From Togo to the Quad Cities

‘They embrace our culture and we also embrace their culture,’ says Missionary Father Jean deDieu Ahorloo

Father Jean deDieu Ahorloo

By Ted Cox

Most people think of missionaries as going to Africa or Asia to do the work of God, but it’s the other way around at Christ the King Catholic Church in Moline, where Father Jean deDieu Ahorloo, from the West African nation of Togo, is the parochial vicar and conducts a Togolese mass once a month.

“Before, the Europeans would go to Africa, and now we are coming here,” Ahorloo said with a smile before conducting mass on Palm Sunday at the church. “Life is about change. There’s no situation which is permanent. So life is about change.

“If you don’t work hard with change,” he added, “you’re not going to grow. Unless you let yourself be challenged by the other culture, you won’t see the values of the other person.”

According to Ahorloo, the bishop of Peoria sought a Togo missionary a couple of years ago to minister to the Quad Cities’ rising population of African immigrants, many of them from Togo. Ahorloo had been at Christ the King for a three-month summer program in 2012 through the church’s Society of African Missions and had been left with a strong impression of the community.

“I felt at home,” he said. “So when they told me to come back, I said, ‘Why not?’

“This congregation,” he added, “is a family to me. The people here are very nice. They are really welcoming, and my parish priest is a nice guy.”

The Rev. Don Levitt, the priest at Christ the King, said the church began offering occasional Togolese masses 10 years ago, whenever a Togo priest was available. “They have always been very generous in sharing their time for our people,” Levitt said. “Most of the SMA fathers have only come during the summer months when they were away from their own parish assignments. It wasn't until Father Jean that we were able to have someone year-round.”

On Palm Sunday, Father Jean shepherded his congregation of about 200 people outside, so they could have a procession back in, mimicking the triumphant arrival of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem. The martial drums and woodblock and cowbell percussion might seem unconventional, but they made perfect sense for the Togolese.

“The Catholic liturgy is all about culture,” Ahorloo said. “But the liturgy itself is the same.

“We usually beat our cultural drums in celebration,” he added. “The way we celebrate may be different from the way you celebrate. That’s what we put in. But the celebration is the same.” The music might be subtly different, a little more lively and percussive than the traditional hymns, but the actual service, conducted for the most part in French, is a standard Catholic mass.

“It’s a celebration for us,” Ahorloo said. In Togo, he added, mass can go on two hours or more, but he makes concessions to tighten it up at Christ the King, if just a little. “People are busy,” he said, “so you have to take that also into consideration.”

The Togolese have found a religious home at Christ the King, and it has invigorated the parish.

“It’s a good thing for the church,” he said. “The church is one. We are one family. We are worshipping one God. We are all Catholics.

“We learn so many things from them, and they also learn so many things from us,” Ahorloo said. “They embrace our culture and we also embrace their culture.” For the major holidays like Christmas and Easter, he added, “all of us come together for a big celebration. So there is an interrelationship between us. That’s what you call family.”

And that notion of family is as precious to the Togolese as it is to anyone else.

“In Togo, we value family, a sense of family is of great value,” he said. So, just like earlier waves of U.S. immigrants before them, they feel the strains of parting from their native country, and seek to reunify families here. “When you have your family living somewhere (else), the family would like to have you join them. So that’s why you see many Togolese living here, because a family comes here first, and from that one family another family is willing to come to the United States.”

The Quad Cities have been traditionally welcoming of immigrants, and that has extended to a wave of Africans who’ve immigrated this century. “It’s a welcoming community, a very welcoming community,” Ahorloo said. “People feel at home here and like one big family — no difference between Africans and Americans, especially in the community here, the church here.” He called the Quad Cities “a good place for the community to grow, a good place to live, and the cooperation between white and black, that is very nice. It’s a peaceful place.”

The community retains strong ties to Togo, though, especially given the uncertain political situation in their native land. Togo Uprising Quad Cities, a local group of immigrants, marched last fall to the office of U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos to press her to push for democratic reforms in Togo. The turmoil in their native country has caused a heightened interest in bringing more family members over, just at a time when President Trump has made it a political issue to discourage so-called chain migration.

“We are very concerned about that,” Ahorloo said. “Not only us. Even the Americans, they are concerned about that, the whole country.”

Father Jean said he’s developed a strong working relationship with Father Levitt. “He has an open spirit, and I like that,” he said. “He’s an easy man to work with. Here, I feel I am at home.”

Levitt pointed to how involved the Togolese are in the parish, filling many formal roles and joining in the church’s community involvement. “As pastor,  I am very grateful they are here,” he said.

Ahorloo said he’d like to remain at Christ the King “as long as possible,” but acknowledges that change is a constant in his line of work. “I’m a missionary, so when they need me somewhere else I will go,” he said. “But for now, I’m here and I’m happy to be here as long as possible. That is also the wish of my parish priest. So he’s happy with the work I’m doing with him. We form one family.”