By SAMANTHA SMITH, Staff Writer | Published December 10, 2020
ATLANTA—On his priestly ordination in November 1988, Father Bruce Schultz, OP, remembers a young girl in her teens who was assigned to bring up the gifts during the Mass. He recalls her because she did not simply walk to the altar with the bread and wine, but moved with the music as she danced. Her artistry brought a new spirit to the Mass.
That teenager was Kenya Griffin, founder and director of the Amazing Grace Liturgical Dancers. The Atlanta-born troupe inspired and lifted the spirits of faith communities around the world.
The Atlanta Catholic community recently lost two people known for sharing their faith creatively through the arts—Kenya Griffin, 49, and Kenneth W. Louis, 64. Griffin was a lifelong member of Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Atlanta and Louis served as the parish’s director of liturgy and music for the last five years. Both died in mid-November, within a week of each other.
Members of the parish are shocked and feeling a great loss, said Father Jeffery Ott, OP, pastor of the Atlanta church.
“It’s bittersweet because there are so many wonderful memories and people appreciate the way that they were touched by Kenneth and Kenya,” said Father Ott.
“Words can’t really give proper justice to the Amazing Grace Liturgical Dancers and Kenneth Louis’ impact on our Atlanta Catholic community,” said Ashley Morris, associate director for the Office of Intercultural Ministries at the Archdiocese of Atlanta. “We all were constantly moved at their innate ability to encapsulate and express the Gospel through their movements and melodies, through their steps and songs.”
Order my steps
The Griffin family moved to Atlanta from Washington, D.C. in 1975, when Kenya was about 4 years old. She grew up in the faith—attending school at Our Lady of Lourdes and Sts. Peter and Paul, now St. Peter Claver Regional School in Decatur.
Her father and mother, Chester and Janis Griffin, sang in the choir at Our Lady of Lourdes. Later, her father would become a deacon at the Atlanta parish near The King Center. Kenya was the oldest of two, with a younger brother named Khary.
“Chester and I both knew it when she danced the baby Jesus down the aisle to the manger on Christmas Eve night when she was around 8 years old,” said Janis Griffin. “She created her own routine in an instant and never looked back.”
Griffin perfected her craft by attending dance and performing arts schools, including a summer program at the Alvin Ailey Dance Company, later finding a passion for modern dance.
In 2000, with the encouragement and blessing of Father John Adamski, then pastor, Griffin created the Amazing Grace Liturgical Dancers. The group was known for performances that brought praise and worship to a new level.
Amazing Grace Liturgical Dancers enhanced “our community worship, praising God through this marvelous dance company that grew out of Kenya’s vision and commitment and dedication,” said Father Adamski.
The dances became a wondrous part of the Lourdes worshipping community, he said.
The group performed at numerous archdiocesan events over the years, including the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Mass and the Nostra Aetate jubilee celebration with the Catholic and Jewish communities in 2015. Amazing Grace ministered at Christian churches in and around Atlanta, including other Catholic parishes, such as St. Anthony of Padua in Atlanta. The group became Amazing Grace Dance Company in 2006.
Janis enjoyed watching her daughter perform.
“I was always amazed at her ability to take a song, any song, and turn it into a visual,” said Janis. She sang in accompaniment to her daughter’s dances over the years, including “Changed My Name,” “Patchwork Quilt” for World AIDS Day and “Via Dolorosa” during Holy Week.
Griffin taught liturgical dance workshops across the country, including a summer course at Xavier University of Louisiana, and workshops at the National Black Catholic Congress and in Kenya, Africa. She also taught workshops at Holy Redeemer Church in San Antonio, Texas, where Father Schultz served as pastor.
Griffin helped to form dancers of all ages, sharing the importance of liturgical worship through movement. The group also contributed to the annual Archbishop James P. Lyke Conference, which helps to develop Black Catholic worship across the U.S.
“I loved her enthusiasm and excitement for ministry,” said Father Ott, who got to know the Griffin family when he came to Lourdes in 2010.
“She was such a creative person,” said the pastor. “Kenya would come with these wonderful ideas about what we could do in terms of ministering to different populations. She was called to serve God’s people through the dance.”
Since 2006, Griffin produced more than 15 productions and a ballet entitled “Hope,” a tribute to those living with HIV/AIDS. This was influenced by her job at Grady Hospital’s Infectious Disease Program, where she worked and loved her patients. She often invited them to Amazing Grace performances.
The most innovative choreographer, a beautiful soul, creator, anointed, amazing are some of the words members of Amazing Grace use to express what Kenya meant to them, said Zakiya Sharpe, who joined the dance company in 2004.
“Past and present members will always feel the impact she made on us, as well as the impact she made in the Atlanta dance community, throughout the U.S. and throughout the world,” said Sharpe. “To be around Kenya was to be around greatness. And her presence and kinetic energy will be sorely missed.”
A musician who gave everything
Phillip Louis believes the gift of his older brother Kenneth was taking black and white piano keys to produce colorful music.
When he was about 10 years old, Phillip watched as his brother Kenneth played music for the Voices of Tabernacle, a choir from their home church, Greater Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky.
“The Voices of Tabernacle took the roof off of that place,” said Phillip.
At the end of the evening, the Louis family couldn’t get to Kenneth to give him a congratulatory hug, because he was surrounded by so many people. From that moment, Phillip knew it would be that way for the rest of his brother’s life.
“I absolutely marveled at the pure fact that many of us appreciated his gifts and talents for music. I saw and remembered that Kenneth gave everything, when it came to his music.”
Kenneth Louis, a Louisville, Kentucky native from a family of eight, was the first African American graduate to receive a bachelor of arts degree in ethnic (gospel) music studies from the University of the District of Columbia in 1992. In 1994, he received a Master of Arts degree from Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland. For about 30 years, he was the minister of music at Holy Comforter-Saint Cyprian Catholic Church in Washington, D.C. His talents took him throughout the United States and Europe.
Louis played music at the John F. Kennedy Performing Arts Center in Washington, D.C., and for Pope Francis when he visited the U.S. in 2015. He was also a great contributor to the annual Archbishop James P. Lyke Conference.
Louis’ music compositions have appeared in the “Lead Me Guide Me” Catholic hymnal as well as African American Heritage and Total Praise hymnals. He recorded and composed music for GIA Publications and World Library Publications, based in Chicago. This included the “Mass of St. Cyprian,” featuring songs such as “Jesus, You Brought Me All the Way” and “I’m Willing, Lord.”
Father Schultz, now associate pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes, first met Louis while studying at Xavier University of Louisiana for his master’s degree in Black Catholic studies, around the late 1980s and early 1990s. They enjoyed each other’s humor and have been buddies since.
When Dr. Kevin Johnson, longtime choir director of Our Lady of Lourdes announced his retirement in 2015, Father Schultz was given the task of finding choir directors who could fill in until someone was hired. Rawn Harbor, another well-known Catholic liturgist, along with Louis came down to Atlanta to play for Masses. Later, Louis was hired as the director of liturgy and music for the Atlanta parish in September 2015.
Shana-Gay Jones, administrative manager for the Lourdes choir, described Louis as a gift to the faith community. “He was like a big brother to me, as well as a mentor and friend, and he left an unforgettable impact on our music ministry,” said Jones. “He loved each of us, allowing us to truly be and realize the best versions of ourselves. He left us a great example of a life of service to God and the church.”
Father Ott said working with Louis was “loads of fun” with his wonderful sense of humor. Parishioners loved Louis’ professionalism and spirit, said the pastor.
“He had such a breadth of experience and was really creative in his approach to ministry,” said the priest. “He had a real pastoral heart.”
Leaving faith-filled legacies
Memories, prayers and tributes have been shared all over the world for Griffin and Louis.
Cardinal Wilton Gregory from the Archdiocese of Washington, who served as the Archbishop of Atlanta for 14 years, wrote a letter to the Griffin family after hearing of Kenya’s passing, sharing that he was close with the family in prayer and hope.
Kenya’s legacy is a new appreciation for liturgical dance, said Janis.
“She has brought many people closer to a spiritual awakening than they ever knew possible and she has introduced countless people—young and old—to the realization that our bodies are a gift to be used in highest praise.”
Kenneth’s legacy exists in many places, explained his brother, Phillip. How he brought people together with his music, the friendships he cherished over the years, his love and respect for others, his music and how it honored God are all his legacies, said Phillip.
Both Kenya and Kenneth have been with me for much of my life as a Dominican friar, said Father Schultz.
“Both of them have enriched my understanding of enculturated liturgy,” he said.
The most important gift given through Kenya and Kenneth’s ministries was bringing authenticity through culture, talents and wisdom to the altar to proclaim God’s greatness through dance and song, said Morris. “You can easily and readily see, feel and touch the image and likeness of Christ in what they offered our local church and the national, united body of Christ. For that, I believe we all remain thankful, humbled and blessed by the sharing of their gifts,” said Morris.