students to Christ our Life Conference in Des Moines this past summer. While there, the students met speaker Immaculee Illabagiza, a Rwandan genocide survivor and author.
Student Pacis Innocent Bana said he appreciates the opportunity to share fellowship in a common faith and teach Americans about Rwanda. It can help ward off the pangs of homesickness. “It feels good and it is really helpful to have people listen to you when (you are) talking about your beloved country which is thousands and thousands of miles away.”
Student Clarisse Mucyo said the Mass is prayed basically the same in Rwanda as in Iowa, but due to cultural norms in Rwanda “we show more joy, we have time to dance, clap hands, (and be) more dynamic.” Bana said Mass can last two hours.
Fr. Belger said the parish enjoyed getting a taste of a Rwandan Mass on Nov. 23. He plans to offer the students future opportunities. Mucyo said, “We are blessed to be in a community that encourages us.”
Even when they participate in what they consider to be a more-subdued worship, Thostenson said the Rwandans still show “great joy” during Mass. They may not dance, but “you can see it in their face. They smile with their eyes!”
Fr. Belger said the Rwandan students’ involvement at St. Mary has helped the parish gain a broader scope of not only the world, but Catholicism, as well. “(Catholics) are everywhere. The fact that they are temporarily here with us gives us a larger sense of who we are. They’re Catholic, we’re Catholic, and we’re united in that faith.”
Rwanda is located in central Africa and is home to about 12 million people. Kinyearwanda is the official language. About half of Rwandans are Catholic (2002 census). The country has been in a state of rehabilitation since the 1994 genocide. Poverty rates are on a steady decline. Rwandan William Penn University student Christian Uwimana said, “Rwanda is a beautiful country …People are very friendly.”