“Faces of Mission” is a bi-weekly blog series produced by the United States Catholic Mission Association highlighting our membership and all their work in and for mission. This week we feature Sr. Joanna Okereke, HHCJ, of the Handmaids of the Holy Child of Jesus and Assistant Director of the USCCB Office for Cultural Diversity in the Church. She will be attending the Mission Congress in Houston, TX from Oct. 1 – 4, 2015, and has previously spoken at the 2010 Mission Congress.
Called to be an Angel
Sr. Joanna Okereke is a Sister with the Congregation Handmaids of the Holy Child Jesus. As a young girl growing up in Nigeria, she saw religious Sisters working in her country and thought they were angels. She decided that she wanted to be an angel, too. She felt called to religious life from an early age, and this call has allowed her to devote her life to Christ and to serving others around the world. Sr. Joanna explains that her Congregation is missionary, and so the Sisters can be sent anywhere in the world. She says that she was not afraid, but rather “by being a Sister, wanting to serve, you just feel comfortable going.”
Sr. Joanna is very passionate about her mission work. She tells us that she reaches out and helps people because she believes “being alive is something to praise God about.” She wants others to feel the same love she feels, because she knows that so many of the people she ministers to feel hopeless. She works to support and pray with those people.
Handmaids of the Holy Child Jesus
The Congregation of the Handmaids of the Holy Child Jesus was founded in Nigeria by an
Irish Sister of Charity, Mother Mary Charles Magdalen Walker. Eventually, young girls from the area began to follow her. After 8 years, in 1931, Mother Mary Charles decided to establish an official congregation to carry on her work after she was no longer there. The Congregation focuses on children and women. They believe that educating women is extremely important so that they may be independent and free from past restrictions. Their apostolate has grown over the years, including education, medicine, pastoral ministry, social work, and missionary services. They now staff missions in multiple countries and cities around the world, including Ghana, Kenya, Cameroon, Granada, Germany, and Rome. As Sr. Joanna states, “our missionaries continue our ministry wherever we are needed.”
Sent to do God’s Will
When Sr. Joanna was first sent to the United States by her Congregation, she was told that she would be working with an African American community and teaching religious education. She accepted the position of Director of the Kumba Center in Alexandria, Louisiana. There she was in charge of various activities, such as after-school programs, CCD classes, working with the elderly, and bringing Communion to the home-bound. This Center allowed Sr. Joanna to reach out to the community and support them. She explains that they would have Mass together, and then they would all gather and talk. This gave Sr. Joanna the opportunity to see the needs of the community and then minister to them. It also gave her a foundation to begin her mission work here in the United States.
“I, too, am a Missionary.”
Being sent from Nigeria to do mission here in the United States, Sr. Joanna is a different
kind of missioner. She tells us that in 2010 she was a presenter at the Mission Congress and her topic was “I, too, am a missionary.” Through her story, we can reflect on how mission is not simply people from the United States going to serve the rest of the world, but it is rather any person, from anywhere in the world, going to serve the people of God. There are people all over the world that need help, even here in the US. Sr. Joanna ministers to people that are “looking for support, looking for food, looking for God.”
Today, Sr. Joanna works at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in the Subcommittee on Pastoral Care of Migrants, Refugees and Travelers. She works with people from all backgrounds who are migrants and workers. Sr. Joanna tells us a story about a time not long ago when her group went out to minister to a group of carnival workers in Maryland. She explains that many of them are Catholic, but they do not have an opportunity to go to Church while they are traveling, so Sr. Joanna’s group “brings Christ to them.”
Continuing the Mission
Sr. Joanna believes that mission is extremely important. She discusses how people are always impressed with missionaries, telling us, “The truth is, missionaries in the world are very important, and people admire it.” As she looks forward, Sr. Joanna simply wants mission to continue to grow, with the help of people who are committed and able to go out to people and bring them Christ.