CHARLESTON — Archbishop Joseph Ganda of Sierra Leone recently visited South Carolina, a state known for its hospitality. One of the reasons he came was to return the hospitality of the Polite family of North Charleston.
Antawn and Thomiland Polite had visited the archbishop’s country as a part of “Homecoming,” a movement which seeks to bring African-American families to their ancestral African homes. The Polites visited their home tribe, as well as various cities and historical sites of Sierra Leone.
Archbishop Ganda said that he wanted to reciprocate their visit. He wanted no fanfare, only to quietly share a meal with the family. He could have phoned them, or just sent a letter, he said, but following the customs of his local Mende tribe, he wanted to sit with them, eat with them, and laugh with them.
The sharing of a meal is a strong personal statement in West Africa. It is understood as a sacramental statement of trust and affection.
“My visit was for this purpose,” he told The Catholic Miscellany in an interview. “If I would not have eaten with the Polites, my visit would have been incomplete.”
The Mende tribe of Sierra Leone is located in the southern part of the country. It is one of 13 predominant cultures. The people are mainly rice farmers, and the community identifies itself with the land and its harvest.
The tribe is known for its strong belief in one God. The Mende language has no plural for the word “God.” It is principally Muslim, but Muslims and Christians live together in peace and tranquility. The Christian population was evangelized by European missionaries, especially the Holy Ghost Fathers of Ireland.
Sierra Leone was scarred by a savage decade-long civil war from 1991-2001. During those turbulent times the archbishop was seen as a herald of peace.
In 1997, Archbishop Ganda called on religious leaders to play a more active role in the peace process. In 1999, he was abducted by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and held captive. He eventually escaped and petitioned for reconciliation and an end to fighting.
Military peace was established in 2001, and he continues to visibly and vocally work for its continuance.
“Peace is first in the heart,” he said. “If I am quarrelsome with others, I must look at why I do not have peace in my own heart.”
Though Catholics are less than four percent of the population of Sierra Leone, the Catholic Church under Archbishop Ganda’s leadership has expanded and provides everything including health care, schooling, strong parish life, lay formation, and the services of active pastoral centers.
The archbishop said that his greatest joy is to build up the church from the missionaries’ foundation. He delights in seeing people appreciate their past, and diligently work toward self-reliance as a native church. In achieving this, however, the archbishop resigns himself to asking for the help of others — a secondary reason for his visit.
The exchange of visits between Archbishop Ganda and the Polite family was an act of mutual healing and love between the people of two countries affected by slavery.
“We each carry the history of slavery with us,” the archbishop said. “We each must do what we can to restore dignity and encourage others in this work.”
He added that this is not the time for anger, or accusations, or division. “This is the time for unity,” he said.
In visiting the Palmetto State, the archbishop said his message here was simply the reality of the catholicity of the church.
“We all have the same priesthood and the same joy,” he said. “I am a simple man, but I am interested in this heritage because it is my heritage, and it the heritage of every other Catholic. The people of South Carolina are my brothers and sisters. The people of Sierra Leone are the brothers and sisters of each person here.”
The archbishop visited parishes, including the Polites’ home parish of St. Patrick in downtown Charleston. He had lunch and a discussion with Bishop Robert J. Baker, and was hosted by various groups of people, including a group of seminarians and priests at Stella Maris Church on Sullivan’s Island. And he has stopped at cultural, agricultural, and religious sites throughout the Lowcountry.
He wanted to see, feel, and “really experience” the land which became the adopted home of his ancestors through slavery.
Archbishop Ganda argues that the average South Carolina Catholic should be interested in the reality of slavery, in Sierra Leone now, and in his visit, because we all come from the same family.
“We are all descendants of the same ancestors, and the children of the same God,” he said.
The second part of this series will focus on the Polite family and their visit to Sierra Leone.