By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published January 22, 2015
ATLANTA—A bridge-builder at the parish level and the retiring director of the Office for Black Catholic Ministry were both recognized at the annual archdiocesan Mass for the observance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
The annual Mass, celebrated Saturday, Jan. 17, at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Atlanta, honored the work of Charles O. Prejean Sr., who is retiring Jan. 31 as head of the black Catholic ministry.
Monica Plew, a staff member of St. Brendan the Navigator Church in Cumming and civil engineer by training, received the Father Bruce Wilkinson Founders Award.
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, who celebrated his 10th anniversary of installation as archbishop of Atlanta the same day, was principal celebrant. Father Desmond Drummer, parochial vicar at St. Peter Chanel Church in Roswell, was homilist.
Father Drummer reflected upon the ideas of novelist James Baldwin on human dignity and personhood to call attention to how those who are different, particularly immigrants, are treated.
“Each day, too many of God’s children are forced to claim their personhood as a form of resistance against human cruelty unleashed in the name of God and country,” said Father Drummer.
This is an occasion to remember those who are labeled because they are undocumented, are immigrants, because of their race, religion, beliefs, mother tongue and even health status, said the priest.
“My friends, this is why we are gathered here … to correct our path, to affirm the true promise of God,” he said.
Father Drummer recalled the work of King, saying that laboring in the vineyard against injustice can be tiresome.
“Some of us are weary and burdened today … some of us are restless today. And to us, the Lord says, ‘Come to me all you who labor and are burdened and I will give you rest,’” said Father Drummer. “This rest that the Lord gives us comes from the fact that Jesus is our peace.”
The Gospel of Matthew was the inspiration for the theme of the MLK weekend events in the archdiocese, “Come to Me and I Will Give You Rest.”
Father Drummer reminded that Jesus taught that even those in marginalized communities have an inner power that nothing can break.
Peace, he said, is not simply absence of war, but the ability to draw on inner strength and go the distance.
“It is very hard to preach in honor of Martin Luther King while staying in the lines,” said Father Drummer.
There are “countless” immigrants in the archdiocese, not just Hispanics, but also those from East Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and Europe who need the community’s attention, emphasized Father Drummer.
“Today it is our duty to shed light on them” so they will know the church, he said.
Jesus went to the peripheries and the margins of towns and the “margins of experiences,” said Father Drummer.
“Is your Lord calling you to the margins?” he asked.
Take ‘quantum leap of faith’
Being a prophet or a prophetic church comes at a cost, acknowledged Father Drummer, who was ordained in June 2014.
There are those who used to quote popes left and right, he noted. “All of a sudden they don’t know who Pope Francis is.”
Catholics are called to develop what King called the “world house” or a house of all people, said Father Drummer.
He added that the Catholic Church in America has the “rarest opportunity” on earth with so many diverse people coming to the table.
“We read the same readings and pray the same prayers,” he said. “Yet at best we are just putting up with one another.”
Take a “quantum leap of faith,” by embracing others and going to a parish where the people look different and where Mass is spoken in a different language to watch God move in other ways, encouraged Father Drummer.
Catholics can be “beacons of reconciliation,” he said.
“We need to be what our country needs to see,” he said. “Invite that change into your heart when you receive the Eucharist, not just now, but from this point forward.”
St. Brendan parishioner honored
It was 9-year-old Justin Nchako’s first time to attend the MLK Mass. He was there with his mother, Edith, a member of the Cameroon Catholic Women’s Association.
“He spoke for freedom. He didn’t do it violently,” said Justin, sharing what he knows about King.
Edith Nchako, a parishioner at St. Theresa Church in Douglasville, said the group was invited for the first time to participate by presenting the Lectionary.
The women do charitable work in Atlanta, including volunteering at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Home with cancer patients, but also raise funds for the underprivileged “back home” in Cameroon.
This year’s Father Bruce Wilkinson Founders Award winner is “one of those people that Father Desmond was talking about,” said Luella Chambers, chair of the award committee.
Born and raised in Colombia, South America, Plew came to the United States in 1999. She became a parishioner at St. Brendan in 2006 and an active volunteer in 2010.
Plew initially was assisting Hispanic families and working in billing for tuition, but then felt called to establish a program of Hispanic faith formation to catechize entire families through a biweekly program, even recruiting the teachers.
“Since beginning this program, Monica has assisted countless families in bringing their children, parents included, into full communion with the church,” said Chambers.
This is more than helping families just meet church requirements, but helping others to know and live the Catholic faith, added Chambers.
Despite personal challenges, including the loss of her father and a hand injury this year, Plew has never stopped working for others. Her formal training was in civil engineering and while she could build actual bridges, she works to construct bridges for souls instead. Plew’s personal experiences led her to this service.
“Before I came to this country, I was the majority,” she said.
In this country, she found not everyone was Catholic and certainly did not speak her language. At St. Brendan, Plew took the opportunity to work for God and says it has helped her own family and the parish. “Now we are one community,” she said. And in heaven, “we will be the same,” she added.
Plew was joined at Mass by her husband, Ricardo, their two children, and her mother. With teary eyes, she talked about her job in faith formation. “I would do all the work without pay,” said Plew.
“Yours is a vibrant parish and loving community. Thank you for helping to make it so,” Archbishop Gregory told her.
The archbishop also praised the St. Anthony of Padua Church Choir for providing “splendid” music for worship.
Charles Prejean recognized
Following Mass, Ashley Morris, assistant director of the Office for Black Catholic Ministry, presented a tribute to the ministry’s “fearless” director.
Morris assured all that retirement for Prejean did not mean retreating to a private island.
“Retirement is more a reorganizing of focus,” said Morris. “He is not riding off into the sunset.”
The Knights of Columbus and Knights of Peter Claver each presented Prejean with tokens of appreciation, and Morris read a proclamation on behalf of the city of Atlanta. The proclamation declared Jan. 17, 2015 as Charles O. Prejean Sr. Day in Atlanta.
Morris donned white gloves to unveil a new award to be presented annually, the Charles O. Prejean Unity Award. The award will recognize those who represent the voices or needs of those served by the Office for Black Catholic Ministry.
Archbishop Gregory thanked Prejean for his courage, patience and zeal, reminding the audience that Prejean had considered the priesthood. “And then he met Carmen, and a vocation decision was made,” said the archbishop of Prejean’s wife.
Archbishop Gregory said he is deeply grateful for Prejean’s “kindness and work.”
Prejean eloquently expressed gratitude to the archbishop, calling it a privilege to have worked for the archdiocese.
A Louisiana native who for many years was a leader in creating cooperatives for economic development in poor communities, Prejean has led the ministry since April 2000. He has worked to bring together African-American, Caribbean and African Catholics and to create programs that encourage participation in and involvement with the Hispanic, Vietnamese, Korean and European Catholic communities.
Prejean said the work with immigrants had been especially meaningful.
“People have so much to offer. Their salvation histories are so different,” he said.
Prejean’s closing words reminded all to connect with the goodness in each other.
“God’s goodness is for everybody,” he said.