Diocesan celebration recalls the strength and unity of the African-American spirit

COLUMBIA — At the beginning of February, a month that recognizes the accomplishments of African- Americans in this country, the young and the old gathered at St. Martin de Porres Church in Columbia to hear stories about a people of enduring faith and courage — their own extended family from Africa.

“As African-Americans, we must rediscover our roots and imitate the early fathers and mothers who came to this country from Africa with values that allowed them to survive many trials,” said Father Michael Okere, who ministers to St. Ann Church in Kingstree, St. Philip in Lake City, and St. Patrick in Johnsonville. “We need to return to those values, live them and cling to them now and not let things like materialism and drugs distract us from who we really are.”

He spoke of a “drought” in spirituality in this country and a need for evangelization, especially among those in the African-American community who do not belong to any church.

Father Okere and Father John Baptist Busuulwa from St. Gerard Church in Aiken gave presentations about their lives in Africa, correlating with the title of the meeting: “Day of Reflection — Solidarity with Africa.” Father Okere spoke of his life in Nigeria, and Father Busuulwa, originally from Uganda, shared his perspective.

“In Uganda, the family is more than nuclear. It is more than just the parents and their children,” said Father Busuulwa, who described a scenario that sounded like what a Catholic parish should be. “When a child is born, the whole village rejoices and the village praises, watches over, and corrects the children as they grow.”

Father Busuulwa invited everyone to come to Africa and experience  African spirituality for themselves. He said that June 3, National Pilgrimage Day for the 19th-century martyrs of Uganda, is a perfect time to visit because everyone celebrates these saints who gave the ultimate witness of their faith. Both priests commented on how the liturgy is the same in Africa as in the United States, but the culture is expressed mostly in the music.

Early in the meeting, Father Paul Williams, pastor of St. Martin de Porres and vicar for black Catholics, welcomed his visitors from across the state. There were approximately 80 people representing various churches in the Diocese of Charleston, with a large number of youth from Greenville and Columbia.

Kathleen Merritt, director of Ethnic Ministries, coordinated the event and provided the group with a slide show presentation on how the ministry is progressing with the eight principles adopted from the National Convention. The principles deal with issues of spirituality, parish life, youth and young adult outreach, racism, Africa, HIV/AIDS, Catholic education, and social justice.

In the past three years, the ministry has had several events that highlighted a certain principle. For example, the black Catholic youth met a few weeks ago for the first time to plan their part in the Heritage celebration. Several returned for this meeting to present their ideas to the larger community.

Many of the African-American religious came in support of the day; four priests and all the deacons participated in the meeting. When presenting the history of the black Catholic ministry, Merritt recognized Deacon Henry Dillard, who was the chair of the first black caucus set up by the diocese. His continued leadership and guidance has been an inspiration.

“As a deacon, the coming together of the black Catholics is so important because we can take time to reflect on what we are doing, where we are heading in the future for the love of God and neighbor,” said Deacon James Williams.

As a way to reach out to the Catholic communities in Africa, Innocent Onu, a parishioner at Holy Trinity Church in Orangeburg, gave a talk on his village in Nigeria. The parishioners have been trying to build a church for two years, but their poverty has prevented its completion. Sherman Gaskin, a representative for African affairs, is seeking a way to help the Abakaliki Diocese finish the building project.

A lively discussion sprang from the topic of how to solve the priest shortage, especially the increasing need for African-American priests. Someone asked Father Okere and Father Busuulwa why Africa does not have the same problem. The priests think that  materialism and small family size can hinder people from considering the priesthood. It is not uncommon for there to be several priests in one family in Africa because priesthood is seen as a great honor.

Father Williams believes that one reason the Diocese of Charleston has a shortage of black diocesan priests is because the priests from religious orders are usually assigned to the predominantly black parishes, so young black men who are interested in the priesthood are more likely to go into a religious order.

Evan Richardson, a youth from St. Anthony Church in Greenville, wrote on the subject of his African-American heritage.

He said, “Our heritage is one based on the link between us and God, connecting us to Divine forces of the universe, giving us the true essence of our being and implication in life.”