By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published February 11, 2024
ATLANTA—Leighton Batiste, when a student at Morehouse College, faced skepticism and disapproval from classmates when he mentioned he was Catholic. Being Black and Catholic was considered suspect by his classmates.
Undeterred, Batiste is exploring his religious heritage as a leader with the Knights of St. Peter Claver, an African American fraternal organization that has been around for more than a century. His newfound knowledge that his grandfather was a knight in Louisiana increased its appeal.
“So, what drew me was that I always wanted to figure out, where do we fit in this universal church?” asked Batiste, sipping a cup of espresso at a West End coffee shop.
Instead of giving in to the prejudice faced in the classroom, Batiste leads the effort so others can see their place in it.
“When I heard of the Knights, it kind of created an extra layer of commitment to the church and to my faith,” he said.
The Lyke House is home to a new Knights of St. Peter Claver council. In the fall, it inaugurated its leaders from men and women attending the four historically Black colleges and universities in the Atlanta University Center, as well as Georgia State University.
Some 70 miles away, at the University of Georgia Catholic Center in Athens, another young council entered its second year. Its members belong to the Knights of Columbus, the largest Catholic fraternal service organization in the world, with 1.7 million members.
Kyle Hamm leads the council. The 20-year-old business major from Cumming is the second Grand Knight of the Georgia Martyrs Knights of Columbus Council 17969. The organization’s membership counts some 50 young men committed to service, faith, and camaraderie.
“You don’t want a small group of people doing a lot of work. You want a lot of people doing a little work. A lot of the service we do as Knights are things as good Catholic men we do anyway,” said Hamm.
Gen Z takes up the call to serve
College students, as members of Gen Z, seek meaning and service, even with the generation’s reputation as being disinterested in matters of faith.
More than one in three Gen Z members identify as religiously unaffiliated, higher than any other previous generation, according to the Survey Center on American Life. However, the Barna Group stated these emerging adults also believe “Jesus embodies qualities they aspire to themselves.” The Christian research center has found one in three teens believes Jesus was an advocate for justice.
Researchers have called Gen Z a purpose-driven generation. The Knights and other related faith-based organizations may benefit from young people’s passion for making a difference and working with a purpose that aligns with their values.
These college councils prioritize developing sustainable chapters and recruiting members as their initial tasks. Unlike at parishes, these student-led groups experience frequent turnover, with about a quarter of the students graduating and leaving each year.
Julian Saviano, 34, recently graduated from the University of Georgia Law School. He helped start the first college Knights of Columbus council in Georgia in 2007 at the now-closed Southern Catholic College. In 2022, Saviano was tasked to create the new UGA council.
Even with the turnover, he said the strength of these organizations is the energy of the young adults, who are always eager to take on meaningful projects.
However, the hurdle of group fees poses a challenge. At the university, the council must come up with roughly $1,000 to pay its assessment, which can be a stretch for cash-strapped students, he said.
Father Brian McNavish, the chaplain at the Catholic center, said the Knights are consistently ready to help.
“If there is someone in need, we can contact the Knights. If people are needed to cook, clean, or serve, the Knights are a consistent and helpful presence,” said Father McNavish.
He emphasized their commitment to evangelization, service, and members becoming like Christ through prayer and the sacraments.
Passion for heritage
The Lyke House council installed its leaders; next is creating a sustainable culture.
Batiste, 28, grew up in Riverdale and is a product of Catholic education. He attended St. John the Evangelist School and later Our Lady of Mercy High School. The family has worshipped for decades at the Shrine of Immaculate Conception in downtown Atlanta.
Despite encountering the skepticism in the classroom, an estimated 3 million African Americans are Catholic.
Batiste is committed to the council’s mission. He anticipates community service will play a pivotal role in the council’s agenda.
“I kind of feel like I’m a part of a group of Black Catholics that are trying to maintain our heritage in the church,” he said.
Batiste said it’s an involvement beyond simply sitting in the pews.
Ladies Auxiliary: leading with heart
At the same time, Lyke House women are also establishing their branch. The Ladies Auxiliary formed in 1922 as an integral part of the Knights, for Catholic women. The auxiliary has its own objectives, in addition to supporting Knights’ initiatives.
Margaret Quartey, a freshman at Georgia State University, takes the helm of this branch. She is drawn to the opportunity to contribute to a larger cause aiding others.
Quartey graduated from St. Mary Academy in 2023. She intends to study pre-law at the downtown Atlanta university. Growing up in Liberia, she said, she saw the uniformed members of a similar society serving the church community. The Ladies Auxiliary offers a “heartwarming and family-like” environment which Quartey cherishes.
She filled diverse roles in high school, so being a member of the Ladies Auxiliary is a natural step. However, she did not expect to step into the leadership position.
“I think when you’re young, and the word leader is taught to, you’re always thinking of terms like the president, CEO and the images associated with those are very decision making, very alpha-like. I love serving. I’ve learned that I’m a person that loves to help people. I think it’s a natural fit,” she said.
As a fledgling group of five members, the Ladies Auxiliary is open to new ideas and visions.
Father Urey Mark, the Lyke House director, said he hopes the organization unites the students in a profound way and into their future.
Not all students are interested in joining fraternal organizations. However, the establishment of one with a Catholic foundation, rooted in the spiritual mission of faith, hope, and charity, is transformative. According to Father Mark, the director of the Lyke House, an organization such as the Knights of St. Peter Claver is eager for community service and is grounded in Catholic social teachings. The group’s campus initiatives will mold college students into missionary disciples, he said. This, in turn, may inspire other students to act, further spreading their positive influence.
Hamm leads with purpose, balancing charity work and academics at the University of Georgia. Hamm grew up at the Church of the Good Shepherd, Cumming, and plans to graduate this spring with a business degree.
As the Grand Knight of the Knights of Columbus at UGA, it falls to him to balance coursework faced by his members and meaningful community service. Guided by the advice of Father McNavish, the organization has set limits to prioritize supporting its members, students, parishioners, and lastly the Athens community. Regularly, the group has undertaken home improvement projects for elderly members; in addition, they help feed 250 students by serving the center’s traditional Sunday dinners.
To address the turnover with a college environment, the organization is establishing an alumni program to keep graduates engaged with the Knights of Columbus as they move on from Athens, he said.
With more than a year and half as both a leader and a Knight, Hamm said his faith has been reinforced and he expects it will stay with him beyond graduation. “The main thing I’ve learned from serving,” Hamm said, “is that every act of service is better done in community and fraternity with others.”