“I am indelibly tied to Nigeria. It’s in my bloodstream, if you will,” says Dr. Peter Paris, describing his lifelong connection to the country that began fifty years ago when he became Canada’s first Crossroader.
Now Professor Emeritus at Princeton Theological Seminary, Dr. Paris travelled to Nigeria in 1958 with Operations Crossroads Africa, the American forerunner to Canadian Crossroads International. The trip was one of many firsts. It was Crossroads’ first placement in Africa, one of the first organized overseas volunteer efforts in North America, as well as Dr. Paris’ first trip to his ancestral homeland.
For reasons still unknown to Dr. Paris, the 1958 Crossroads work camp placement in Nigeria fell through. But it would prove to be a happy turn of events, one that was “enormously beneficial” for the twenty-five-year-old. The Crossroaders instead set out on a study-trip across the country with Nigerian students. “We basically taught each other one another’s culture, on what was an exchange of cultures,” he says. The trip fulfilled a childhood dream for Dr. Paris who had longed to discover his ancestral African roots since childhood. He remembers his amazement at finding himself part of a majority for the first time.
“I never could have imagined that there were so many black people in the entire universe,” remembers Dr. Paris with a laugh. “To have the experience for the first time of seeing whites as a minority was a tremendous contrast. And it was a welcoming contrast for me as an African-Canadian.”
Nigeria was on the brink of breaking free from colonial rule, later gaining independence in 1960. Crossroaders travelled the country with their new Nigerian friends, meeting with academics and government leaders who were passionately committed to their country’s independence. The Crossroaders’ experience was an eye-opener to the reality of colonial rule for Dr. Paris who describes his education till that point as an uncritical acceptance of colonialism.
“Crossroads Africa gave me an enormous amount of information about this very complex country, about Africa in general and especially the nature of colonialism, which I really did not have any full understanding because of my education in Canada,” recalls Dr. Paris. “The way colonialism was fed to us was very one-sided, almost as if it were the Institution of Benevolence for African peoples. But when you get to Africa and you begin hearing the voices of African people talking about themselves, you get a completely different, reverse impression about what colonialism was all about.”
The stimulating discussions and new friendships had a profound impact on the twenty-five-year-old. The theologian describes the powerful experience with a spiritual term.
“It was a revelatory experience, to use a theological term,” explains Dr. Paris. “A revelatory experience is one that causes you to look at everything else that you’ve done or thought differently because you get an insight that opens up everything else anew. That’s what the experience in Nigeria did for me.”
Dr. Paris returned to Nigeria three years later, working for several years with the Student Christian Movement of Nigeria. Africa continues to be at the heart of his intellectual and spiritual pursuits. Dr. Paris has written and lectured extensively on the spirituality of African peoples on the continent and in the diaspora.