In November 2016, when he set out on a trip to the United States from his country of Nigeria, Ferdinand Okeke took with him a Bible. It represented more than an item for him; it was an article of faith.
As a member of the Deeper Life Ministry, Alaba Market branch, in Lagos, Okeke was a devout church member who regularly attended church. The Bible was an indispensable part of his life in a country widely considered to be deeply religious, with Christianity and Islam as the dominant religions. His trip to America, he said, was ordained by God.
He recalled one quiet Thursday morning when he heard the words, “Go to Texas.” It was God’s voice talking to him, he insisted. He never had traveled out of Nigeria, but his faith in God led him to apply for a U.S. visa. That turned out to be successful.
At that time, Okeke was experiencing challenges in his business at Alaba International Market, as Nigeria’s economy had slipped into recession, the first in more than two decades. Arriving in New Jersey via Ethiopian Airline the next day with a Bible in hand, Okeke proceeded by train to New York, from whence he boarded a bus to Houston.
Good intentions changed by work necessity
In Houston, the newcomer began worshiping at Victory Assembly Church, before later pitching tent with a Deeper Life Church. As days gave in to weeks and months, the challenge of everyday life and how to sustain himself became paramount. While he did initially get some help from a relative and friend, he knew that how well he turned out in America ultimately depended on him and that he needed to find a way to improve his financial standing.
That soon affected his church attendance.
“I kept praying and looking for a job, and I later got one where the boss, a white man, told me that they work on weekends and pay their workers on Sunday and asked whether I would like to take up the offer.”
“I used to go to church on Sundays, but at a point the need to sustain myself became a matter of concern to me and I started searching for a job,” he explained. “I kept praying and looking for a job, and I later got one where the boss, a white man, told me that they work on weekends and pay their workers on Sunday and asked whether I would like to take up the offer.”
After weighing the proposal, Okeke decided to accept it: “I felt it was in my interest to take the offer as I needed money to pay for accommodation and other bills as well as cater for my family in Nigeria. I came to America for a reason, and I needed to improve myself. I felt it was better to take the offer and perhaps see whether there’s a way to attend church or pay my tithe or dues, as the case may be, than to be a burden on anyone as people do not really want any burden as was obvious to me.”
That was how he began working in the company, and as a result, has not, in a long while, attended church. To make up for his poor church attendance, Okeke said he makes time to pray at home.
Finding alternative ways to express faith
Like Okeke, Ambrose Barigye, a Ugandan who relocated to Baltimore in 2018 and currently works as a professional commercial truck driver, has seen his church attendance drop.
“Back in Uganda I used to go to church,” Barigye said. “I am born and proudly raised Catholic, and I am from a staunch Catholic family. I followed church programs back home, I know the church calendar especially with the special days in our Catholic faith, like Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, Christmas, Easter and more, but ever since I moved to the USA, it became quite different.”
The reason, Barigye said, is his work.
“The work schedule here is very tight and different from back home in Africa,” he explained. “Here, most of us find ourselves working on weekends, which is quite unusual in Uganda. More so, in Uganda, you rarely find a company with night shift duty unless it is a security company or entertainment one, meaning people work in day and are mainly home at night, unlike here where we have both night and day shifts.”
“Once I integrated into the American job life, everything changed.”
Shedding more light on his job, Barigye said: “Most of us truck drivers don’t get to see our families (at times) for close to one to two weeks as we traverse the country. Such a tough schedule leaves one with no time to attend church services as one used to do back then because one is busy working. I was way more committed to my first church in Baltimore when I first got here. I was even in a church choir and attended every Sunday. But once I integrated into the American job life, everything changed. I have little time left to me to a point that sometimes one forgets to reply some texts from loved ones.”
To make up for this shortcoming, Barigye said he listens to a lot of Gospel music in his truck. And, “I am always tuned in to Christian radios on my work trips.”
Learning a different work ethic
Comparing the American work ethic with that of Africa, Barigye cited notable differences: “American work ethics is better compared to back home. First reason is that companies (here) value much their employees and reward them with good remuneration and benefits that help them in their retirement years. Generally, I like the work ethics here even though I get less time to attend church services. I like the fact that my hard work is always recognized with good appreciations from my employer.”
It’s not just Christians who have their faith tested by America’s work ethics, however. Yusuf Lubega, a Ugandan Muslim who works as a senior food safety manager in Boston, also admitted that the demands of his job affects his worship time.
Asked how he feels about it, Lubega explained he is “not happy about it at all but I try as much as I can to have private supplications with my Creator. And to constantly seek forgiveness for not being able to fulfill my obligations to him. I also donate more to religious causes and to the needy. I do all to (appeal to) my Creator.”
Comparing the American work environment with Uganda’s, Lubega, like Barigye, said they are poles apart.
“There is no comparison. It’s like night and day,” he said. “I find the American work environment to not only be more challenging and conducive but the support and inspiration you get from colleagues and management motivates you to work harder and strive to be a better person and teammate daily. The work ethic is simply amazing. I think good leadership and fair compensation are the major differential factors as far as work ethics are concerned.”
Success story tempered now by coronavirus
Despite the constraints of work in America, there are some Africans, who are better able to juggle both work and faith.
Linda Fanwi, a Cameroonian who lives in Minnesota and works in the manufacturing sector, is one of them. Born into a Baptist family, with a paternal grandfather who was an ordained minister, Fanwi said she found a way around the challenge.
“Church service attendance on Sunday was a must in our household when I was growing up, a practice I tried to keep up with when I moved out of my hometown to work as an adult,” she explained. “When I moved to America, I chose to work weekdays like I had always done back in my home country, to keep the weekend open for rest and church service attendance.”
But the coronavirus pandemic, she said, suddenly put that on hold. “With the outbreak of the coronavirus globally, and the ensuing restrictions on large gatherings to curb the number of cases of sickness and deaths from the COVID-19 pandemic, online or virtual church services have become the norm,” Fanwi said, adding that she has no choice but to cope: “I don’t mind the online church services. I still attend online church services regularly via my laptop or phone with the church I am a member of, and sometimes via YouTube on my TV screen, following the online church services led by other preachers and popular televangelists who I admire and respect.
“I would say, though, that this season has challenged my perspective of what it means to be truly in tune spiritually, and not just religious,” she added. “By this I mean that if for some exceptional reason I cannot attend the online service, such as the fact that I changed my work schedule slightly to include a weekend every now and then, then I will not necessarily beat myself mentally over missing a church service. I still do have my personal time with God.”
Remembering the Creator
Umar Tebuseke, a U.S.-based Ugandan Muslim cleric and counselor, believes people with tight schedules should create time to attend mosque and not place money over faith.
“Many folks here in the U.S. became slaves to money, but not slaves to their Creator,” he said. “My sincere advice to all African immigrants is to look for knowledge and resources about their religion, to know that the USA is a free country with a full freedom of worship, and to always raise their concerns regarding prayers to their bosses.”
Tebuseke also encourages African Muslims living in America to take Fridays as a day off from work “to be in proper position to attend Friday congregational prayers.”
Father Daniel Chinedu Okafor, a Nigerian-born priest and parochial vicar at St. Peter Catholic Church in Covington, La., said he is aware of the work-faith dilemma some African immigrants face but feels it’s no dead end.
“We have Africans and Nigerians as well who have been here for years, and the challenge of living up with the family demands, the bills and work ethics of the country, and balancing that with their spiritual lives has been a little bit challenging for some of our brothers and sisters. As a priest, I have seen many of them and I do talk with them and let them see the place of God even in the midst of life challenges.
“One of the ways we can always meet up with whatever challenge in our lives is to bring them forward to God, who always provides a way for his people,” he said, adding “I tell them that even in the church community, we have connections. We meet people of diverse professions and orientation of different backgrounds: lawyers, doctors, nurses, name them. In the church, we try to get people to be connected with all these different careers or jobs. That way, it helps them to take care of certain bills.”
Also, in the Catholic Church generally and in his parish, St. Vincent de Paul helps struggling families to pay electricity bills, water bills, provide food stamps and some other family needs, the priest said. “So, that’s a way of bringing people closer to God and opening oneself to a community that is always ready to exercise charity. I don’t think staying away from the church is the best thing to do. Rather, being closer helps to provide or cater for our needs and even take care of some of the bills.”
Another motivation to work: Remittances
Apart from personal needs, one other reason many African immigrants work very hard in America is because of their ties to their home countries. Many of them provide financial assistance to family members and friends back home. Even with the global financial crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic, remittance to Africa by its diaspora population continues.
Justus Wanjala, a Kenyan journalist, said the country’s diaspora community has been helpful.
“They have been their brothers’ keepers supporting countrymen and women who have lost livelihoods.”
“On the side of the Kenyan diaspora communities, I would say that in their respective countries of stay, they have been their brothers’ keepers supporting countrymen and women who have lost livelihoods,” Wanjala said. “The same is extended to their families and relatives in Kenya, many of them requiring financial support due to hard times facing the population. In general, despite remittance reducing owing to slackened economic activities globally, they are a key source of cash that flows into the Kenyan economy.”
The situation is not different in many other African countries. An April 2019 report by Pew Research found that “money sent by immigrants to their home countries in sub-Saharan Africa reached a record $41 billion in 2017… a 10% jump in remittances from the previous year, the largest annual growth for any world region.”
Professor Gibril Faal, in a May 2019 report undertaken on behalf of the African Union Commission and the German Agency for International Development reported that “financial remittances” by Africa’s diaspora members is “a major form of engagement with family, community and country in Africa.”
Despite the challenge, joy in America
All these pressures mix with the desire to exercise faith commitments. Some immigrants feel that, irrespective of the pressure of life or work, people should find a way to attend church or mosque. A Houston-based African of Nigerian origin posits that church attendance is not limited to only Sunday as church services or programs also hold on weekdays.
That’s true. But as is obvious with many African immigrants in the U.S., survival and satisfaction in the country depends on how well they manage their work and faith commitments.
Looking back on his journey so far, four years after arriving in America in pursuit of the American Dream, Okeke, with a discernable smile said: “In terms of how fulfilled I am today, God who has already started something will complete it. God sent me to this beautiful country America and here I am today. Today is better than yesterday as far as I’m concerned, and hopefully, tomorrow will be better than today.”
Anthony Akaeze is a Houston-based journalist who began his career in his home of Nigeria. He specializes in reporting on faith from an African perspective.
This article was made possible by gifts to the Mark Wingfield Fund for Interpretive Journalism.