By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published August 17, 2006
Over 500 African-American priests and laypersons journeyed from across the nation to Atlanta for the 2006 Interregional African-American Catholic Evangelization Conference, where they focused on becoming better evangelizers through prayer, the sacraments and solid formation, and trusting in God’s grace and love to overcome any personal limitations.
The conference was held Aug. 4-6 with the theme of “Getting’ on the Good Foot, Runnin’ to the Kingdom,” capitalizing on the spirit of Isaiah as he called the people who had grown complacent in exile in Persia to return to Jerusalem to work and wait for the promises of God to be fulfilled. The conference grew out of a National Black Catholic Congress regional meeting in Louisiana focused on evangelizing African-Americans in 1993, and the first conference was held in 1995 in Memphis, Tenn. This year’s event drew people from over 20 dioceses, including sizable numbers of youth and young adults. There was a youth summit and a young adult roundtable to create a national agenda for outreach to the young as part of preparations for the National Black Catholic Congress in 2007 in Buffalo, N.Y., which is held every four years. According to the NBCC Web site, there are an estimated 3 million African-American Catholics in the United States out of the 69.1 million Catholics in total, and globally 270 million of African descent out of over a billion worldwide.
The opening and closing Masses were celebrated by Bishop Martin Holley, D.D., auxiliary bishop of Washington, D.C. Workshops addressed catechesis, health issues among African-Americans, spirituality, relationships and evangelization. Other sessions included one on the “body and soul” wellness program to promote eating five to nine fruits and vegetables daily, HIV ministry, sacred movement, effective programs for youth and children, the diaconate, healthy marriage and “hip hop hypocrisy.”
Conference coordinating team member Bertharene Young of Memphis, Tenn., was on hand at a registration table to greet participants. She recalled the first time she attended the conference in Baltimore with a busload from Memphis.
“I became involved and so excited about what was going on in the Catholic faith. And there are many good things happening and our role (as African-Americans) is becoming more monumental each day. And it’s important that our ethnicity be remembered in the liturgy. Every culture should have a right to display their own ethnicity, celebrating who they are, what they are and whose they are. And we can’t ever forget that—particularly whose we are.”
Ethnicity was indeed celebrated in the liturgies, starting with an African drum call to worship. Kevin Johnson, Ph.D., director of the music department at Spelman College, and his wife, Celeste, orchestrated music for the event. They assembled a choir from various churches and were assisted by Morehouse student Jason Taylor and their son Kevin Thomas, who sang and played drums.
Priests and Religious wore brightly colored stoles on vestments with designs including that of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a black angel and the Josephite order that ministers to black Catholics. Classic hymns included “Lead Me, Guide Me,” “Total Praise” and “We’ve Come This Far by Faith.” Liturgical dancers clad in rose, tan and pink-colored leotards and skirts danced and carried in bowls of burning incense.
During Saturday’s reconciliation service Celeste Johnson led the music, including pieces like “Standin’ in the Need of Prayer” and even a Kanye West rap song “Jesus Walks,” where she paced the room while circling her arm to stir the congregants, including Father Anthony Bozeman who stood up among priests and began swaying to the music. Drums with zebras and elephant pictures were set before the altar as were woven baskets.
At the opening Mass Bishop Holley spoke of the importance of having solid catechetical formation through the study of the catechism, Scripture, church documents and the lives of the saints, and of feeding one’s spirit to become enlightened through Christ and thus being also a light to others.
“Don’t settle for junk food or fast food when you can have a gourmet meal,” said the tall and commanding cleric. “Jesus is serving up the finest spiritual food one can give, as he taught people in the synagogues. Some rejected the finest spiritual food and preferred junk food. Today they are what we might call spinning heads, eyes and ears closed and focused on themselves.”
And they must always speak the truth in love, even though they may be rejected as Christ was, he added. They must also always be humble, a spirit which is fostered through confession, “a vital part of the spiritual journey.”
“When we tell the truth we have to be totally accepting, loving and forgiving because the truth sets us free,” he said. “Through our union with Christ we are called, all of us, baptized, to help build up the kingdom of God. That’s evangelization. That’s why we’re here and what we want to continue to learn. Each of us has a role and function to contribute in the new springtime of evangelization. This conference provides an excellent opportunity to encourage leadership and development in our communities where we love and go to school.”
While they must strive to grow in academic formation and pastoral experience, the bishop stressed that “it is important to have a loving heart and to be open to the fact that Jesus Christ calls each of us to holiness of life.”
“You and I are called to be saints,” he continued.
Being the feast day of St. John Vianney, he said that this French priest was ordained during the French Revolution and was considered uneducated because, as priests were forbidden then to teach, he was only tutored by a priest. He “got ordained not for education but for holiness. He prayed and fasted and God’s love began to reach deep down in his heart, and he listened not only with his ears but with his heart to the teachings of the faith and people began to go to confession,” he said. “We are all called to holiness of life. We are all sinners. … Holiness attracts holiness.”
He challenged those gathered. “The church needs you to be evangelizers, but before we can do that we need to be evangelized by the love of God and that happens through reconciliation and the Eucharist. And I believe that’s how we can get on the good foot …”
During a Friday workshop on nurturing vocations in young people in one’s community, seminarian Christopher Rhodes took the podium and told his vocation story, beginning by singing a cappella “Jesus You Are the Center of My Joy,” as everyone joined in. He told how the first seed of his vocation was planted when his uncle took him to a Protestant church as a boy and as they entered the worship space late the minister called the boy forward and boldly said that God was calling this young man to serve God’s people one day.
“I didn’t know what to think of that,” he said. For years afterwards he would go to different churches where he received similar messages, which the youth tried his best to ignore.
“I’d keep going to another church; I was literally running.” But he did stay active in ministry, and as a student at Morehouse College took a job as a chapel assistant at King Chapel until he was given notice that it needed to be filled by someone aspiring to become a minister. So he later was studying at the Lyke House Catholic Center, where he liked to use its library, and ran into chaplain Father Edward Branch, who told the newly unemployed Protestant that he could work for him. So he became ministry assistant there, even leading a Bible study. While talking to a career counselor she suggested ministry, after which he prayed to God to give him a sign if he was called. Soon thereafter a woman began calling “reverend” loudly for him at church one day, but then said “Oh, you’re not the reverend, you just look like one.”
“From that point on after being baptized and confirmed into the Catholic Church, I decided to answer my call, after speaking with Father Branch.”
The young adult challenged them to consider who might have a call in their communities.
“I believe we have people around us who are being called and fail to see it. A call to vocations is not just an individual call but a call to communities.”
Father Bozeman also told his vocation story, which reflected how others’ encouragement made it much easier for him to finally say ‘yes’ to his calling after years of suppressing it.
Father Bozeman told how his father was an inactive Catholic and his mother was Protestant, but that they had their children baptized Catholic to attend Catholic school. The boy grew up admiring the loving witness of the priest at his parish, who would make special visits to the school where he could barely walk through the playground as children grabbed his feet. His whole class would stand up, too, when he came into a room. He became a proud altar boy to get closer to the beloved priest where he “felt special, like I was doing something really good,” and was even interviewed for a feature on the parish in the local newspaper where he proudly declared he would become a priest. But by his sophomore year in high school “it was the last thing I wanted to do,” as his new priority became to rush over to the girls’ high school. He dropped out of college to go to the Air Force and was a Sunday obligation–only Catholic. Later he returned home and took a good government job, bought a house and a Toyota MR2, and became engaged.
“I was a quasi-good young man … happy but not really happy.”
One day in the library he ran into the priest who in 1974 became the first African-American to be ordained for the archdiocese, whom he knew growing up. The priest recognized the young man and said, “‘Bozeman, right? Anthony, right?’ The next thing out of his mouth was ‘you were thinking about becoming a priest. What ever happened with that?’ It was like an Alfred Hitchcock movie. I said I don’t know what happened. He spent the next two and a half hours talking with me about why I should become a priest.”
He wrestled with the idea, feeling a desire to marry, and also asking God for a sign, after which he kept meeting people who asked him if he’d ever considered priesthood. He was also encouraged by his parish priest and later asked to become a Eucharistic minister. Finally he said, “I surrender. If you still want me after all I’ve been through and all I’ve done, if you still want me to work for You and Your people then I’ll give it a shot.”
He entered the seminary to become a priest for the Philadelphia Archdiocese and was ordained in May 2000.
He called the priest shortage in the United States a “crisis” and urged parents to encourage their children to consider priesthood or Religious life as was done in decades past, noting that Mary didn’t have grandchildren either.
“I’ve never been happier,” he concluded. “I can’t imagine what my life would have been if I hadn’t said ‘yes’ to God. I still love women to death, but now I have the opportunity to love with Agape love,” he said. “God is funny because he calls people who don’t want to do it. … Open your eyes. God is calling you.”
All vocations are good but “we have to fortify the call to Religious life and the priesthood and the diaconate because these vocations are suffering. We need folks to serve God in this awesome call.”
He said that for many, seminary is a time to continue discerning if they are really called. Once he entered seminary “the more it reinforced the call that was given to me,” he said. “You have the opportunity to pray and talk to like-minded people. It will let you see if you’re doing what God is calling you to.”
He encouraged those gathered to invite women very active in church life to consider Religious life as “a sister is a powerful witness.”
“We’ve got to be about assisting in God’s business, be the instruments of the Holy Spirit.”
Sister Patsy Guyton, a member of the Sisters for Christian Community religious order, encouraged attendees in the vocations workshop to encourage young women to investigate the many religious orders for women, which today have very diverse charisms and attract women from many careers ranging from doctors to attorneys to counselors, in addition to teachers and nurses. Her order formed after the Second Vatican Council and evolved from a group of laywomen who had come together to pray.
Sister Patsy used to want to get married, but many people asked her if she had ever thought about being a sister. Finally she decided to give it a try and enter the community, making her vows yearly, which allowed her to leave the door open in case “Prince Charming” came calling.
“They said we will pray with you until you find a husband.” She said with a smile that God’s grace provides, as one man she had been romantically involved with moved out of town. She noted how God calls people as they are, as she is still the same person as she’s always been and still wears loop earrings and avoids make-up just like she did in high school.
“The way I am is my own personality. The only thing that changed is it went from ‘Miss’ to ‘Sister’ and the kids call me ‘Miss Sister Patsy.’”
“I was wanting and looking for a husband and did not find one, but all things work together for good for those who are called according to His plan and His purpose,” stressed the sister. “The thing is to give our lives totally over to God. … If you will … be still the voice of God will lead you every time. Each of us has a vocation. I just happen to have ‘Sister’ in front of my name. Whatever our calling is we should do it with joy and expectation, expect to be blessed where you are and the voice will lead you day by day,” she said, encouraging them to find a spiritual director and a prayer group.
“My prayer is that we hear the voice of God each and every day. … He leads you to where he wants you to go. … I pray that what God has called you to do you do it to the best of your ability.”
Attendee Bob Frazier of Louisville, Ky., said in an interview following the liturgy that he feels that the conference reflects the strength and hope of the church anew following the sexual abuse scandal. Wearing an African tribal shirt and a medallion showing a Native American who provided critical support in the Lewis and Clark expedition to the Northwest, along with a medal of Our Lady of Guadalupe, he expressed his belief that it’s very positive how the church has throughout history embraced different cultures and how “now that’s becoming more known and celebrated with Hispanics, Asians, Ukrainians. I think it’s all grounded from a similar vision.”
He appreciated that the conference shows “spirit and a celebration of culture because African-Americans are very culturally oriented,” he continued. Frazier, who brought his son, added that it’s very important to focus on youth and preaching the Gospel while reinforcing their culture and identity to steer them away from self-destructive behavior like drug use and to help them make good choices. The lively convert serves at his parish as a lector, eucharistic minister, and on the parish council and other roles in the archdiocese and in the larger community, and strives to always “be involved” rather than passive and to show his faith in daily life by speaking about it, and especially by being caring towards others at work.
“It’s all about giving. I’ve been blessed,” he said, and when “blessings are given to you, you give them back to others.”
But as he gives back, he also strives to maintain a balanced life with focus on family, finances, spirituality, social life and intellectual life, taking time to pray and meditate, work out, eat healthy, play tennis and relax with non-lyrical jazz music.
Catherine McKenzie said after the Mass that during the conference she had developed a deeper appreciation for Catholic teaching on the Eucharist, “the thing that separates us from everyone else.”
“I do believe when I take the Eucharist I become one with Christ at that moment.”
She became a catechist two years ago after retiring and teaches adult religious education.
“I like teaching the Bible and the foundation of the church teachings in the Bible,” she said, noting how the young used to more easily accept church teachings but now ask more questions, for which the faithful are challenged to always have a clear answer.
Kofi Hunter, a tall 15-year-old wearing baggy jeans, an orange conference T-shirt and baseball cap, came with other youth from St. Anthony Church in Atlanta. He tries to evangelize by being prepared to answer questions he often gets at school about the faith as well and to do community service projects through his church. He left with a sense that “youth need to be more involved in church and how we can make a difference as well as anybody else,” he said. “Love is the key to keeping the world intact and keeping it thriving and keeping us from destroying ourselves.”
Khristian Palmer-Rhodes, 16, came from Baltimore and gained a better sense of discerning truth and the need to make smart decisions, such as abstaining from sex, that build her sense of self-respect and protect her from rampant sexually transmitted diseases. She sings in the youth choir at her church and participates in youth ministry where she has an assigned mentor with whom she can confide about adolescent struggles. She was challenged to have a more positive relationship with her parents. Palmer-Rhodes also is a serious student and believes “if I wasn’t Catholic I don’t think I’d be as smart or as good a person.”
The conference above all was a good place to meet other black Catholic youth and to be reminded “how Catholics should be proud to be Catholic,” she said.
Regional coordinator and founding conference leader M. Annette Mandley-Turner, who also leads the youth and young adult commission for the NBCC along with John Phillips of the Atlanta Office for Black Catholic Ministry, said that this year’s conference emphasized reaching youth and young adults in response to the concern about their participation in the church. She is happy that over half of participants this year were from those age groups and children. “As we look toward the future our goal has to embrace youth and young adults in a different way. We’re going to have to make room at the table for them like we do for other diverse populations. We’re going to have to listen to them, what they’re saying…not just plan for them.”
She believes that evangelization to African-Americans generally must take a holistic approach to supporting the whole family through addressing other NBCC principles of parish life, racism, HIV, education, social justice, and connection with Africa, “if we are going to share the word in such a way that people will hear it as a teen and sojourn with us.”
As a convert she began as a teen attending religious education classes with friends, impressed by the activities for youth and the “freedom” of faith, so she has a profound appreciation for evangelization. “It was because of that evangelization initiative that was put forth that I’m a member of our faith and this is the mission of the Church, sharing the good news with all whom we meet, that we would set the hearts of those we find in our midst on fire from having heard us witness and seen the type of life or journey we’ve been on with Jesus,” she said. “I just welcome the opportunity to be engaged in a conference such as this, and I feel it’s a vital part of our faith.”