Published January 18, 2007
Father Roy Lee, Ed.D., challenged those at the first Martin Luther King Jr. gathering for young adults to find the courage to take risks and to use their gifts to edify the multicultural church and society of North Georgia.
It was the first MLK archdiocesan event specifically for young adults and was held at Shout restaurant Jan. 14 by the Office of Black Catholic Ministry, with the support of the Office of Young Adult Ministry and the Office of Hispanic Ministry, to celebrate the unity of faith in diversity.
“It’s your church as well as the pastor’s church. It’s your church, and therefore you have to stand up to the plate, step out and let us hear your voice, and you are called to make a difference,” affirmed the priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee as he stood before a long table of white marble around which sat dozens of young adults in the dimly lit Bamboo Room.
“This celebration is not just an African-American celebration—it’s a human celebration to make us fully human. When I have lifted one, I have lifted myself. When I have liberated one, I have liberated myself. Paul called it the mystical body, King called it the inescapable well, that when one suffers we all suffer.”
Georgia Tech doctoral student Sekou Remy, a native of Trinidad and Tobago who attends St. Anthony of Padua Church in Atlanta and the Lyke House at Atlanta University Center, was among those in attendance. He was preparing to walk the next day in the MLK march downtown. Before moving to Atlanta, Remy was only vaguely familiar with King but now has come to admire the man’s extraordinary contribution as an ordinary citizen.
“He never considered himself anything special. He was an average student, but he seemed to put himself—mind, body and soul—to the cause. He was not the only one who did anything, but he was definitely a leader, and there is something to be said about his leadership. When it came down to making tough decisions and acting with courage, he definitely did.”
Remy feels called to contribute to society through teaching engineering and, as a Catholic, views his faith as integral to that mission.
“Education is the great equalizer. There is much to be said about having good educators and that’s what I hope I will be at some point,” he said, adding, “It would be difficult to get away from the fact that I am Catholic. … While I may teach engineering in a secular classroom, I am who I am.”
Emcee Paula Cadavid, representing the Office of Hispanic Ministry, opened the event saying, “We are here tonight to come together in dialogue about how we can, through our cultural diversity, build bridges among all of us.”
The crowd of mostly African-Americans, but also those of Hispanic, Caucasian and other ethnicities, dined on sushi and wood-fired vegetable pizzas as Father Lee reminded them of the suffering endured and the sacrifices made by African-Americans who came before them, to enable them to experience the fullness of choices and opportunities they enjoy today, even to be a Catholic priest.
He cited the document by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called “Welcoming the Stranger Among Us: Unity in Diversity” and challenged attendees to welcome their brother and sister immigrants of every culture and ethnicity in Christian solidarity and to actively support the church’s campaign for comprehesive immigration reform to address illegal immigration and the undocumented population.
“A church that has many faces and comes from many cultural backgrounds, gender differences, ideology differences—and we can eat from the same table and then at the same time not feel welcomed, at the same time not appreciated, feel alienated and disconnected, and yet we still come back,” said the adjunct professor of humanities, who resides in Atlanta.
He connected King’s vision of the beloved community to welcoming all of God’s diverse peoples. “We have come a mighty long way, and I thank God for that. … Just think where we might be 50 years from now if we put the ax to the grind and take the challenge that is set before us and make a difference, stepping out.”
He noted how King, a Baptist, was inspired by the philosophy of nonviolence of Mahatma Gandhi of India.
“As we grow spiritually there is something that grows deep within the recesses of our souls and calls us to step out,” he said. “King wasn’t even a Roman Catholic, but he was embedded in the concept and reality of truth—he was rooted in the concept in the reality of justice, of righteousness,” he continued. “Gandhi, MLK stepped out. They transcended the realities of denominations that keep us separated. They went from religiosity to spirituality.”
God will support them, he assured, when they live for His glory. “When you step out ya’ll better be ready because when Rosa Parks stepped out she had consequences, but she didn’t fear nobody because she knew something was wrong with the system. When MLK stepped out, he feared nobody. There was a God bigger than the universe dwelling in the innermost being of who they are. They were ready to lay their life down for the movement. We’ve got to stand for something, or we are going to fall for anything,” he said.
“The forefathers who wrote the Constitution of the United States, they weren’t Roman Catholic but they were divinely inspired to write the Constitution based on the reality that all men and women are created equal, and they didn’t have any idea that we were going to stand on the promises of those truths.”
Father Lee invited the young adults to become more involved in their parishes as leaders and in the “Justice for Immigrants” church campaign. “Are we really doing what we need to do as a people to meet the needs of the people who come to the local church every single day? … We also have got to respond to the needs of the young church because I have met many young Catholics who have walked away. … Our church is big enough for everyone to sit at the table and eat from the one loaf.”
“God meets us where we are in this particular time in history. He wants us to bring that to the church because we have a gift,” he continued. “We need to hear your voice because your voice is the voice of God dwelling in you.”
The priest challenged the crowd by saying that when they welcome the stranger they affirm their value as God’s children. Welcoming the stranger must involve coming into respectful dialogue with those who are of different races, ethnicities, educational, and economic levels.
“Bring your song, bring your language, bring your music, bring your culture, bring your experience of God and let us celebrate because life is nothing but a celebration,” he encouraged them. “Stepping out of the box, (toward) the stranger among us, we’re called to make a difference. Let’s not wait too long. … The church is evolving and it needs constant renewal.”
They must educate the next generation on the history of civil rights, while spending more time with older family members and learning about their heritage.
“A people without a history is a people without a destiny.”
Deacon Hilliard Lee told the young adults that many local Catholic leaders stood up during the civil rights era, while also acknowledging memories of walking into a Catholic church and being told to go to the “colored pew” and Catholics who failed to support the movement. He went on to advise them not to take for granted or “throw away” the opportunities they have.
“I’m a child of the movement, and Catholic priests and nuns stood with us at Atlanta University Center and walked with us and ate with us and prayed with us all over the cities of the South—not all the priests but there are some great pastors in the archdiocese. … These priests and nuns opened these doors,” he said. “Those of you who are here, go to the pastor and say, ‘I’m ready.’”
Charles Prejean, director of the Office for Black Catholic Ministry, then urged them to trust in the Holy Spirit to empower them in their challenges. He told how he came to Atlanta at 26 to run a community economic development nonprofit that grew out of the movement, and within eight months, he and others raised over $800,000. The organization is still around today, called the Federation of Southern Cooperatives.
John Phillips of the black Catholic ministry staff said that his office is in dialogue with the Hispanic and young adult ministry offices about how they can collaborate and plan more activities to foster unity in diversity.
Native Colombian Felipe Gonzalez came with other students from Southern Catholic College in Dawsonville. He also has learned much more about King since moving to Atlanta and admires him as a great leader who created a more just society for all. His legacy teaches him to be more open to people of all nationalities and races. “You accept people for who they are.”
Kandra Ashby, co-chair of YAM at St. Paul of the Cross Church in Atlanta, helped plan the event and also participated in the fifth annual MLK Youth Celebration at St. Peter Claver Regional School in Decatur earlier that day. The 30-year-old vividly remembers her family’s joy to see the national holiday established for King and now strives to heighten awareness of his legacy in children. She endeavors to do her part by working with older adults in need, children and the homeless, just “giving back to the community.” King’s willingness to give his life to stand up for the rights of all, she said, is “awe-inspiring to me.”
Don Jeanne, 37, is another member of St. Paul of the Cross, where he serves as a lector and a YAM leader, and he also sponsors a child in India through the Christian Foundation about Children and Aging. Following the talk he expressed his concern about social injustice today that 37 million Americans live in poverty. He believes that in the United States there should be no poverty and that “it’s not enough of a rank and file issue of regular Catholic people,” he said. “Every pastor of every parish should have the problem every Monday morning” of having collected a surfeit of food at weekend Masses.
He appreciates that the Catholic Church has advocated for social justice for centuries. “This is something that resonates in the Catholic Church. We have had movements of social justice and heroes of social justice throughout our history. Dorothy Day is probably the most recent,” said Jeanne. “With nuns getting arrested at the School of the Americas and the Holy Father pointing out the great injustice of conflict and poverty and corruption that is killing the world, social justice is in our veins.”