The road from Rev. George Omwando’s village in Kenya, where there was no electricity or running water when he was growing up, to becoming a U.S. citizen, June 18, was exciting and difficult for the 41-year-old American African.
“The first time I watched TV,” he said, “was when I was in high school. We had no fridge, so what we ate came from our farm that day. Part of my training as a boy included how to take care of animals and milk cows.
“America does not teach you to appreciate things. Here you wake up, take a shower and assume when you turn the handle, there will be water. In my village we had to go to the river. If you put the Austin neighborhood in my area, it would be the richest city in the region.”
The pastor of St. Catherine-St. Lucy Catholic Church hopes that sharing his personal story will help his parishioners and neighbors view their own lives from a new and helpful perspective — the path that took him from milking cows to earning two post high school degrees to becoming a pastor in a foreign land and citizen of an adopted country.
“I came to America right after 9/11,” he recalled, “with an F1 student visa. While a student at Mundelein Seminary, I lived in a different parish each year — in Streamwood, Highland Park, Morton Grove, Lake Zurich and Chicago’s South Side — in order to become better acquainted with the socio-economic diversity in American culture.”
After two years as a “religious worker,” he was able to obtain a green card and the status of “permanent resident.” After three years, he underwent an FBI check and had to pass an exam on citizenship and American History — he wonders how many people who are already citizens could pass it — before finally taking the Oath of Allegiance in citizenship court two weeks ago.
“I tell people,” he said, “if I can come from this background with no electricity and become a pastor in Oak Park, you can do anything. It was not easy, but you can be anything you want in this country. I’m proud of my background. It’s part of me and made me a better priest as well as making me appreciate things that other people take for granted.”
Coming from a culture where he was in the racial majority enables him to think differently about race in this country.
“After studying American history and the Constitution,” he said, “I think America has come very far, and I believe that every day America is becoming a better nation.
“The only problem,” he added, “is that people here don’t let go of things that happened in the past. Kenya was colonized by the British and native Africans have suffered, but I harbor no anger toward the descendants of British colonizers now living in Kenya. My grandfather fought against their ancestors, but they themselves had nothing to do with that suffering. It’s part of my heritage, but I have to let go of it.”
He is struck by the racial tension in this country recently.
“As a priest you want to unite people,” he said. “On Sunday at St. Catherine-St. Lucy I see black, white and Hispanic people holding hands and coming to receive communion. I wish people would come here and see how we live, as opposed to what we see on the media.
“Sometimes I say my middle name is ‘flexible.’ Flexibility helps me let go. When I came here, I had to embrace a new life, but at the same time I don’t want to lose everything I grew up with, everything that I believe culturally.”
America, he said, has given him many gifts. One is learning how generous Americans can be. Another is learning how to cook. He said priests in Kenya live a kind of privileged life complete with a cook and a housekeeper.
“When my father visited me,” he said, “he was shocked that I cooked my own food and washed my own dishes.”
Another gift is dialog. “America also taught me that you solve an issue through dialog. I learned that in parish councils. I sometimes bring an idea to the group and, through dialog, it becomes much better because it is informed by the experience of other people.
“I do not have any pet projects,” he said. “I did not come to the United States to impose my agenda. I came to help people with their faith. I am learning every day.”