Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
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Kenyan priest to teach at GU, minister at Cathedral
Story and photo by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff
(From the Nov. 10, 2005 edition of the Inland Register)
Father Patrick Baraza will be teaching in the Religious Studies Department of Gonzaga University in January. (IR photo)
“I’m from Kenya, which is located on the east coast of Africa, along the Indian Ocean, and we are bordered by Somalia on the east, Ethiopia on the north, and northwest of Kenya is the Sudan. On the extreme west is Uganda, and south of Kenya is Tanzania.”
The speaker is Father Patrick Baraza, recently arrived in Spokane, soon to be teaching in the Religious Studies Department at Gonzaga University, and in residence at Spokane’s Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes, where he helps out with parish Masses as needed.
Some Americans will assume that Africa, in general, is characterized by continual political disturbances, but Father Baraza explains that such is not the case in his homeland. “Kenya has been one of the most stable countries in Africa, despite the problems that are there. Corruption has been very central in Kenya, but the present government is trying and doing very well.”
Father Baraza smiles broadly when he says that there are 35 million people in Kenya, and 30 percent are Catholics. “We are a little bit behind the Protestants. Protestants are more because there are very many denominations, so they are about 38 percent, and Islam is maybe 15 percent.”
In Kenya, Catholicism traces its roots back to 1498, “to the time of Vasco da Gama, the Portugese explorer,” Father Baraza explains, “when he passed through Mombasa. He had missionaries with him, and the priests started a mission in Mombasa. Then in the 19th century, when we had colonialism, and missionaries came from all the countries that colonized Africa – Britain, France, Portugal, Germany, Italy, Belgium.”
In his own family, Father Baraza says that Catholicism goes back to 1904. Now age 50, he was ordained in 1982. Following ordination, he worked briefly in a parish, then he taught philosophy in his diocese’s major seminary. “From there, I went to work among the nomads,” Father Baraza says, “the nomadic people of Kenya called Pokot. They are very, very poor. I did this alone for about eight years, and I was there two years before I baptized anyone. From there, I went to California, to go to school. My bishop wanted me to go to Rome, but I said, ‘I will look to find a warmer place.’ So I went to the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, then the Graduate Theological Union [GTU] there for my doctoral studies.” Father Baraza is the first person ever to earn a doctoral degree in Islamic Studies from GTU.
After finishing his studies, Father Baraza says, “I went back home, and the bishop told me to go back to the desert,” again as a missionary to the nomadic Pokot people, and that time I stayed for another two years. “They have,” Father Patrick explains, “what we call African traditional religion. It’s a native religion where they worship one God, but they go through many intermediaries, the spirits of the dead, the ancestors, but as far as worship is concerned—one God. You cannot come to my home [without] finding me cleaning the grave of my grandfather, pouring libations, but these are acts of respect; we do not worship our ancestors.”
In fact, Father Baraza says, the traditional African religion lends itself very well to a Catholic sacramental world view. “If we understood Christianity not as a concept, but as a light, the soul of the world, it blends so well; the African is prepared for it!”
Beginning next semester, at Gonzaga University Father Baraza will teach courses on traditional African religion, on Islam, on Christianity, and on the Arabic language. His interest in Islam came from the fact that his grandfather was a Muslim. “My grandfather went to fight on the side of the British during the First World War, and he went to Burma where he converted to Islam, but when he came back from Burma the whole village was converted to Christianity, to Catholicism. Before, they had the traditional African religion. But he came back and everything was Catholicism, and singing in Latin! But he refused to join. My grandfather died a Muslim, and I loved him so much, but he was hated by everybody, and I wanted to understand Islam.”
The reason Father Baraza ended up back in the U.S., in Spokane, and at Gonzaga University is that he can contribute better from here to the support of his own diocese in Kenya. If he were teaching at a university in Kenya, he might not be paid at all, or if he were lucky he might earn $400 per month. “Right now, at the University if Kenyata, the teachers are on strike because of pay,” Father Beraza says. “In my country, 70 percent of the people are unemployed. Teaching here, I will be a good support to my diocese. I will be a cash cow,” he says chuckling, pleased with the image.
Father Beraza is happy to be in Spokane and at Gonzaga Unversity. “Everyone has been so kind,” he says. The length of his stay is uncertain. “It depends on what my bishop wants, but three years would be good, I think.”