By MICHAEL ALEXANDER, Staff Photographer | Published January 22, 2015
ATLANTA—After nearly 15 years heading up the Office for Black Catholic Ministry, Charles Prejean is retiring. The 73-year-old Lafayette, Louisiana, native will be spending more time with his wife of 50 years, Carmen, their three children and their five grandchildren. Prejean plans to remain in the area where he attends Most Blessed Sacrament Church, Atlanta.
He responded to these questions in January as he prepared to retire.
When you came on board as director in April 2000, what were you charged to do or what was your number one goal?
Actually I was told very little, only that the OBCM was an evangelization ministry. … So, starting from scratch, I decided that I would define evangelization for the OBCM in the broadest of terms, as the mobilizing and engaging of increasing numbers of black Catholics and other Catholics in the life of the church for the spreading the Good News of the Gospel. I also believed that the black Catholic presence in the Catholic Church—its cultural significance and contributions—was hidden for too long and needed to be brought to light for the benefit of all. Our relationship to God over time was and still is unique, given our oppressed circumstances. Because of this, we can share with other cultures that expression of God’s goodness and greatness that was unique to our circumstances in society. The OBCM, I felt, needed to engage in programs and activities that underscored that presence in the church.
When you look back over your years as director what do you feel is your greatest accomplishment?
There was a sense among some Atlanta black Catholics that they were marginalized members of the Catholic faith community. They felt that there was little opportunity to offer input about their needs and concerns. Decisions were made for them and not with their participation. … A possible remedy for this was finding ways to give voice to these concerns and ultimately to enable black Catholics to gain greater participatory ownership of their church. I believe we have made some progress along these lines, for which we cannot take all the credit. Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory’s efforts in this regard were very helpful. He encouraged more multicultural participation in structures that he created like the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council.
Talk about the process that led to the creation of the quarterly newsletter, Parish Connection?
The Parish Connection was created for the following reasons: to serve as a voice for black Catholics to underscore the richness of our “salvation history”; to give black Catholics the opportunity to participate in an archdiocesan activity as decision-makers, i.e., as editorial board members, writers and graphic designers; to learn all the mechanics involved in preparing and distributing a quality publication; and to promote a sense of pride in black Catholics in Atlanta and nationally and blacks in general. Enabling black Catholics to take vicarious ownership of something substantive and visually qualitative we believed would encourage a greater sense of self-confidence and willingness to become more engaged in church life. …
With a small staff, how instrumental have volunteers been in the functioning of the ministry?
Indispensable! OBCM would not have been able to realize its program goals and objectives without volunteers, but then that was what defined the evangelization mission and the operational intent of OBCM all along. Among the organized groups that have been most supportive, the Knights of Peter Claver and Knights of Peter Claver Ladies Auxiliary stand out the most. The goal was to have a critical mass of black parishioners, organized and involved and making decisions about substantive church activities. For all activities, committees were formed.
How did the process of broadening the office’s focus beyond African-American Catholics to be more inclusive toward Catholics from Africa and the Caribbean diaspora come about? What kinds of programmatic changes have occurred as a result?
In the case of the black Catholic immigrants, the issue of marginalization was compounded by the fact that they were foreigners trying to fit in in environments that were alien to them. They too had much to offer. Organizing and encouraging them to become involved in their adopted church homes would help address their spiritual needs and benefit the larger church community. The OBCM, as a diocesan ministry, served as a genuinely welcoming presence for them and gave them the backing and self-confidence needed to take more initiative in the life of the church at the parish and archdiocesan level. The work with immigrant black Catholics was very much consistent with the direction that the leadership of the church of Atlanta was taking to minister to the growing cultural diversity of its membership. It was a natural move for the OBCM to take the lead with black Catholic immigrants. Though the OBCM began as an instrument to give voice to African-American Catholics, it gradually expanded its focus to all black Catholics in the diocese.
The annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. weekend celebration has been one of the office’s major events each year. What else do you want the office to be remembered for?
… Foremost are its efforts to encourage a more prominent and active role on the part of black Catholics in the life of the church, to share gifts and to benefit from the gifts of others. I would like for OBCM to be remembered for the number of efforts that were made to bring about a better understanding of our shared beliefs with other denominations and a more cordial relationship. One … was the “Let the Church Sing Amen” choir festival jointly sponsored with Ebenezer Baptist Church. The OBCM made a similar effort with other cultural communities within the Catholic Church of Atlanta. One popular effort that I hope will be pursued was the multicultural Christmas concerts that the OBCM sponsored at Spelman’s Sisters Chapel. These Christmas programs brought together Catholic choirs from the Vietnamese, Hispanic, Brazilian, African and the African-American Catholic communities and revealed that there is a genuine willingness to share and learn from each other and to grow in our common faith life.
The annual MLK celebration, started by my predecessor, remains the anchor program for OBCM because of its broad implication. It enables the Catholic Church to take a prominent place among the national and international faith community and to express solidarity in the celebration of the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We join together to express our belief and commitment to peace and brotherly love for all people and in our determination to bring about the “beloved community.”
Looking back over your career as director of the office, is there a single event or moment that will stick with you long after you’re gone?
The thing that impressed me the most and motivated me to even work harder were the times when ordinary parishioners would come up to me very shyly and reach out to shake my hand and give me a hug, while very quietly saying how proud they were of the work of the OBCM and how they were praying for the continued success of our work. These are memories I will always cherish.