Gonzaga theology professor Father Patrick Baraza unites African and Western traditions for Christmas

click to enlarge Gonzaga theology professor Father Patrick Baraza unites African and Western traditions for Christmas
Celebrate nature — leave the tree in the woods.

Father Patrick Wanakuta Baraza is an ordained priest from Kitale, Kenya, who speaks nine languages. He was born into his Catholic faith, is still practicing as a Catholic and teaches a variety of religious courses at Gonzaga University.

So Christmas is a big deal to him, just not in the way most Americans may be accustomed to.

"My people do not believe in the materialism or commercialism of the holiday," Baraza says. "We don't believe in cutting down the beautiful trees we find in nature just to throw them away after Christmas is over. We celebrate nature and don't put up any of those decorations."

The words "renewal" and "community," he says, are the most important ideals of the holiday to him. "I am because we are," he says, emphasizing the spiritual, communal nature of his yuletide belief.

Unfortunately, Baraza has not been able to return to Kenya since before the pandemic, but his hybrid celebration in the U.S. with his church community mixes Western culture with practices from his African home.

"We dress nice for our Christmas feast. We buy new clothes just for the occasion and eat meat since we do not do that regularly," Baraza says. "Chicken is a popular option for the meal. Christmas symbolizes 'renewal,' and I surround myself with my community to go into the new year."

That community includes his fellow parishioners, and part of his Christmas routine is attending church services. But that doesn't really set the day apart for him.

"I am an avid church-goer and will continue to attend services whether it is on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day or any other day of the year," he says. "I feel very blessed to be able to share, teach and spread my beliefs among the community."

Baraza joined Gonzaga's faculty in 2005 and teaches courses on African religions and Islamic civilization.

Before arriving in Spokane, Baraza was a student of theology at Pontificia Urban University in Rome, Italy. He has a Bachelor of Divinity degree from the Jesuit School of Theology and a doctorate in theology.

To kick off his teaching career, Baraza taught African Studies in Mabanga, Kenya, and when he decided to settle down in the U.S. he served as chaplain at Saint Mary's College in California for six years before moving to Washington state. Before joining Gonzaga's teaching faculty, Baraza taught comparative religions at Eastern Washington University and Spokane Community College.

He's currently working on his second book, Drumming up Dialogue. Which may or may not make a great gift.

"We do not practice gift-giving because being around each other in community is a gift itself," Baraza says. "When I am in the states, I try to do as the Americans do, but I don't want to give into everything." ♦

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