Immigrants can have difficulties with language barriers in all sorts of everyday tasks, including worship.
St. Ann’s Catholic Church in Spokane’s East Central Neighborhood has stepped up in an effort to help those from several eastern African countries by saying a Mass in Swahili on the first Sunday of every month.
The Rev. Patrick Baraza, a native of Kenya who speaks Swahili, has led St. Ann’s Parish since 2011. The Swahili Mass started only a few months ago at St. Ann’s, 2120 E. First Ave., in Spokane. It is offered at 11 a.m. every first Sunday of every month.
“It was the idea of the people from East Africa, especially Kenyans, who wanted Swahili Mass,” he said. “I was really thrilled.”
Even though many of those who attend the Mass have been here for years and speak English, Baraza said their roots are still Swahili.
“Worshipping in your own language is important,” he said. “People will worship in their own language much, much better.”
Baraza sees offering Mass in Swahili as a way of being welcoming and recognizing that Jesus is present wherever you go. There’s a saying coined by missionaries about bringing Jesus to the people, Baraza said, but he doesn’t agree with the sentiment.
“I always say Jesus is too heavy,” he said. “You can’t bring him there. He’s already there in the language and the traditions. Jesus is incarnate, born in every group of people.”
The monthly Mass isn’t just said in Swahili. It reflects the culture of the people who speak the language, which means there’s a lot of praising, singing and dancing.
“It’s a dancing church,” Baraza said. “The way people express themselves is different.”
The people attending the Swahili Mass don’t quietly sit, stand and kneel – the rituals in the Catholic Mass, Baraza said.
“They worship the Lord with all their mind, all their heart, all their strength,” he said.
The dancing unifies the people and is an expression of joy, he said. He calls it a “lived experience.”
Baraza said he’s heard some people criticize the different way of worshipping and ask why they can’t just worship in the “normal” way.
“They can’t,” he said. “They’re not you, they’re them. We are all different, and we should honor the difference.”
The different energy in the Swahili Mass has also helped draw people in, Baraza said.
“It is not just people from Africa, it is people from here who are coming even though they don’t speak Swahili,” he said. “It is really vibrant. People are so happy. Dancing is part of it, but the whole thing, the center of it, is to come and appreciate the presence of Jesus Christ, who unites us.”
Baraza, who holds a doctorate in Islamic studies and has taught at Gonzaga University for 17 years, believes diversity is important to the church. He compares the church to a cake, which is made by combining a variety of ingredients like eggs, sugar, water and flour.
“When you bring all the ingredients together, you have something wonderful,” he said.
The Swahili Mass has been so successful, filling the church with people from near and far, that Baraza is thinking of expanding it to twice a month.
“All are welcome in this place,” he said. “We can’t segregate, we can’t discriminate. That is the greatness of St. Ann’s.”
Correspondent Nina Culver can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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