‘Racism is a reality, but we can overcome it’

Fr. Celestine Byekwaso is originally from Uganda and came to the Diocese of Green Bay in 2005 as the diocese’s first international priest. He has served at several parishes in the diocese and currently is pastor of Holy Family Parish in Marinette.


Fr. Celestine Byekwaso (Samantha Davis | Daveau Images)

Going to Mass in America and going to Mass in Uganda is different. Here, Mass is timed. Back home, when people go to Mass, they go to Mass. They attend the Mass until the Mass is finished. Singing is an important part of the Mass, and indeed part of life in Uganda, as it is in any African culture. To quote the late Kenyan president, Jomo Kenyatta, “In Africa, music is life, life is music.” Every aspect of life has music to it — songs for mourning, songs for harvesting, songs for marriage, songs for youth, etc.

While preparing for the priesthood, I studied in three different countries in Africa: Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya. Later, I was sent to Ireland and to the United States for further studies. Because I had traveled around a bit prior to coming here, coming into a new cultural environment was not a shock to me anymore. I expect we’re different, and being different, you can’t expect all to have the same understanding or behaviors. But we’re human beings. And I take more value in being a human being than being this color or that color.

When I arrived here, a few people looked at me more as a stranger. They might think, “You’re not one of us.” I remember being in one place where certain parishioners did not look at me as a priest, but looked at me as a Black man. Being called Black never offended me because that’s what I am. But I understood that this little group looked at me being Black as a derogatory idea: “You are Black, you’re not one of us.” That group put up a strong resistance and for some time did not accept me. Some of them gradually changed their view about me, others remained that way, but that’s their view.

From my experience, everybody who goes out of his natural environment will experience some stereotypes and prejudice. More than looking at me as a Ugandan, look at me as a priest. I am a human being, I am a Catholic and I am doing my work. When we focus too much on a person’s culture and background, we go astray.

I’ve observed here that the tendency is when people see a Black person, their first reaction is, “He’s dangerous.” Sometimes I’m out walking or in the stores or in the restaurants and the way a little kid reacts seeing me is very different to the way that kid reacts to seeing an American person. Both of us are strangers to that kid, but the reaction is very different. It may be because there are not many Black people in the area. Maybe it would have been the same if an American person went by oneself in my village. There is a kind of defense mechanism. Why? I don’t know.

But on the positive side, many people appreciate me and my fellow international priests. Many people see more the value of our work than the negative aspect of the background of the person, which I think is a positive thing. All considered, I feel that my being here is a blessing — for me, for my home diocese and for the church here. In a way, my presence here helps the church to experience that universal element.

Racism is a reality, but we can overcome it easily. In many ways, racism is a way of rejecting anyone who is not of my group. When we appreciate the goodness in people, the value in people, then we come to accept everybody, and in that way, racism can be overcome.

Editor’s note: This is part of a special Compass series featuring photos and narratives from the “Open Wide Our Hearts” photo exhibit. For more information on the exhibit, visit gbdioc.org/openwideourhearts.