At first glance, Frs. Patrick McGuire and Francis Akano make an odd pairing. Tall and ruddy, Fr. McGuire is a Scotland native, a son of Barrhead, an old industrial town just outside Glasgow. Fr. Akano, smiling and thoughtful, comes from Imo State, a southern Nigeria province. Together, they live in the rectory at Zuni and administer to four parishes in the Diocese of Gallup, and oversee administration locally at St. Anthony Catholic School.
These two priests, thousands of miles from their respective homes, share Nigeria as their common bond. Fr. McGuire is a priest of the Society of African Mission (SMA Fathers), a missionary group which has overseen churches and schools in Africa for over one hundred years. Now retired as the order’s provincial superior, he loves the desert climate and landscapes of New Mexico. Fr. Akano was born and raised in Isu, a city in southern Nigeria, and his country enjoys such a surplus of priests that African bishops regularly lend their services to dioceses across the United States.
Before our interview officially begins, with the three of us seated around the rectory’s dining room table, Fr. McGuire brews coffee and offers me a tin of cookies – “biscuits”, he calls them. Fr. Akano prefers soda, and is happily surprised that Fr. McGuire stores their supply at room temperature. They share a light ribbing of United States culture: “Americans like too much ice in everything,” Fr. McGuire says.
Despite the differences, they’re happy to be here. Fr. McGuire had already been in the Diocese of Gallup for several years when he was assigned as the pastor at Zuni. Fr. Akano is newly-transferred from the Diocese of Baker in Oregon, and keenly recalls his first impression of the United States.
“In Nigeria you have very beautiful stories about America: everywhere is just like California, Texas!” he said. “The minute I came here I saw a different picture of America than I’d been hearing. Somebody was asking me, ‘I think when you go to Africa, you see a lot of lions?’. I told him ‘that’s what I thought I’d see coming to America – America is just like New York, skyscrapers everywhere, beautiful!’”
But he now finds himself in a diocese not dissimilar to his home country.
“I came here and, you know, saw a different picture of America. I didn’t know that you can see poverty in America, seeing people being attached to their native life or native religion – doing rituals. I thought that is something that is meant for Africans.”
No surprise there for Fr. McGuire – he too finds that his many years in Nigeria prepared him for pastoral life in Zuni.
“It’s quite remarkable. I’ve had two of my confreres visit me, one of our Polish priests and one of our Indian priests,” he said. “Both had the same reaction to me – that life in a Pueblo is very much like life in an African village. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what we find there – it has something to do with the values of the people and their way of life. Obviously, physically an African village looks different from a Pueblo, but we find similarities amongst the people. Really quite remarkable. And that’s why I think I’m so much at ease amongst the Native Americans. I see values in their everyday life that maybe another person might not see.”
When I ask Fr. Akano about the traditional cultures from his home, he grows reflective – almost wistful. Nigeria is divided more or less equally along religious lines – the population is roughly half Christian and half Muslim. Few people, he says, retain their old beliefs. Sometimes this is due to ostracization, which comes after families radically adopt a new faith and completely shun traditional rituals. Persecution, too, can play a part. Boko Haram, the notoriously radical Islamic terror group, is headquartered in northeast Nigeria. Massacres, bombings and conflict caused the government to declare a state of emergency in 2012, and at least one Catholic Diocese has reported mass killings and takeovers of churches.
In some historical cases, similar to the American Southwest, colonization contributed to the erosion of local languages and culture. But unlike some Native American communities, who have managed to preserve their traditions, Nigerians have left much of their original religious culture behind.
“We lost everything. We lost every kind of – our original religion and culture,” Fr. Akano says. “I think there, the idea of worshipping – Christianity – is more serious, where I came from than here. Every day you see people coming to Mass, young people coming to morning Mass, every day. Not here. During morning Mass you may see one or two people. I was discussing with Father [McGuire] last time. I said ‘why did Europeans ask us to lose our culture?’ Because here, I saw something different altogether, [people] who hold on to their culture tenaciously.”
Fr. McGuire listens to this reflection, and then tells the story of St. Augustine of Canterbury, who in 595 was sent by Pope Gregory the Great to colonize the Anglo-Saxons, Fr. McGuire’s own ancestors. Augustine’s main goal was the conversion of the king of Kent, Aethelberht, a pagan, whose wife was already Christian.
“He wrote to Pope Gregory the Great, whose instructions were to find that in the culture that you could literally baptize and use. Finding Christian values within the culture,” Fr. McGuire said. “And people in my own society – the founder – he was a bit of a radical because he didn’t just want to concentrate on the European ex-pats in Africa, he wanted to go to the Africans. The missionary now would look for Christ within a culture, and that’s what you tease out in the culture. As Father [Akano] says, here we experience that strong holding on to the tradition, and in the school, we say ‘this is a Zuni value, and this is a Christian value’ and draw that out. We have to be very careful with it – you don’t just adopt everything, but at the same time you do not condemn everything. You find God’s presence in that culture, and that’s what we try to do here.”
The two priests follow up our interview with a tour of St. Anthony School. It’s the first week back for the students, but aleady Fr. McGuire seems to know each of them by name. He introduces me to various members of the staff with a easy familiarity.
“We’re really blessed in that most of our staff are Zuni,” he tells me as we walk between classrooms. “They are hard-working and dedicated. From that point of view, we’re really really blessed.”
The very second he opens the door to the kindergarten classroom, a loud chorus of little voices call out “Good morning, Fr. Pat!” (Reportedly, some of the students refer to him among themselves as “Fr. Braveheart” due to his strong Scottish accent) He begins to ask the teacher what they are working on, but quickly becomes distracted when several girls sharing a group of desks proudly begin to show him their new school supplies. Fr. Akano has never before been assigned to a school, and he hangs back, quietly smiling, watching and learning from the interaction.
Here in Zuni, the close-knit manner of students, teachers and parents is something familiar to Fr. McGuire after years of African ministry. He brings it up immediately when I ask him what he likes most about the Zuni people.
“The strength of family, the extended family. That would be the most obvious one. And then the sense of the divine in life. Father [Akano] can correct me, but you go to a Nigerian village – in the north you’d say ‘how are you?’ and they will reply ‘we thank God’, you know? If you go to people here they have that same sense of the divine active in their life, which sadly in Western culture we’re losing. If you ask anybody here what ‘goodbye’ means they’d say ‘farewell’. It doesn’t – it means ‘God be with you’. Just a wee sense of the awareness of the divine in life, and it’s something I find very, very attractive here, how they express it in the pueblos in different ways. It’s something to be explored, you know? It’s why I feel so at home here, I think.”
We take a look at the basketball court, a hugely popular spot for all the students. One teacher, who stands observing her students play, is soon begged to join with the kids in a pickup game. Who could resist?
Fr. Akano lights up at the mention of sporting activities. He enjoys playing ping pong, but his great love is soccer – another pastime he has in common with Fr. McGuire. I ask about his favorite team, not knowing the local groups in Nigeria. He shrugs.
“I’m not so passionate about following a particular team now, but I love it,” he says. Fr. McGuire suddenly interjects.
“Tell the truth, it’s either Arsenal or Man[chester] United!”
He recalls one night in Nigeria when he was startled by booms and shouts. “It was the West African Cup! And Nigeria had gone through to the next leg. I honestly thought a civil war was starting.”
Recalling the earlier discussion about persecutions, Fr. Akano says “The only thing that unites Nigerians is soccer.”
“Even officially in Nigeria, the religions are 49% Christian, 49% Muslim, and 110% soccer,” Fr. McGuire jokes.
The two priests make a good team. In a place so like home, and yet so far from family, their common interests and history of service are a source of strength and familiarity. Fr. Akano says he misses his family every day, but calling home helps. Fr. McGuire thinks of New Mexico as his home, but if he ever needs some time to himself, when his work is done for the day, he loves to ride his motorcycle – a Harley Sportster.
“I had to get a Harley because it’s part of the culture,” he jokes.
But when it comes right down to it, what gets each priest out of bed each day is their calling from God to serve the people of Zuni.
“I suppose everyone will miss home in one way or another, but there’s also a sense of – for some reason or other, which is unfathomable – God wants us to be here,” Fr. McGuire says. “It’s kind of easy to concentrate on the difficulties, but there’s the other side, too. There’s the dignity of the people, the welcoming sense that they have, and the fun and the joy of it. Sometimes you go to bed exhausted, then you wake up and think ‘what’s going to happen today?’ but within 10 minutes the joy starts.”