By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
OTTUMWA — Father Frank Bayong of Cameroon has worked with street children in Kenya, AIDS victims in Uganda and war victims in the Congo. Earlier this year, the 37-year-old priest experienced hardship of his own when he was struck with an illness that doctors in his home country could not identify. They declared him legally dead, but “God miraculously intervened and I came round again.”
Granted an extended period of vacation by his bishop, Fr. Frank has spent the last few months in Ottumwa visiting his brother, Benedict, a member of St. Mary of the Visitation Parish. Wanting to continue ministry during his vacation, Fr. Frank approached the parish’s pastor, Father Jim Betzen, C.PP.S., in July about helping the parish and ministering to the large Cameroonian population in Ottumwa.
“There are hundreds of Cameroonians in Ottumwa,” Fr. Frank said. Most of them come to Ottumwa to study at Indian Hills College. Others are looking for work, some are there because of marriage, and others because the cost of living is low. The lack of violence in the community, as well as Ottumwa’s welcoming spirit, also draw people, he said.
After receiving a letter of good standing from his bishop, Fr. Frank began concelebrating weekday and weekend Masses and organizing a Mass for Cameroonian Catholics, celebrated on Fridays at 10 a.m.
Fr. Jim notes that it has been difficult to integrate Catholic Cameroonians into active parish life, so Fr. Frank’s insight and efforts have been a blessing. Fr. Frank said, “I am trying to bring them together in the church so they can take an active part in the liturgy and be part of the larger community.”
Fr. Jim has offered the Cameroonians an opportunity to lead music worship at weekend Masses. In October, parishioners got a taste of how Cameroonian Catholics praise God through song. “It’s very lively. They sway when they sing … almost as if they are dancing while they sing,” Fr. Jim observed.
Fr. Frank thinks the ministry efforts are beginning to bear fruit. The Cameroonians in Ottumwa “are beginning to (feel as if they) belong to the community,” he said.
Meanwhile, Fr. Frank has been inspired by St. Mary’s parishioners, and they are inspired by him. Fr. Frank noted that he was “surprised at the level of enthusiasm and commitment of the people to the things of God. What has struck me here is the fact that the lay people are very committed to the things of God and the life of the church. In Africa, almost everything is left for the priest or religious sister to do. When I arrived in Ottumwa, everyone was greeting me, even when they didn’t yet know I was a priest. … People are always ready to invite you for dinner.”
Members of St. Mary’s adult Bible study have gotten to know Fr. Frank through his participation in the group. “They are impressed with his life,” especially the work he has done with AIDS victims and the fact that he came back to health after a near-death experience, Fr. Jim said. “They think he’s a walking miracle.”
Fr. Frank will return to Cameroon at the end of November. Fr. Jim hopes that the Cameroonian Catholics will continue to feel welcome at St. Mary’s and desire to be involved, even after Fr. Frank leaves. “He has been an asset to the parish,” Fr. Jim said.