Oblate Voices is a JPIC blog that follows stories of hope and is about how Oblates and associates live and experience mission work in the spirit of the Oblate founder, St Eugene De Mazenod of responding to the needs of poor and most abandoned around the world.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

A Nigerian at the service of the Innu people

Fr Ali Nnaemeka, OMI, is a Missionary Oblate of Mary Immaculate. He is an Igbo from the South-East of Nigeria. But for several years now, Ali has been a member of a 4-person team of missionaries working in eight Innu communities of the North-Coast of Quebec. The missionary team is composed of Oblates from Quebec, Madagascar, Cameroon, and Nigeria. 

Fr. Ali was recently interviewed by José I. Sierra, Editor-in-Chief of Univers Magazine.

Fr Ali is in charge of two Christian communities located in the North-Coast region: The Community of Ekuanitshit (Mingan), which is situated at about 10 hours drive from Quebec City, and that of Matimekush-Lac John (Schefferville) is situated at about 700KM far in the North.

Photo courtesy of José I. Sierra,
Editor-in-Chief, Univers Magazine
“It takes little more than an hour to fly to the community in Schefferville and more than 12 hours by train to make the same journey,” explains Fr Ali. “But as the flight ticket is very costly, I am obliged to frequently go by train.” “And that is why I spend two weeks in each of the missions every time I visit.”

This information on transportation that Ali gives us bring to mind a vast, enclaved and relatively hard to access territory. One can ask what pushes a Nigerian to leave his country to do mission work in Northern Canada. This is one of the questions I will be asking the missionary in this interview.

Jose: From Nigeria to Canada: Is it by chance that you are here?

Fr Ali: No, it was neither by chance nor by hazard … not even an act of Providence. It was wanted, asked for and planned. An Oblate colleague arrived in Canada two years before me and I was asked to come and join him here.

Already before that, when I decided to become a missionary priest, I had the desire to go on a mission far from my country. But during my formation years, I decided to stay in Nigeria. And just one year before my priestly ordination, my congregation asked if I wanted to go to Canada. After considering the propositions, I accepted it.

Jose: Why did you accept it?

Fr Ali: Because Native Mission in Canada was among the first missions of the Oblates. But there is another reason. I believe that the Canadian Church gave a lot to the world in terms of money, but also in terms of missionary support. Think of all these Quebeckers or Canadian missionaries who went on a mission to different parts of the world. To forget this Church that gave a lot to the world will be unjust and ungrateful.

Jose: So, how is your integration with the Native Community?

Fr Ali: At the beginning, it was not so easy. To better integrate to a new milieu, it is necessary to consider certain factors: it is important that the community be assured of your love for their reality, that you are there for them; it is also absolutely necessary to share their life, their vision of the world, etc. It must be a pastoral of presence in its full sense: presence in joy and in pain; presence in school, families, hospitals, etc.

Jose: I suppose you work mainly with Native Believers…

Fr Ali: In Native communities, it is very difficult to distinguish between Christians and non-Christians, for the simple reason that all members are believers. It is certain that not all the community members come to church. But we, the missionaries, we are there for everybody. We are at the service of all our community members. Our mission is not strictly to celebrate mass or sacraments. We are called to be members of the community we are sent to. I often visit schools to meet the youths and participate in their school activities; I visit cultural centers to take part in community activities; I also participate in Indigenous Youth Inter-band games, etc.

Jose: You are then much solicited?

Fr. Ali: It is really necessary for me to be there. I feel it mainly when there is a burial ceremony. There is going to be one these days. But here is the dilemma: I have a program tomorrow, here in Montreal, and I cannot then be in Schefferville. More still, my Oblate brother who normally replaces me is in a far distant area. But the community wants us to be there.

For example, each time we are absent in the community, they show it. And even when I have a program in another Church, there is always someone who comes to tell me that I am abandoning them. As a matter of truth, that shows that they love us. They are happy to have us among them.

Jose: Do you speak with them in Innu? Do you speak their language?

Fr Ali: No, I do not yet speak the language. I have started understanding few words and that permits me to celebrate mass in Innu. For homilies, there is always someone who does the translation. My personal goal is to speak Innu. But I must confess that I find it a very hard language to learn because it is totally different from every other language I know. I have already been here for three years and I cannot yet speak Innu.

Jose: And Innu culture: Are there certain similarities with your own?

Fr Ali:  Of course! Native communities – even though we are from different regions of the world – have certain similar realities with what is observed among the Igbos of Nigeria. Native universe is more or less the same as the universe of my people. The place of the family in the life of an individual, for example, is as important to the Innu nation as it is to the Igbo people. The existence of an individual is always in relationship with the group the individual originates from.

There are also some similarities on a spiritual level. Among the Igbo, there exists a spiritual link between the individual and the cosmos. With the Innu nation, the universe is sacred.

When I arrived in Quebec and mainly in these communities, I discovered that I was among people who had similar values with my people, even if they are expressed differently. Having said that, I am conscious that one should be very careful not to assume to have understood the other, just because there are some similarities with one's culture.

Jose: Apart from the similarities in your cultures, how do you live with the differences?

Fr Ali: Cultural differences intrigue me. And the more it intrigues me the more I question them and that pushes me to go beyond the known. I am someone who does not like comfort zones because this prevents me from growing. So, when I receive an assignment that presents some difficulties, I do not relent. On the contrary, it motivates me to face it and overcome it.

Jose: You do not feel discouraged?

Fr Ali: It does not mean that it is easy, but it is nevertheless a stimulating challenge. I am not easily discouraged because I take time to observe. Each time I arrive to the mission, I take a very important moment to observe, to learn and to ask questions to people.

My missionary program is based on the principle that I am sent to a people I am to walk alongside. If we observe the life of Christ, we discover that he was not spending all his time with the disciples, just to teach. He walked alongside them, and he observed them live. And when the disciples were hungry, he was hungry too. He was not detached from their reality even though he was the Christ.

Just like Christ, I walk alongside my community, here, as the community leader. But the leader is not more important than those he or she leads. The priest and his community must complement each other.

Jose: What sense do you give to your mission?

Fr Ali: There are two. As I mentioned at the beginning, it is first to maintain the Native ministry. Allow it to die away will be allowing a part of our missionary heritage to dissolve into the thin air. Secondly, to refuse to come and help this North Coast Mission will amount to being ungrateful to the Church of Quebec after all she did and continues to do in the world. For me, it is not like paying back. It is instead like a collaboration between Churches. The Church is like a family, and in the family, people help one another. All the members of the Church should not concentrate their effort in one place when there are other areas that need helping hands.

Going away from my country was not very easy for me. In Nigeria, I was in a mission I liked, in a parish that I adored. We had a school and we created a project for this school. I was dreaming to help these people that needed it.

The idea of leaving was almost like dying, for I had to leave behind my former mission. But I thought that there was more possibility of me being replaced in Nigeria than here in Canada. I then decided to come here … and I do not regret doing that! Because Canadian mission is essentially Native mission, among the Innus. If I must start over, I would do the same over and over.

The interview was first published in the October-November-December 2017 Univers Magazine, p.16-19.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Growing Food in the City

A new blog called Capital Women printed a Q&A with Three Part Harmony Farm owner Gail Taylor.

What inspired you to found Three Part Harmony Farm?
I started Three Part Harmony Farm to fill a gap in the D.C. farming world. At that time in 2012, we had a lot of amazing school gardens and several gardens that grew food specifically for the purpose of donating it to low-income residents and or teaching people how to grow vegetables. We did not have a farm in D.C. that was dedicated solely to production. The distinction is important, I think, because when a farm is focused just on production and not also on education, you really get a chance to see what’s possible in a city. We harvest for 33 weeks in a row to supply a 100-member CSA (community supported agriculture) plus farmer’s market and restaurants. In terms of food security, the harvest logs really speak for themselves. My intention is to demonstrate that we can feed ourselves in the city.

Creating a production farm in the city isn’t only about producing vegetables, of course, because I could have continued to commute 20 miles each way to the 285-acre farm where I trained if that was my only goal. I also craved being closer to my community and was attracted to the idea of nourishing my neighbors.

Gail Taylor, Three Part Harmony Farm owner, second from the left
I moved to D.C. in 1999 and have pretty deep roots here, so becoming the “people’s farmer” was the most significant factor in wanting to have a farm in the city. Before farming, I worked in the Latin America Solidarity Community. If there were such a thing as free time for a vegetable farmer, I would still do volunteer work to support those organizations. My customers are also my friends and my friends’ friends, etc. There is no greater joy than going to some social event or march downtown and see the folks doing good work during the day, getting fed at night by the food we provide. And the babies! Those are our farm babies; from womb to toddling toddlers, we’re amassing a pretty amazing cohort of healthy Three Part Harmony Farm young ones.

I like riding my bike to the farm every day and feeling connected to the city and the people in that way.

One of the great things about having a farm in the city is being able to bridge the people here with farmers in the DMV. Our CSA program is actually a multi-farm CSA that we manage. Because we only have half an acre of vegetable growing space, we have space constraints in producing some of the standard favorites like melons, potatoes, winter squash, sweet potatoes … things that take up a lot of space and time. We’re not allowed to have chickens in the city, so we source eggs from an organic farm in West Virginia. And we don’t have fruit, so we partner with a family-owned orchard in Pennsylvania. There’s something so wonderful and balanced about being able to play in the dirt all day, but still go home, shower, change, and bike to a yoga class at 6 p.m. I definitely have the best of both worlds.

What are some of the plants, vegetables, and fruits that you grow?
We have a long list of vegetables, herbs, and flowers that we grow at Three Part Harmony Farm. Each year, we focus more and more on growing a wide array of greens like lettuce, spinach, kale, collards, mustard, bok choi, radicchio, dandelion greens, mesclun, and sweet potato greens. Within the “roots” category, there are only radishes, turnips, beets, carrots, and parsnips, but it is kept interesting with the fact that there are more than six kinds of radishes alone. We have fresh and dried herbs for cooking, like the ones you find in the “spice” aisle as well as mint, anise hyssop, lemon verbena, nettles, and lemon balm for tea.
Flowers grace the entire length of our property that is closest to the street so that passersby can see them close up. It’s not unusual for someone to take a moment while walking their dog, and pull out their smartphone to snap a pic of a sunflower just about to open up through the chain link fence.

Three Part Harmony Farm contributes to the Brookland community in so many ways, such as through a community-supported agriculture and food program. Could you elaborate on all of the ways your farm helps the local community?
Our farm, like all green space in the city, creates beauty and serves an environmental service as well since it is a two-acre parcel that absorbs large amounts of rain rather than repel it as is the case with concrete. Each season, we observe more and more extreme weather occurrences, including long stretches of time without rain (like [what] happened this year in September!), but then other times where storms bring a lot of inches at once. It’s important in a city to have spaces like our farm that have rich soil and plants with deep roots ready to soak up all of that moisture. Without these green spaces, the streets would just become rivers with the overflow.
The farm is also an oasis and a place where people come to access the healing power of the soil and build community through our volunteer program. Each season, about 30 different volunteers make a regular commitment to come out and take part in the essential weekly tasks. In exchange, they take home produce, make new friends, and contribute to something amazing in our neighborhood.

When did you start farming for the first time? And why?
I started volunteering at an organic vegetable farm in the fall of 2005. The underlying reason was that, as a vegetarian and as someone who cares about the environment, I was interested in learning more about where my food comes from. At the time, my goal was to become a more educated consumer. The specific thing that brought me to volunteer in that moment was also the fact that I was unemployed and had just returned to D.C. after traveling for a year and a half, so the produce I brought home was a pretty significant part of what we ate each week.

I call that era my “quarter life crisis”—I was in the process of looking for a job that would offer a career change. And in that moment, after just a few months of volunteering, the farm manager offered me a part-time job starting the next spring. After that, I put my resume in the way, way back of the filing cabinet and haven’t looked back since. It turns out I’m well suited to working outside all day, and rather unsuited to turning on a computer every day, so I kind of got lucky really that farming found me.

How can people help contribute to your farm?
People can make a donation to the farm, which helps us make infrastructure improvements beyond what the vegetable sales alone can buy. Our annual fall festival is always a time when we invite the community to help us contribute towards building something at the farm. This year, we’re going to double our greenhouse space to help meet the demand for locally grown seedlings, and also build a more permanent wash station since our volume has increased exponentially in the last few years.

Joining the CSA is a great way to be part of the farm as well. The members of our community supported agriculture program make a commitment to financially support the farm for the growing season. They also commit to eating locally during the spring, summer, and fall months, which is no small feat and a makes a big difference for our planet. We sign up members starting in January for a season that starts in April.

Adults who can commit to working two to four times a month for three hours at a time are invited to join in on a work day during the March to November work season. The volunteers contribute a significant amount of work throughout the season and make it possible for us to do the day-to-day work as well as accomplish pretty big jobs like flipping the compost pile, doing major bed prep for a new planting season, and tackling big weeding jobs.

Are you a D.C. resident?
Proudly. “End Taxation without Representation”

What do you love most about living in Washington, D.C.?
To me, Washington is like a small neighborhood meets big city. Because of the tourists and commuters and especially because of the influx of folks who come here to do national and international work, our food, music, and arts scenes are pretty amazing. When I moved to D.C., we were under half a million in terms of population, but we get the benefit of a city that has a population in the millions.

Around that time, the Columbia Heights Metro station opened, and then later the Green Line connected all the way through. My time here in Washington parallels a lot of that development, so I’ve had a front seat view to a lot of the good and bad of gentrification. It’s definitely a mixed review, and, as someone who owns a farm in the city, I think it’s important to keep in mind the rich farming history of Washington, D.C. Three Part Harmony Farm is acutely aware that we are part of a legacy of growing food and contributing to food sovereignty, so we don’t have any illusions that we are the first at anything. I’m proud to add to that rich history.

What keeps me here, rooted in this community is the fact that it’s really so small. It’s really possible to walk or bike the few miles from one part to another. Each day when I step out of my front door, I always see someone I know. I think that’s partly because I’m a creature of habit so my commute routes are pretty predictable, and I pass the same places and therefore the same people every day. Also, I mostly ride my bike, so it’s easier to wave as you pass by someone who is on the sidewalk versus when you are in a car or even on the bus, you can’t really stop and say hello. Anyway, that’s actually my favorite part about living in this city is staying connected to everyone through those tiny moments as we pass each other in Adams Morgan, Dupont Circle, Columbia Heights, Petworth … all neighborhoods I go to almost every day.