Preparing black youth for their future in the church

GREENVILLE — His father was one of the first-generation Catholics baptized at St. Anthony of Padua Church.

Now, decades later, Mack Lockhart has taken on the job of helping preserve St. Anthony and other predominantly African-American parishes for future generations.

“St. Anthony has a rich history,” Lockhart said, “and with the changes taking place (in downtown Greenville), you have to ask, ‘What is the future of that community?’ Obviously, when you ask that question, you have to deal with the youth.”

Last month Lockhart represented the diocese in Buffalo, N.Y., at a national gathering of African-American youth ministers and directors sponsored by the National African American Catholic Youth Ministry Network.

“I have my own ideas,” Lockhart said, “but I wanted to go to this meeting to see if what I have in mind is in line with what others are thinking.”

What Lockhart learned was that the problems facing youth ministers are the same, whether it’s in Greenville, S.C., or Green Bay, Wis.

The challenge, he said, is to find a way to mesh the current African-American youth culture with the church.

The basic structure of the church isn’t going to change, Lockhart said, so “how do we bring our youth into the larger culture when we have so many different interests, or what seem on the surface to be different interests?”

An alumnus of St. Anthony School, Lockhart said many of the urban youth never leave that inner-city setting.

“They’ve never been fishing, for example. They don’t know what it’s like outside of that environment they are in,” he said.

The challenge, he said, is to find a way to get them into society’s mainstream.

The National African American Catholic Youth Ministry Network is in its seventeenth year. It was founded by a group of youth ministers, diocesan youth staff and directors of black Catholic offices in response to the needs of black youth ministers and youth. The network is an affiliate of the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry.

Lockhart coached youth baseball for several years in Greenville’s inner city, and he plans to recruit some of his former players, now young adults, to help him and the church reach the younger generation.

He said he will probably draw on programs designed to teach youth leadership skills — “how to survive in a majority culture.”

“You can talk all the slang you want, but the big thing is communication. How do you communicate?” he said. “That doesn’t mean you have to change who you are, but you have to be able to communicate. You have to be able to talk the king’s English.”

The church can play a central role in that effort, he said, first by simply doing a better job of teaching youth, as well as adults, about its African-American history and traditions.

“I’m not so sure that everyone sitting in church knows why we do what we do,” Lockhart said. “There were several black popes, but most black kids don’t know that.”

Lockhart said the abuse scandal in the church and the money it is spending to address the problem is hurting all parishes, but particularly the ones where many parishioners are black or another minority.

“It obviously impacts the poorer churches quicker,” he said.

The 57-year-old real estate appraiser attended Furman University in Greenville in the early ’70s. He started that school’s first black student organization.

“I don’t view my role here as telling others how they should be doing things,” he said. “Every circumstance is different, but there are some basic [connections] that need to be done … and it’s going to take a coordinated effort.

“You can do a lot with youth,” Lockhart said. “The main thing is to set an example. Youth can have a strong impact if they’re taught the right way — taught about community involvement.”

He said he plans to work with the youth leaders across the diocese, get ideas from them and structure a diocesan program. A statewide conference could be held next spring.