Wendy Klesch, Special to The Catholic Virginian

According to Father Daniel Malingumu, it’s a long story — a story that begins with three cows, spans almost 7,500 miles, and leads to a friendship. 

Father Malingumu, pastor at Church of the Ascension Parish, Virginia Beach, is from the Urambo district in northwestern Tanzania. He came to the Diocese of Richmond in 2012, after studying at Xavier University in Cincinnati. After a year serving the cluster parishes of Hampton, he was assigned to Ascension, just in time to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his ordination as a priest.

“When I came to Ascension in 2013, I started sharing my stories about Africa, about Tanzania, and about myself. Every time I preach, there is a story,” Father Malingumu said. 

One of the stories concerned his time in the seminary. 

“I come from a very large family, and my parents were unable to pay my school fees,” he said, “and I was asked to go home. One of my classmates wrote to his parents, telling them, ‘My friend Daniel has to leave—is there any way you can help his parents?’ 

“And so his parents met with my parents, and they talked about it. His parents decided to sell three cows to get the money so that I could return.” 

Father Malingumu said that even though his friend did not finish the seminary, his family helped another to become a priest. 

“So now he is a father of three,” he said, “and I’ve become a priest because they had compassion. It shows that sometimes, when you take a risk, something good can happen out of that.” 

After hearing the story, parishioners at Ascension decided to help Father Malingumu celebrate his jubilee by raising enough money to buy three cows. They sent the money to his former classmate’s family as a way to thank them for helping their pastor decades ago. 

Ascension, meet St. Ludovic Parish

The more parishioners heard about Father Malingumu’s life in Tanzania, the more questions they asked him. 

“People said, ‘We would like to do something more,’” he said.

Father Malingumu asked the archbishop of Tabora how Ascension parishioners might help his home archdiocese. The archbishop suggested the Virginia Beach parish assist St. Ludovic Parish in Ulyankulu, Tanzania, where many of the parishioners are refugees from Burundi, a country to the west that has been subject to war and unrest for decades. 

Since Burundi’s independence in 1962, two waves of genocide have devastated the country — one in 1972 and one in 1993 — with each driving people into Tanzania. 

“There has been a refugee settlement there for 30 years. Two years ago, the government of Tanzania decided to grant them citizenship,” Father Malingumu said. 

The parish also has a school for teens and young adults, with around 110 students. 

 “They had started a school for girls who had gotten pregnant and who wanted to return to school; once you are pregnant, in Tanzanian schools, you are not allowed to come back and rejoin your classmates,” Father Malingumu explained.  “So they began a school to help these vulnerable girls. As they say, ‘To educate women is to educate the nation.’”  

The girls live at the school and many of them travel home on weekends to visit their children, who are being cared for by parents or extended family. 

Father Malingumu said there are also boys at the school, many of whom have lost their parents to HIV. The school recently sent some of its first graduates off to universities.  

In 2014, when the priest went home to visit his family, he invited several parishioners to go with him, to see St. Ludovic Parish firsthand and to meet with some of the students. Among them was Ruth Brogan, director of social justice at Ascension. 

“It was very impressive to see how dedicated the students are, how much they make do with what they have,” Brogan said.

“I asked one of the students what he would like to do, and he said he wanted to be president of Tanzania someday,” she said.  “There was also a girl who wanted to be an airline pilot, and a few girls who hoped to be doctors. They were all very ambitious.” 

The school also has also started a brickmaking endeavor and a piggery to serve the St. Ludovic community and to raise money to help support the students.  

A friendship takes flight

In 2014, a group of Ascension parishioners began the Global Solidarity Ministry to organize efforts to aid St. Ludovic and to raise awareness of other global issues and causes, such as fair trade, the plight of Christians in the Middle East, and Catholic Relief Service’s Rice Bowl program.  

The ministry keeps parishioners updated with news from Tabora and with information on other causes by means of a large, colorful bulletin board in the church commons. 

Kevin Petersen, who has led the group since 2015, said the parish’s link to St. Ludovic has been a unique experience. 

“Even from the beginning, the focus was not just on a financial relationship, but about building a real relationship with another parish, to share our faith,” he said.

“A friendship,” said his wife, Amy Petersen, who is also a member of the ministry.

For Christmas 2015, the parish sent a large banner to St. Ludovic, reading “Merry Christmas to St. Ludovic Parish! Peace be with you, From the parishioners of Church of the Ascension, Virginia Beach, Virginia, USA.” It was signed with personal notes in colorful markers. Parishioners of St. Ludovic sent back a photo of themselves with the banner, which they had had framed. 

The Virginia Beach parish has raised money to purchase two brickmaking machines for St. Ludovic’s youth group, and children at Ascension’s Vacation Bible School have collected money for the school.

In Lent 2017, the Global Solidarity Ministry launched a larger campaign, allowing parishioners to contribute to specific causes and help with specific needs. A large poster in the commons offered suggestions about how one might contribute: $24 to provide a uniform, $63 to provide tuition for a student for a semester, $300 to provide one year of lodging for a student. 

Members of the Global Solidarity Ministry waited in the commons after Mass to answer questions and collect donations, Kevin Petersen said. They also distributed laminated bookmarks, each with a picture of a student, his or her first name, and a prayer, so that parishioners could pray for the students as well.  

The group raised $10,000 that it sent to the parish through the Archdiocese of Tabora.                

Providing wheels  

Some of the money raised by the ministry was also earmarked for bicycles — a needed mode of transportation for catechists in the rural region. 

“The system there is very different,” Father Manligumu said. 

In the parish, which serves around 5,500 Catholics, there is the main church, and there are 45 outstations, some of which are up to 30 miles away. Priests often travel by motorbike throughout the week to celebrate Mass at the various outstations in the countryside.

Each outstation is manned by at least one catechist, a volunteer who conducts the Liturgy of the Word, teaches religious education classes, and helps parishioners in his/her area however he/she can. Bicycles help the catechists get around, especially during times when the priest can’t reach the area. 

During the rainy season, roughly from November through February, the roads are often impassable, Father Malingumu said. 

“During the dry months we travel and do all the weddings and baptisms.”

“The roads there are like nothing I’ve seen,” Brogan said, adding ruefully, “I think when we were there we broke the suspension in Father Daniel’s brother’s car.” 

The parishes have exchanged visits—the archbishop of Tabora, Archbishop Paul Ruzoka, visited Ascension in April 2017, and a second group of parishioners traveled to Tabora last year. The parishes have exchanged photos and videos of how holidays and feast days are celebrated in the different cultures. 

Feast days in Tanzania are celebrated with a bit more zeal than they are in the United States, Father Malingumu said. On the feast of Corpus Christi, for example, parishioners hold a long and colorful procession 

“After the procession, there’s a big celebration — everybody shares a meal. It’s right after the harvest, so there is plenty of food,” he said. 

During Holy Week parishes often hold a Passion Play on Good Friday. St. Ludovic parishioners sent Ascension photos of their recent play, which the Global Solidarity Ministry used to decorate their bulletin board in the church commons. 

Kevin Petersen said he hopes the relationship will continue to grow. 

“It’s about taking an interest in the world beyond our local community. We, as Catholics, are all a part of the Body of Christ — and the Body of Christ is really worldwide,” he said. “The relationship we have with St. Ludovic has definitely put a human face on that.”

And, possibly, just as a family in Tabora once helped the future pastor of Church of the Ascension, families in Virginia Beach may one day find they have a friend in the new president of Tanzania. 

Editor’s note: For slideshows documenting the parishioners’ trip to Tanzania and for videos sent by St. Ludovic, see the Church of Ascension website http://www.ascensionvb.org/Tanzania-. Note the hyphen on the end of the address.