For me, Black History Month is not only about celebrating the contributions of my fellow Black Canadians, it is about remembering the impact that the enslavement of Black peoples has had on Africa and the world. It’s about building on the strengths of the Black community in Ottawa by working across the socio-economic, religious, ethno-cultural, and linguistic differences of the diversity of individuals who make up our community. It’s about examining how anti-Black racism still exists within Canadian society and recommitting myself to challenging it by trying to understand why it persists and how it affects my life and the lives of my fellow Black Canadians.
This year, I was honoured to be invited to speak about youth engagement through arts and media at the launch of Black History Month at the City of Ottawa and I was humbled to be presented with a Community Builder Award by Black History Ottawa. For me, Black History Month has definitely started out with a bang.
I have been asked by Muslim Link to write a piece commemorating Black History Month. I feel obligated to take this opportunity to admit something: I often find it frustrating to be around Muslims during Black History Month. Why? Because, although there is often a celebration of Black converts to Islam, like Malcolm X, and condemnation of the Transatlantic Slave Trade perpetrated by the West, there is little, if any, examination of the history of slavery in Muslim societies or of the persistence of anti-Black racism within these societies as well as within Muslim communities in Canada. The reality is I have faced more blatant anti-Black racism from my fellow Muslims than I ever did growing up in a predominantly White community.
Anti-Black racism, which includes beliefs that Blacks are inherently less intelligent, more violent, lazier, dirtier, uglier and more sexually promiscuous than other races, is just as prevalent within Muslim societies as it is in the West, if not more so, because there have not been similar movements, such as the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement, aimed at combatting these prejudices, within Muslim societies.
Unfortunately, although Muslims will often cite the Quran and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, to demonstrate that racism is condemned in Islam, there isn’t really an examination of whether Muslims over the course of their history actually stuck to these beliefs.
It is important for Muslims to look deeper at their particular societies of origin in order to see how the enslavement of Black peoples in these societies has led to the development of anti-Black racism. For example, the fact that in several Arab dialects the word ‘abd, meaning slave, is used to refer to any Black person demonstrates that in these societies the equation of Black people with slaves still persists.
To read the my complete article visit Muslim Link
Arab Views of Black Africans and Slavery by John Hunwick (academic essay available online)
Religions and the abolition of slavery – a comparative approach by William G. Clarence-Smith (academic essay available online)
Islam and Slavery by William G. Clarence-Smith (academic essay available online)
Islamic Abolitionism in the Western Indian Ocean from c. 1800 by William G. Clarence‐Smith (academic essay available online)
“Slaves of One Master:” Globalization and the African Diaspora in Arabia in the Age of Empire by Matthew S. Hopper (academic essay available online)
Straight, No Chaser: Slavery, Abolition, and the Modern Muslim Mind by Bernard K. Freamon (academic essay available online)
Oxford African American Studies Center: Middle East Page
Race and Slavery in the Middle East Histories of Trans-Saharan Africans in Nineteenth-Century Egypt, Sudan, and the Ottoman Empire (American University Press in Cairo) Review by Gamal Nkrumah available online
Slavery and South Asian History (Indiana University Press)
Thelma Oliver was a dancer and actress who in the mid to late 1960s was making her mark on Broadway and on US film history in director Sidney Lumet’s film The Pawnbroker. Then she started studying yoga and became Krishna Kaur. This is her story.
Oliver was born in Los Angeles, California in 1941. Her father, Cappy Oliver, played trumpet with Lionel Hampton’s band and her mother sang before settling down to raise five children. Oliver studied dance at the Jeni LeGon School and later majored in Drama and Theatre Arts at UCLA. Then in 1961 Oliver made the fateful decision to drop out of school and head East with the song and dance show Kicks and Company. However, the show was not a success and closed in Chicago after only four performances. Oliver found temporary work as a typist in New York and kept her Broadway dreams alive. Oliver’s New York stage debut was off-Broadway in Jean Genet’s The Blacks, where she starred as Virtue along with Lou Gossett Jr as Edgar She played the role of Virtue off and on for two years. She also had the opportunity to star in a one-woman show on CBS Repertory Theatre.
With her small role as “Ortiz’ Girl” in Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker, Oliver, ended up making movie history in 1964. The Pawnbroker, based on the novel by Jewish American writer Edward Lewis Wallant, stars Rod Steiger as Sol Nazerman, a bitter pawnbroker in East Harlem who lost his family in the Holocaust. This is actually the first Hollywood film to deal with the Holocaust and its psychological impact on those who survived it. Oliver stars as a prostitute who is also the girlfriend of Nazerman’s Puerto Rican employee Jesus Ortiz. Desperate for money, she offers herself to Nazerman, taking off her clothes and appearing bare-breasted. This was the first time this had EVER occurred in a mainstream Hollywood production. Seeing her naked, Nazerman ends up having flashbacks to his wife being raped by Nazi prison camp guards. He ends up covering “Ortiz’ Girl” with a raincoat and gives her $20. Because the film was dealing with the issue of the Holocaust and its impact, this scene was able to get by the censors because the nakedness was deemed to be integral to the story. It was the first film to get a Motion Picture Association of America Production Code seal of approval that showed bare breasts. The film was scored by the legendary Quincy Jones.
Oliver’s big break came when she landed the role of Helene opposite Gwen Verdon in the Broadway hit Sweet Charity. Oliver auditioned in 1965 for the role only five weeks after surgery to have a tumor removed. The character of Helene is a close friend of the show’s main character Charity; both women work as “hostesses” in the Fan Dango taxi dancehall. Interestingly, the role of Helene is “non-racial”, meaning that it is not specified that she is a Black character. In October 1966, Ebony Magazine published an article about Oliver entitled New Girl on Broadway. The magazine describes her performance as Helene as follows:
Thelma cavorts, smiles, sings, and dances her way through the show, always bubbling with a humourous philosophy that overshadows the sordidness of life.
According to Oliver: “Sweet Charity has been good to me and has changed my life in a wonderful way.” In the September 1966 edition of Jet Magazine, Oliver, when asked about the future of Black actors in the theatre states:
It is certain that as the role of the Negro changes in society, so much it change in the theatre. For the theatre is merely a reflection of society. I feel that the main enemy of the Negro in theatre is fear. Not his fear but the white man’s fear-fear of losing the ‘dollar’. Therefore, I believe the real future of the Negro in the theatre lies in the hands of Negro producers. Negro producers who will take a chance and exploit potentially great Negro talent. Not to just utilize the Negroes who have already been accepted as great, but all of the Negroes out here bubbling over with talent who haven’t had a chance to express themselves.
Oliver would go on to organize a production of Sweet Charity with eight inmates of New York’s Women’s House of Detention, after having only five hours of rehearsal. The women put on a performance of the show for adolescent inmates who were finishing their year at the institution in 1967. But Oliver’s future would not lie with showbiz. In the Ebony Magazine article New Girl on Broadway, it mentions that Oliver studies yoga philosophy. In September 1975, Ebony Magazine published the article Yoga: Something for Everyone, which took a look at how various Black celebrities, including Herbie Hancock and Angela Davis, were embracing yoga and various other Eastern philosophies. This article focused on Thelma Oliver, who by then had changed her name to Krishna Kaur. Kaur, meaning “Princess” is the mandatory last name for female Sikhs after Amrit (Sikh Baptism).
Krishna Kaur studied yoga under the tutelage of Yogi Bhajan, a Sikh from India’s Punjab who had established 3HO (Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization) in Los Angeles where he taught Kundalini Yoga. Many of Yogi Bhajan’s American students, including African-Americans like Thelma Oliver, began to convert to Sikhism after observing with admiration the way of life of the Yogi. This would eventually lead to the development of the Sikh Dharma Movement. Yogi Bhajan particularly felt that yoga would be beneficial for African-Americans. In the 1975 Ebony article he says:
Outer help cannot help the handicapped and we’ve got to start admitting that the Black community is handicapped. My personal feeling is that the entire community should check it out.
Krishna Kaur began running the Guru Ramdas Ashram (school) in central Los Angeles, teaching Kundalini Yoga. She also began doing work in the community, sharing the practice of yoga with inner-city students. In the 1975 Ebony article there is a striking picture on page 96 showing Krishna Kaur teaching yoga to students at South Central’s John C. Fremont High School. In the article, Krishna Kaur rejects militant Black activism and states:
The revolution is really one of the mind. Blacks have got to realize where the power really is. The struggle is not on a physical level. It is on the level of the mind.
Krishna Kaur has continued her work bringing yoga to inner-city schools with the creation of the Yoga for Youth. Krishna Kaur describes the work of Yoga for Youth, as well as her own spiritual transformation in the following article posted on lifebyme:
My life changed during the late 60s, just as my career as a performing artist was about to take off. At that time, the Vietnam war was raging, the U.S. Civil Rights struggle had peaked, and more Third World and African Countries were gaining independence from European domination. I was excited about my growing fame in New York – I was in a big Broadway hit, a major film, and a one-woman TV show. However, something else was unfolding inside me at the same time.
I began to feel another calling, outside of the theater, a calling which pulled hard at my psyche. The internal voices continued to drown out my usual excitement about performing. After several months of internal struggle and fear, I learned how to slow down the incessant mental chatter so I could hear the voice in my heart telling me that my true purpose in life was to serve my people in a meaningful way. As Shakespeare wrote, “All the world’s a stage.” So I took my love of theater to the streets and began to teach yoga and meditation to kids on the playground, adults recovering from drug and alcohol addictions, gang members, and high school students throughout the Watts area in South Los Angeles.
Every day for the past 40 years, I’ve woken up excited to bring the art and science of Kundalini Yoga to people struggling to make sense out of life – good people, young people, people who have been discarded by mainstream society. They motivate me to get up every morning, enthusiastic about teaching, training, and nurturing them to experience who they really are. My work fulfills me. It gives me hope for the future of humanity and makes me optimistic about stepping into the challenges of these times.
Teaching urban youth through my non-profit Organization, YOGA for Youth, is the most gratifying part of my life. Our youth have every right to be healthy, happy, and productive in their lives. Yet many of them have inherited an environment that doesn’t support such longings. By teaching and training other yoga teachers to reach this very special population, I help plant seeds of greatness that will feed this country and the world, for many generations. When I see the light come on in the eyes of a young person, I know their life will be changed forever. That is worth living for, and that is what keeps me getting up in the morning.
Krishna Kaur is now a world-renowned as a yoga teacher with over 40 years of experience. In 1998, she established the International Association of Black Yoga Teachers which aims to promote the practice of yoga within the Black diaspora, with a particular focus on its power for social transformation. Through the work of this association, she has begun projects in Africa educating locals as Kundalini Yoga teachers. A video of her work in Ghana in 2005 is available online (starting at 4:24 min) as well as a video of actor and Kundalini Yoga student Forest Whitaker sharing a message of support for Krishna Kaur’s work.
In 2000, Krishna Kaur was interviewed for Yoga Journal. In the article Yoga in Black and White, Krishna Kaur addresses the challenge of making yoga relevant for Black people:
“How is yoga going to put food on my table or keep the police from going upside my head?” -these were the kind of questions we were constantly faced with when we first started reaching out to the black community in 1971. But we knew that yoga could help our young people see reality, live reality and find out where their power was, so that they were not always just reacting to their life situations.
I find the remarkable journey of Krishna Kaur (formerly Thelma Oliver) fascinating and a great example of spiritual transformation.
Woyingi Blogger’s Note: This post would not have been possible if I didn’t decide to google “black sikh” one day because I was interested to know if there were any Black converts to the religion of Sikhism.
New Girl on Broadway (Ebony Magazine, October 1966, p. 52) available online from Google Books
New York Beat (Jet Magazine, July 27th 1967, p.62) available from Google Books
Yoga: Something for Everyone (Ebony Magazine, September 1975, p. 96) available online from Google Books
Yoga in Black and White (Yoga Journal, September-October 2000, p. 105) available online from Google Books
Yoga for Youth by Krishna Kaur article available online
Krishna Kaur’s Website
Yoga for Youth’s Website
International Association of Black Yoga Teachers’ Website
Video of Krishna Kaur’s 2005 Trip to Ghana available online (starting at 4:24min)
Video of Forest Whitaker discussing Krishna Kaur’s work available online
Video Interview (2009) with Krishna Kaur available online
Last week, I had the chance to listen to Don Letts’ BBC Radio 4’s Documentary about the life and work of Peter Tosh.
Here’s the description:
Peter Tosh found international fame alongside Bob Marley as a member of The Wailers. As a solo artist he released several landmark reggae albums and even recorded with the Rolling Stones. But he was more than just a successful pop star: he was a revolutionary and a hero to many of Jamaica’s poor. He spent his life as a strident campaigner for civil rights and for the legalisation of marijuana. He was more militant and political than his former band mate and his uncompromising arrogance often landed him in serious trouble. For that reason, as this documentary reveals, his life could be as brutal as the way it ended. Grammy award winning film-maker Don Letts explores his career.
The documentary opens with excerpts from interviews with people who knew Peter Tosh:
Peter Tosh was the Malcolm X to Bob Marley’s Martin Luther King. One was the arouser and one was the healer. But Peter was much more on the side of militancy. (Roger Steffens, Reggae Historian)
His songs have been recorded by Eric Clapton, Peter Gabriel, Jackson Brown, Ben Harper, Chrissie Hynes from the Pretenders, Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, Sinnead O’Connor. (Wayne Jobson, DJ and producer)
Peter was adored as a revolutionary in Jamaica. He was so charismatic and he was saying very much what the people thought. (Vivien Goldman, Journalist)
Don Letts’ opens the documentary with the following statement:
Peter Tosh was not your average rockstar and as a person you probably won’t even like him. He could be arrogant, unpleasant and intimidating. But for me he was also a completely awe-inspiring performer, a revolutionary who stood up for the equal rights of the Jamaican poor and Black people all over the world. They always call Bob Marley the Reggae Rebel but Peter Tosh was far more militant and political than Bob ever was. His uncompromising attitude often caused controversy and landed him in serious trouble and as you will hear his life could sometimes be as brutal as the way it ended.
As Bob Marley archivist Roger Steffens states:
He made a guitar out of wire and a sardine can and taught himself to play by watching an older man who actually had a guitar.
According to Jamaican-American Wayne Johnson, producer of the documentary Red X, about Peter Tosh:
I think with him growing up in Jamaica during the colonial days in the 50s and so it was you know as Peter said you never saw a Black school teacher, or a Black preacher or a Black bank manager or anything like it was all English people who came down and took the big jobs and therefore you know eventually you would want to rebel against this especially with the church where he was forced to go to church two, three times a week and every day he was singing “O Lord wash me and I’ll be as white as snow.” You can’t oppress anybody worse than that you know and so Peter said it was almost like apartheid in those days.
In a 1983 BBC Interview, Peter Tosh explains:
I was the first one in the group who played music. I used to play my guitar. I used to play the keyboards. I taught Bob to play guitar and I taught Bunny to play guitar because it was a part of making your music perfect see. And in those times is like we had a good voice but we wasn’t creating music that music that much it was just singing people song and singing people son and the people been telling us that we sound good why don’t go to the studio so we got together once and we did some recording recorded the first one which was Simmer Down and the people loved it. It sold well.
As Vivien Goldman explains:
I don’t think I’ve ever had as many arguments with anybody in my life as I did with Peter Tosh.I remember once I was interviewing him, he was like “Women are inferior to men!” I was like “Why is that?” you know “Oh look at the docks , if you go down to the docks a woman can’t pick up a heavy bag and carry it the same way a man can.” And there was you know there was quite embedded in Rasta certain things for women their period was regarded to be unclean but he was really into it “Oh!!!!” you know “ Are you having your period? Should you be in the room with me know?” I was like excuse me, I’m here as a working professional matey.
The Guardian’s Review of Arise Black Man The Peter Tosh Story by Elisabeth Mahoney
Roger Steffens’ Reggae Archives Website
Vivien Goldman’s Blog
The many voices of Rastafarian women : sexual subordination in the midst of liberation by O. Lake (essay available online)
November is Black Catholic History Month. In 1990, during their convention at Fordham University in New York, the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus of the United States voted to establish November as Black Catholic History Month. November was chosen because of the number of important dates to the World’s Black Catholics that fall within this month. These dates are as follows:
November 1st: All Saints’ Day, an opportunity to review the lives of the hundreds of Saints of African descent in the first 300 years of the Church.
November 2nd: All Souls Day: a time to remember all those African lost to cruel treatment in the Middle Passage crossing of the Atlantic Ocean.
November 3rd: Feast of St. Martin de Porres, the only Saint of African descent in the Western hemisphere
November 13th: The birth of St. Augustine in 354 A.D., the first Doctor of the Church from North Africa.
November 20th: The death of Zumbi of Palmares in Brazil, a symbol of African resistance to Portuguese slavery for Afro-Brazilians.
It is estimated that there are approximately 270 million Catholics of African descent throughout the world. They represent almost 25% of the World’s one billion Roman Catholics.
There are an estimated 141 million Roman Catholics in Africa, with the largest communities in Nigeria (34 million), the Democratic Republic of Congo (28 million), Tanzania (10 million), and Uganda (10 million). The tallest Catholic Church is actually in the Ivory Coast, Our Lady of Peace Basilica of Yamoussoukro, which stands at 518 feet tall.
This text is important for several reasons. First, it chronicles the conversion of the first Black person in recorded Christian history. Second, the text suggests that the man was a wealthy, literate, and powerful emissary of the Nubian Queen and also a faithful, practicing Jew prior to his baptism. Clearly, he was not an ignorant heathen. Third, the Ethiopian Eunuch’s conversion predates the conversions of Saints Paul and Cornelius. Most significantly, many cite this conversion as the very moment when the church changed from a Hebrew and Hellenist community to the truly Universal and Catholic Church.
In the United States, there are 1300 Black Catholic Parishes, with 250 African American Priests and 300 African American Sisters. There are currently 13 Black Bishops in the US. The first Black Seminary in the US was established in St. Augustine Seminary in Greenville, Mississippi. In 1958, American Bishops declared that racism was immoral.
According to Father Cyprian Davis O.S.B., it is important for Black Catholics to know their history. He states:
Black Catholics want a sense of being Catholic, especially if they are converts; but they don’t want to be cut off from their roots. They desperately need and want a sense of identity. So many were not able to tell their children about what it means to be black Catholics or about black saints or black priests. But now they have that background information, and they can use it. They have a good reason to be Catholic and to be proud of it and not feel they have given up being black.
According to Davis, many African Americans have left the Roman Catholic Church. He explains:
…I think part of it was because the church probably didn’t have the personnel to minister to the blacks and also because the church tended to be racist. Louisiana, however, was a special case. Archbishop Francis Janssens of New Orleans was committed to the cause of blacks and the idea of a black clergy. He began to establish black parishes in the late 19th century. Later it became the law to provide blacks with their own parishes.
After the civil-rights movement started, bishops in the South began to open parishes so that everyone could attend the same church. What that meant most of the time, though, was that the black churches were closed down. What no one realized was that a whole infrastructure of parish life among black Catholics was being dismantled. When the black church was closed and the parishioners were told, “You’re now to go to the regular church,” there was really no place for them. In their own churches they had formed a choir, been the chief ushers and part of the council, had a place to play, and a vital social life; and now suddenly it was gone. White parishes had no place for them.
Roman Catholic History in the United States is troubling for African Americans because the vast majority of Roman Catholics supported slavery and were in opposition to its abolition. Father Davis explains:
The abolitionists opposed slavery on moral grounds and were usually very religious, well-educated people coming from establishment backgrounds. Yet many had an intellectual disdain for the Catholic Church. They often saw Catholics as lower-class immigrants with a bigoted religion, so Roman Catholics in this country saw the abolitionists as their enemy.
There were, however, other reasons for church support of slavery, one of which was exemplified by Archbishop Martin Spalding, who was the bishop of Louisville at the time of the Civil War and later became the archbishop of Baltimore. Spalding wrote a letter to the Vatican and explained his own version of the sociopolitical situation in America at the time. Though he talked about slavery as an evil, he said it would be worse to free the slaves because they would end up becoming drunkards or homeless people. Yet later, as archbishop of Baltimore, Spalding was the one bishop concerned about what to do with the freed slaves and really made an effort to begin evangelization.
The opposition to slavery that existed wasn’t organized, even among Catholics. The first bishop in the country who really took a public stand in support of the Union and the emancipation of slaves was Archbishop John Purcell of Cincinnati, who, along with his brother, decried slavery at the outbreak of the Civil War. Later, however, Purcell met his downfall because Cincinnati became bankrupt and bishops were not happy that Purcell broke ranks.
Another outspoken Catholic abolitionist was Irish statesman Daniel O’Connell. Out of religious conviction, O’Connell saw slavery as a great evil. He castigated the Irish in America who were sending him money to fight for Irish emancipation from English rule while supporting slavery in the U.S. O’Connell sat in the British Parliament with his enemies who were opposed to religious freedom in Ireland and Irish rights, but he worked with them to end slavery in the British West Indies.
Claude Maistre, a French priest originally from the Diocese of Troyes in France, who worked a while in the Chicago area and ended up in New Orleans at the time of the Civil War, also took a very strong stand against slavery. In fact, the archbishop told him to stop preaching against slavery, but he refused. Ultimately, he put Maistre’s church under interdict to get him to stop.
By and large, the Catholic opposition against slavery, however, was found more firmly in Europe than in the United States.
American Catholic seminaries and university were some of the last academic institutions in the US to admit Black students. The first African American Priest who identified as Black was Father Augustus Tolton, who was ordained in 1886 in Rome because no American seminary would accept him. He established the Saint Monica Catholic Church in Chicago.
Father Tolton was raised as a Catholic by his parents who were slaves. According to Father Davis:
His mother, Martha Chisely Tolton, was a Catholic slave from Kentucky who became part of the dowry of a young lady who married and move to Missouri. Martha married a slave named Peter Paul Tolton, who was also a Catholic. They had three children; Augustus was the second. When Peter died, Martha decided to leave the plantation with her children and cross the Mississippi River at Hannibal and go to Quincy in Illinois, which was a free state.
Martha was very insistent that her children get a Catholic education, despite being treated very badly by the Catholics. Two priests in Quincy, One German and one Irish, befriended Augustus. He then decided he wanted to become a priest, and the two priests tried to find a seminary for him, but they really couldn’t; no one would accept this young man who was black. The German priest joined the Franciscans and through one of the Franciscans there in Quincy, Tolton was able to take courses at Quincy College. Eventually the minister general of the Franciscans arranged for him to go to Rome and become a seminarian at the Urban College. It was almost like a fairy tale.
Tolton was supposed to go to Africa after he was ordained. When the time came, however, the cardinal prefect said that America was a great nation and needed to see a black priest. So he sent Tolton back to the U.S.
It was a triumphant return, and the whole city of Quincy was there for his first Mass. But after he started work as a pastor of a parish, there was a racial conflict between another priest and him. Tolton almost had a nervous breakdown. He was not at all assertive and wanted to leave the diocese. Tolton never told the cardinal prefect back in Rome what was happening; and when word did get back to the cardinal prefect, he was very upset. Luckily for Tolton, Archbishop Patrick Feehan of Chicago wanted to have a black priest, so Tolton was sent there and formed the black parish of St. Monica’s.
In 1987, Pope John Paul II addressed the Black Catholic community of New Orleans. He stated:
I express my deep love and esteem for the black Catholic community in the United States. Its vitality is a sign of hope for society. Composed as you are of many lifelong Catholics, and many who have more recently embraced the faith, together with a growing immigrant community, you reflect the Church’s ability to bring together a diversity of people united in faith, hope and love, sharing a communion with Christ in the Holy Spirit. I urge you to keep alive and active your rich cultural gifts. Always profess proudly before the whole Church and the whole world your love for God’s word; it is a special blessing which you must for ever treasure as a part of your heritage. Help us all to remember that authentic freedom comes from accepting the truth and from living one’s life in accordance with it – and the full truth is found only in Christ Jesus. Continue to inspire us by your desire to forgive – as Jesus forgave – and by your desire to be reconciled with all the people of this nation, even those who would unjustly deny you the full exercise of your human rights.
My dear brothers and sisters of the black community: it is the hour to give thanks to God for his liberating action in your history and in your lives. This liberating action is a sign and expression of Christ’s Paschal Mystery, which in every age is effective in helping God’s people to pass from bondage into their glorious vocation of full Christian freedom. And as you offer your prayer of thanksgiving, you must not fail to concern yourselves with the plight of your brothers and sisters in other places throughout the world. Black Americans must offer their own special solidarity of Christian love to all people who bear the heavy burden of oppression, whatever its physical or moral nature.
The National Black Catholic Congress’ Website
National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus’ Website
Global Count of Catholics of African Descent, includes a breakdown by country
Interview Father Cyprian Davis O.S.B.
Archdiocese of Chicago Office for Black Catholics Website
Archdiocese of Washington Office of Black Catholics Website
Archdiocese of New Orleans Office of Black Catholic Ministries Website
An African’s gift to the Vatican: the world’s largest church – Felix Houphouet-Boigny, Basilica of Our Lady of Peace by Hans Massaquoi (article available online)
Last year, I had a chance to see the film The Imam and the Pastor about Imam Muhammad Ashafa and Pastor James Wuye, two Nigerians, one Muslim, one Christian, who have been able to put aside their differences and come together to fight communal violence in Northern Nigeria. This film really gives me hope. It is also a great example of what real interreligious dialogue, with a vision towards reconciliation, can achieve. It was also just great seeing a documentary about Nigeria, this place I long to see, where my father lives, but which I have yet to journey to.
According to Imam Ashafa: ‘Religion is a candle to light the house or to burn down the house. It is an energy, and like nuclear energy, it can be used for good or destructive purposes. Our task is to see religion used for positive purposes.’
According to Pastor Wuye, ‘Nigeria is a very religious country. The conflict entrepreneurs use faith as the medium to inspire violence. We’re using faith to de-programme violence.’
I really recommend seeing the film. It premiered at the United Nations in New York and was screened at the House of Commons in the UK.
The following in an excerpt from an interview with Pastor Wuye and Imam Ashafa by Africa Today:
I put it to Pastor James that there are those – and there is an extensive list – who do not believe that after vowing to kill each other and confronting each other murderously for a long time, all is now forgiven and that they have kissed and made-up. Is this a match made in heaven or a match made in Hollywood? Pastor James replies, almost shouting: “This is your journalist instinct running wild,” but he admits there are ghosts to be exorcise. “I know some people would find the documentary too good to be true. But I truly believe that this is a marriage. From time-to-time we’ll disagree on things, however, I love this guy and we’ll never get a divorce,” stressing: “Imam and I are in this together, to promote co-operation for the long term in Nigeria and wherever we are called upon.” “I am no quitter. What our story proves is that communication is best,” he adds.
Ashafa told E K’ABO about how they faced opposition from their respective religious groups when they first came together to promote their inter-faith initiatives and local reconciliation in their communities. There was strong rejection. Some incensed people branded them compromising traitors. “Sceptics mocked us and our idea. But today we have majority support in my country and we are being called upon by other countries, organisations and small communities to sort out conflicts before they get out of hand and sometimes to quench already smouldering conflicts threatening to engulf communities.
The source for the following profiles of Imam Muhammad Ashafa and Pastor James Wuye and the description of their initiative come from Ashoka.org
Pastor Wuye and Imam Ashafa believe the only way religious violence can be reduced or stopped in Nigeria is by having leaders of each faith promote religious teachings of peace and non-violence. Their organization, the Interfaith Mediation Center of the Muslim-Christian Dialogue Forum, deals with the psychology of religious violence and addresses its causes and effects. Wuye and Ashafa are influencing schools, houses of worship, and community centers to prevent violence and intervene when conflicts erupt. Their education and media outreach strategies have afforded them unprecedented, widespread support and legitimacy for their efforts to promote peaceful coexistence.
The son of an Islamic scholar from a long line of Muslim clerics dating back 13 generations, Mohammed Ashafa grew up in a conservative family that espoused Islamic socio-cultural values and held deep suspicion for all things Western and Christian. As a young man and the eldest son, he followed the family vocation and became an Imam. To promote his family tradition of Islamic custodianship, Ashafa joined a fanatical Islamic group committed to completely Islamizing the North and chasing away all non-Muslims from the region. Ashafa became the leader of this militant group and also the Secretary General of the Muslim Youth Councils. The Muslim Youth Councils incited great violence in the North, which resulted in the Christians creating their own counter organization, the Youth Christian Association of Nigeria, led by Pastor Wuye.
Born in Kaduna State, Pastor Wuye, an Assemblies of God Pastor, was the son of a soldier who served in the Biafran War. From a young age, Wuye was fascinated by battle and war games. In the 1980s and 1990s he was involved in militant Christian activities and served as Secretary General of the Kaduna State chapter of the Youth Christian Association of Nigeria, an umbrella organization for all Christian groups in Nigeria for 8 years. He recounts that his “hatred for the Muslims had no limits”. He hated seeing people being intimidated and abused, so when Muslims were blamed for inciting a violent conflict in Kaduna, he immediately volunteered to lead a reprisal attack. He lost his right arm during one of the battles against Ashafa’s militant group in Kaduna; increasing his vengeance and deep hatred for Muslims in general and Ashafa in particular.
Ashafa also experienced loss at the hands of Pastor Wuye. In one of the violent clashes between Muslim Youth Councils and Youth Christian Association of Nigeria, two cousins and Ashafa’s spiritual mentor died while fighting Pastor Wuye’s Christian group. For years, both Ashafa and Wuye vowed to avenge the deaths and injuries of their loved ones by killing each other. However, a chance meeting in 1995 brought the two clerics together and through intermediaries and months of soul searching, both leaders decided to lay down their arms and work together to end the destructive violence plaguing their country. This chance meeting and Imam’s extension of the olive branch to Wuye led to the formation of the Interfaith Mediation Center of the Muslim-Christian Dialogue Forum.
Their collective work in peace building began in 1997, and they have since managed to spread their messages of conflict-resolution to all corners of the globe. Their work has earned them numerous accolades including the Peace Activist Award of the Tanenbaum Center of Interreligious Understanding; a joint Honorary Doctorate degree in Philosophy bestowed upon them in Kolkata, India; a Heroes of Peace Award from Burundi; Search for Common Ground on Interfaith Cooperation Award USA; and the Bremen Peace Award from the Threshold Foundation on interreligious reconciliation, among others.
Imam Ashafa and Pastor Wuye have designed a strategy to both prevent religious and political violence and resolve it when it happens. Their early-warning mechanism, developed in 1996, helps communities identify inflammatory situations and provides the means to reduce tensions. For instance, Ashafa and Wuye defused potential violence surrounding the 2006 Dutch cartoon fiasco, which inflamed many communities around the world. Sensing danger, they immediately asked the heads of the Christian Associations of Nigeria to appear on radio and television to publicly condemn the negative depiction of the Prophet Mohammed in the cartoons, and asked the Chief Imams to accept the condemnation and ask for calm. Their tactic of publicly encouraging Muslim and Christian leaders to support each other and sign peace agreements has proven successful in building ties between the two communities and towards their shared goal of mitigating violence.
Another early-warning technique is the “deprogramming” of violent youth through Christian and Islamic instruction that emphasizes forgiveness and non-violence. To reverse a “theology of hate” that is often taught to children at home and in school, Ashafa and Wuye set up Peace Clubs in pre-school, primary, secondary, and tertiary institutions. The Peace Clubs have peace-building and peer-mediation components and involve class representatives who mediate conflict between classmates and teach their peers how to resolve conflicts peacefully.
Students throughout Nigeria receive religious instruction, and particularly in conflict prone states learn that one religion is superior to others. So in 1998 Ashafa and Wuye developed a curriculum entitled “The Ethical Code for Religious Instructions in Schools” which is now used in schools and by other organizations interested in promoting peace. Coupled with Peace Clubs, the curriculum is reducing religious violence in schools. To date, over 30 schools in the majority Muslim Kaduna state, and primary schools and universities in Plateau, Kano, and Bauchi states have Peace Clubs and peace curricula.
They also created “deprogramming” Youth Camps which bring together militant youths from different communities for 5 days of intensive interaction. Camp participants are involved in activities that replace demonization of those of a different faith with the humanization. These militant youth attend skill-building activities such as financial and computer literacy classes. Ashafa and Wuye have also trained youth leaders from across the country to become trainers in their communities.
In addition to their preventive work, Ashafa and Wuye also focus on peace building and resolution. Since 1997, they have been training religious leaders of both faiths on conflict mitigation and organizing peace-building workshops for community members. They organize seminars with opinion leaders and elders that encourage dialogue about differing views on politics, society, and law. There are also practical workshops that encourage good governance, legislation, budget tracking, and building bridges between communities and political and religious leaders.
Ashafa and Wuye also help communities use peace building methods that may have been forgotten or abandoned. They train women of both faiths to monitor elections and educate their communities on the electoral process. Their studies have shown a sharp decline in rigging and violence at polls where the women operate.
The pair offers trauma counselling for those who have suffered losses at the hands of religious violence and trains religious and community leaders to assist those affected by violence. Ashafa and Wuye use scriptures from their two holy books to help people deal with suffering and tragedy. They also force men to deal with the ramifications of trauma; challenging African notions that men should not show emotion.
Media outreach is their main approach to spreading their work beyond the areas where they operate directly. Both clerics have television shows dedicated to preaching the tenets of their respective faiths as well as peaceful co-existence. They are featured in a documentary on conflict resolution which was showcased at the UN headquarters, at the House of Commons in the UK, and in Washington DC. This was made into a case study by the Tanenbaum Center of Interreligious Understanding.
The Center comprises a Secretariat of 14 people (7 Muslims and 7 Christians) with joint deputyships, coordinators, and program managers. Ashafa and Wuye have a rotating portfolio of responsibilities and enjoy an equitable division of labor. The sensitive nature of their work requires participation of both the Imam and Pastor in the programming the Center offers. Due to the dangerous nature of their work, they have succession plans in place for appointed deputies to assume executive leadership positions should anything debilitating happen to them.
They have set up offices in three states in Nigeria, two in the North and one in the East, and have partnerships with various religious groups in other areas. To ensure widespread impact, Wuye and Ashafa set up committees and advisory councils made up of religious and community leaders to monitor peace-building efforts and provide feedback, using a hotline to report religious violence nationwide. At least two people (1 Muslim and 1 Christian) from each of Nigeria’s 36 states are trained in conflict resolution (with more staff in conflict-prone states) and stay in close communication with the Center’s headquarters in Kaduna state. Their work has also spread beyond Nigeria to Northern Ghana, Burundi and Kenya. Their Center is sustained through support from international donor and religious organizations, and local and regional governments in Nigeria.
Ashafa and Wuye want to bring peace to all nations plagued by religious violence. They have assisted organizations in Northern Ireland, Rwanda, and Native American communities in the United States. They also work with Muslim and Christian entities in conflict areas outside of Nigeria. They have partnered in Sudan with the New Sudan Islamic Council and the New Sudan Church Council and in Kenya with the Kenyan Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs and the Kenyan Council of Churches. Their goal is to work with organizations in the Niger Delta region, Middle East peace groups, and are building an office with the African Union staffed with Muslim and Christian practitioners.
Their next steps include the construction of an Interfaith Peace Village, with land donated by the Kaduna state government. They are planning to host a summit on peace and religious harmony which will convene religious leaders and peace practitioners from across Africa. Because they believe peace building without development is ineffective, they have organized Muslim and Christian women rice farmers to work together as an effective peace building and income generation scheme.