The Igbo people, the third largest ethnic group in Nigeria, gather each year to give thanks to God during the fall harvest.
“The harvest is a Catholic tradition in our culture. Generally that’s our Thanksgiving. Our people in the community come to church where there’s an offering,” said Our Lady of the Holy Souls in Little Rock parishioner Hyginus Ukadike, originally from the Imo state in Nigeria. “They bring their offering to God for the provisions they’ve received all year.”
The Igbo (pronounced EE-boo) tradition has stayed strong for the past five years in Little Rock for the roughly 25 Igbo families in central Arkansas, Ukadike said, who has lived in the United States for almost 30 years. For the past couple of years, Ukadike has organized the harvest.
On Sunday, Nov. 18, an Igbo language Mass will be celebrated at St. Augustine Church in North Little Rock at 1 p.m., with an auction and cultural potluck to follow. Everyone is welcome to the free celebration, Ukadike said, adding that “if we have visitors, the officiating pastor, after the sermon in Igbo, he’d say things in English to make our visitors know fully what’s going on.” Father Kevin Atunzu, who is retired in Little Rock, will be the celebrant.
In Nigeria, people bring their offerings to the parish altar before sunrise to make sure it’s a “gift from the heart,” so others do not see, Ukadike said. The offerings can vary and often stem from whatever profession a person follows — for example, a farmer may bring crops and a carpenter might bring some of his best logs. People often bring livestock and all offerings are blessed during the Mass.
Dr. Joseph Onyilagha, an associate professor in the biology department at the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff, who organized the first harvest locally, said customs have also modernized in his home country and many bring money.
But in the early days of the harvest, Onyilagha said because most people were farmers and could not donate much money on a regular basis, the harvest allowed them to still contribute to the Church.
“After the Mass of thanksgiving that day, the offerings are sold in auction to the community and the money you raise … goes to church for social involvements, charity,” Ukadike said. “The members of the church would bring food, just like a potluck, spread out and eat and drink as the auction goes on.”
Onyilagha, who came to the United States in 2005 and attends St. Augustine Church, said he started the festival in Little Rock about five years ago to not only keep the tradition alive, but pass it along to the children. Both Onyilagha and Ukadike said their wives and adult children, if they are in town, attend the harvest.
“It’s for our children to actually know how we worship in Nigeria so they know the tradition of the Catholic Church,” Onyilagha said. “… Seeing them participate in the harvest, it gives me fulfillment that we are handing over the baton so they know how things are done. So if they go home it will not be strange to them.”
In past years, the harvest has been held at the African Heritage House in Little Rock (see sidebar), but due to renovations, all festivities will be held at St. Augustine.
Those attending are encouraged to bring a gift to the 1 p.m. Mass and set it on the altar, Ukadike said.
Following Mass, traditional Nigerian food will be served and all items blessed during Mass will be up for auction. Money raised goes to the church, including for visiting priests who celebrate Igbo Masses and a donation is made to the diocesan annual appeal CASA in the name of the Igbo community.
Onyilagha said he hopes in the future that the Igbo community will have a resident priest to celebrate Mass more than once a month, which is currently done at St. Augustine.
There are roughly 100 Igbo families scattered throughout Arkansas, and Ukadike said while they may not all go to the same parish, having the harvest “binds everyone closer together.”
“It makes you know who you are. Coming together as a Catholic family, to show that unity,” he said. “If one person in the community is having a difficult time, we know about it. This is where we say, ‘What can we do to assist?’”
Please read our Comments Policy before posting.Article comments powered by Disqus