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MY UNSEEN STRUGGLE AS AN IMMIGRANT IN CHURCH

 

Calling someone by name is an important indicator of some form of relationship.  In some cultures, especially in African cultures, it goes beyond that to also be an occasion to show respect.  In those cultures, the manner in which you address someone by name could be an indicator of respect or disrespect.

 

As a kid brought up among the Igbo ethnic group of West Africa, I was taught to respect Elders and those who are significantly older than myself and to add “Mr” before calling their names.  I was taught to respect matured Ladies and married women and to add “Mrs” before their names if married or address them as Madam if matured lady.  I was also taught to respect those in authority and to address them by their titles.  It would be an anathema to call a church leader by his name without adding “Rev” or “Bishop” or “Deacon” before his or her name.  I probably would not make an “A” in an “A” course if I called my professor by his name without prefixing it with “prof”.

 

Not prefixing a name with appropriate titles was seen as a mark of disrespect in my child upbringing. This is the kind of upbringing that I brought to the United States. As normal, it felt good to continue with the familiar. How else can I show Americans how to give respect?  So, I begun to add these prefixes to any person that I met in church. I must confess that the church leaders and some of the baby boomer generation liked my culture of respect.  

 

This was not an issue until during fellowship on a Sunday morning, Mr. Smithson (I made up this name) told me  “Joshua, just call me James”. Shortly afterwards,  another looked me in the eye and said  “Joshua, you do not have to add Mr. when you call my name”. It is from this point that the unseen struggle began. While half of the church elderly I connected with enjoyed the respect of having prefixes to their names and remembered the old good days, the other half has moved on and wanted to be called by their first names. Each Sunday and sometimes during the week, I had to deal with the dilemma of remembering whom to call by first name and whom to prefix with some title of respect.

 

When It became clear to me that I had come to stay in the US, it would seem simple to say “When in Rome, do like Romans” and then, call everyone by their first names. But this was not as simple as it seemed. I noticed that those who were used to my adding “titles of respect” before calling their names felt disrespected when I stopped adding those titles. I even noticed some of them looking at me with a sense of “poor Joshua, he has caved in to this decadent culture that has no respect for anyone”

 

I carry this burden, even till this day. My hope is that those who read this will understand where the African immigrant is coming from and one of the store front challenges the immigrant faces as he or she transitions into residency in the land. When he or she stops adding titles or prefixes to your name, please understand that it is not a sign of any loss of respect but an attempt to offload a burden of the heart that you do not see, an unseen struggle that he or she had to deal with for many years and for which he or she might have lost some goodwill from those who did not understand.

Please, bear with the immigrant!

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