In summer 2016, a parish priest in Ndongosi, Tanzania, told his parishioners that three Americans soon would visit their small, remote village.
They would be the guests of the Rev. Augustine Gama, a priest of the Archdiocese of Songea in southern Tanzania who came to Omaha several years ago to study at Creighton University. He’s now on loan to the Archdiocese of Omaha as the associate pastor of Mary Our Queen Catholic Church.
Villagers were skeptical about the visit. History had taught them well — no one could recall an American ever stopping in their town. Benedictine missionaries had been serving the region over the years, but they were primarily from Europe.
“They aren’t coming,” parishioners told their priest.
But those three Americans, all priests, did show up. And their trip — along with Gama’s advocacy for his home diocese — will have a lasting impact on at least two poverty-ravished parishes in that country of 55 million people.
Two Omaha Catholic churches, St. Leo and Mary Our Queen, now have “sister parish” relationships with the Ndongosi church and a nearby parish. Similar mission work in Africa is common among both Catholic and Protestant churches, but this is the first such partnership between Omaha parishes and churches in Gama’s archdiocese.
“The people need a sister parish to encourage spiritual growth, to encourage economic growth,” Gama said. “Most live on less than a dollar a day.”
Priests who joined Gama on the trip to Tanzania were the Rev. Craig Loecker, pastor of St. Leo, the Rev. Bill Safranek, pastor of St. Bridget-St. Rose and St. Francis of Assisi, all in Omaha, and the Rev. Marcus Knecht, associate pastor of St. Patrick in O’Neill.
Loecker said the trip was life-changing. The village’s people were warm and joyful despite extreme hardship (it’s one of the poorest locations in the country). They found a place in his heart, and he knew his parish had to help them.
From conversations with Gama, Loecker was prepared for conditions in the village: no running water or electricity; simple diets of rice, beans and maize; no paved roads or cars, just motorcycles. No jobs to speak of — people get along by growing their own food, raising animals and bartering goods and services.
He took along a $1,500 gift from St. Leo for the Ndongosi parish, and was amazed at the response.
“They were quite happy. They fell at my feet and rolled on the ground. Father (Gama) said that’s an expression of joy.”
St. Leo has raised additional funds, bolstered by a $6,000 gift from a parishioner. Money has gone toward repairing a cracked altar floor in the Ndongosi church and supporting seminarians, including a clean water project for the seminary. Priests in the Archdiocese of Songea serve numerous parishes and must walk to each for Sunday Mass and make other trips during the week, so both St. Leo and Mary Our Queen also want to raise money to buy a vehicle for their “sisters.”
A call from Archbishop George Lucas several years ago created momentum toward the Tanzania trip, though none of the parties knew it at the time. Gama needed a place to live while attending Creighton, and Lucas knew Loecker — then pastor of St. Philip Neri in north Omaha — had room. It was perfect for the African priest because he could catch a bus outside the church on North 30th Street and ride directly to classes.
Despite a major culture gap and sharing a house for only six months, the two men became close friends. Loecker helped Gama adapt — the African man knew nothing about cooking or using an automatic washer and dryer. He also asked if he could drink faucet water because all water in his village must be boiled before use.
Gama acknowledged that he found American customs and appliances strange, but he said his biggest adjustment after Tanzania’s temperate climate was Omaha’s bitter winters.
And, he said with a grin, “to have less than five minutes for homilies is hard for me.”
Loecker had generously shared his culture with Gama — they even visited the Loecker family farm near Hartington, Nebraska — and Gama was eager to share his homeland with his brother priest. He started to ask Loecker to accompany him to Tanzania about eight years ago. After saving for the expensive trip, Loecker was ready to go last year. Safranek and Knecht asked if they could tag along.
The reception they received in the village was amazing and gratifying, especially for Loecker. It was the 25th anniversary of his priesthood, and as a surprise, Gama organized a special Mass and reception at Ndongosi for the event. Four African priests, including the vicar general of the archdiocese, celebrated the service with the four visitors from America. Gama told him 20 minutes before the service started.
Even with limited resources, the villagers threw a wonderful party.
“They brought us cake, chicken, beer and champagne,” Loecker said.
And when they presented him with gifts — a dollar bill, livestock or produce, ceremonial dances — it was humbling.
“They’re giving everything they have,” he said.
In the village, Gama explained, the parish is not just church. It’s home. Masses draw crowds, though getting there isn’t easy. When the Americans attended a 6:30 a.m. service at the Cathedral in Songea, about 1,000 worshipers were there, yet the parking lot was empty. Gama said the villagers expressed their love of the church through the anniversary celebration.
“They prepared a feast for someone they’d never seen before,” he said.
Inspired, Loecker gave presentations about Tanzania at St. Leo when he came home and established the sister parish program. He plans to include information about the project in Sunday bulletins, hopes to start a letter-writing exchange between people from St. Leo and Ndongosi and will correspond with the Ndongosi pastor about needs.
He also wants to organize a group of laypeople to coordinate the project so it will live long after he’s transferred to another parish. He’s about halfway through his current assignment.
That sort of group already is in place at Mary Our Queen, where they created a sister relationship with the Ligera parish in Gama’s archdiocese last October. Committee members already have reached out to parishioners who expressed an interest in helping. They’re having a second collection earmarked for Tanzania later this month and Mary Our Queen School will have a “penny war” fundraiser during Catholic Schools Week. Proceeds from a silent auction item at the church’s annual gala also will go toward the cause.
Mary Our Queen sister parish coordinator Katie Sommer said the committee has had several small group discussions about Tanzania in private homes and had an all-church information night about the project in late December.
Providing material aid is important, but it’s not the overall goal of the program, she said.
“The main purpose of the committee is not really to give them things but to form a partnership of solidarity, a cultural and spiritual exchange,” Sommer said. “We want to give them our hearts and give them our friendship.”
For his part, Loecker wants to return to Tanzania in 2019 and take some St. Leo parishioners with him. This time, he wants to further immerse himself and his travel companions in the culture, staying with families in their homes and experiencing their day-to-day life. The trip could change the parishioners’ viewpoints and even their lives, much as his first journey to Africa changed his.
He admits he was apprehensive about the trip. How would he survive without familiar foods, his comfy bed, computers and other creature comforts? For two weeks, he would have no television and no idea what was going on in the world.
Those worries turned out to be unnecessary. It was freeing to live in a news-free environment, and enlightening to witness the deep faith and joy of his Tanzanian hosts despite their lack of modern conveniences. He realized he had been taking some things for granted.
“It made me aware of the abundance that I have, and that sometimes, I can be wasteful,” he said.