Teaching with tacos at St. Christopher

It all started when a St. Christopher fourth grader asked Father Raymond Igbogidi what she thought would be a simple, yes-or-no question: “Do you like tacos?”

When Father Raymond, a Nigerian-born priest currently spending his sabbatical year at St. Christopher, responded that he had never had a taco before, a plan was hatched: The fourth graders invited Father Raymond to join them at their next “Taco Tuesday” lunch in the school cafeteria.

On Nov. 3, Father Raymond waited in line with the 9- and 10-year-olds to pick up his noontime tray of goodies: two taco shells – one hard, one soft – surrounded by all the fixings Americans typically pile inside.

Corn, milk, fresh fruit and dessert rounded out the day’s lunch, the latter a cinnamon bun that Father Raymond said would only be sold at finer stores in Nigeria because of the high cost of imported cinnamon.

“Very nice!” Father Raymond said to the fourth graders, after biting into his inaugural taco. The priest proceeded to take the youngsters through a tour of his tray’s contents.

“In Nigeria we enjoy spicy food, so the (taco) meat tastes familiar to me,” he said, adding that the corn, lettuce and tomatoes on his plate in Metairie would also be staples on tables in his homeland.

“Cheese wouldn’t be too common in Nigeria, though,” said Father Raymond, who initially mistook his plastic container of shredded cheddar for carrots.

Although he tried everything on his plate, Father Raymond admitted that he preferred the soft taco wrapper to the hard shell. It was also clear he wasn’t wild about sour cream.

“Butter would be more common in Nigeria,” he told the children.

The food education course didn’t stop there. Father Raymond said that in Nigeria, the starch of choice is “cassava” – a root vegetable more commonly known as yucca. He speculated that a “Nigerian taco” would place the fixings inside bread made with cassava and flour.

“Cassava is eaten at most meals,” he said. “It is processed into what we call garri.”

Ordained in 1998, Father Raymond, St. Christopher’s parochial vicar, came to the Archdiocese of New Orleans last summer following six years as a Catholic high school principal in his native Diocese of Warri, in southern Nigeria.

From the beginning of school in August, Father Raymond dove right into elementary school life, popping into the classrooms of all grade levels and joining students in their games at recess, often dressed in his traditional Nigerian clothing as a means of sharing his native culture with curious students.

Father Raymond developed a special relationship with St. Christopher’s three homerooms of fourth graders after one of the teachers, Peggy Gravois, invited the priest to speak to her students about Africa at the conclusion of a social studies unit on the continents.

“They had so many questions at that first talk, the students said, ‘Will you come back?’” said religion teacher Sue Martina.

Lessons taught by Father Raymond thus far have included those on Nigerian money (naira) and the Nigerian national anthem. The fourth graders also learned the English translation of the priest’s Nigerian name of Arohokenu – “Salvation comes first” – and that Nigerian children have the same cars, pets, video games, big-box stores, school uniforms and love for soccer as they do.

As parochial vicar, Father Raymond shares the load of daily and weekend Masses with St. Christopher’s pastor, Father Frank Candalisa. Ironically, the Gospel for the school Mass celebrated the day Father Raymond was introduced to tacos was about the guests who turned down their invitations to a wedding banquet – symbolic of how we tend to make excuses when God invites us to the eternal banquet of heaven.

During the homily, Father Raymond connected his upcoming taco lunch to the wedding banquet in the parable, asking his young congregants: “How would the fourth graders feel if I didn’t show up for lunch today?”

St. Christopher’s fourth graders have also learned how Nigeria differs from the United States.

Martina said the youngsters were “horrified” to learn that Nigerian children do not celebrate Halloween and have no reliable source of electricity from day to day.

Nigeria is also a notoriously generous country in which people always share food with visitors, no matter how little they might have.

So when a fellow diner at the recent Taco Tuesday commended Father Raymond for cleaning his plate, the priest seized the moment to teach one more lesson.

“In Nigeria,” he said, “we don’t like to waste food.”

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