Black Catholic ministries examine ways to reach their youth

COLUMBIA—Keeping youth and young adults active in the faith is a challenge being faced by the Church overall, and it is one that especially hits home for black Catholics in South Carolina.

Members of historically African-American parishes are proud of their vibrant faith and heritage, but also concerned about dwindling numbers of young people in the pews. The number of confirmations and other sacraments has decreased in recent years, and many wonder who will remain to keep the heritage going if the young continue to drift away.

The meeting was held on Sept. 25 at the State Museum. It was organized by the Office of Ethnic Ministries and hosted by Sister Roberta Fulton of the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur, who was recently appointed assistant director for African-American evangelization for the Diocese of Charleston.

The meeting attracted priests, a deacon and lay people involved in religious education and various ministries at their parishes, all of whom shared a concern about how to keep young people engaged.

The day started with welcoming words and a prayer from Father Michael Okere, vicar for black Catholics and pastor of St. Martin de Porres Church in Columbia, one of the state’s historically African-American parishes, which was founded in 1931.

He encouraged participants to acknowledge the challenges they face in their work, but to remember that evangelization is part of their mission.

“We are here to be part of God’s mission, to see joy in it and have fruit come out of it,” Father Okere said. “We are here to destroy the differences we have had in the past and be one as God’s children.”

Each person who attended had a chance to describe their work and outline challenges they face in nurturing the faith of their parishioners. They described a wide variety of experiences, including parishes with older congregations who don’t want to try new programs, or increasingly diverse congregations where different communities don’t interact with each other.

Patricia Washington, a member of Holy Trinity Church in Orangeburg, said she became active in parish ministry several years ago and quickly noticed that no young adults were involved in programs, such as the church food pantry. She said many members of the church had stopped attending Mass regularly or didn’t participate for various reasons.

“Some said the church experience was boring, others said that no one had checked on them or asked them why they left the church,” Washington said. “I’m finding that I have to work on one person at a time.

Vanessa Baker, a member of St. Anne and St. Jude Church in Sumter, said she has been active since the 1940s but doesn’t see the same enthusiasm in youth at her parish.

“If we don’t get our youth involved we are not going to have a church in a few years,” she said “How can I get them involved and help them be there to replace me?”

Several people said that the answer starts with each individual in the pews.

Deacon Leland Cave of St. Martin de Porres Church in Columbia said one way to begin is to hold members of the parish accountable.

“We have parents that belong to the church but aren’t showing up to bring their kids to Mass and other events,” he said. “We need to tell them ‘You are the future of the Church.’ We need to say that if this is truly your faith, you need to show it. Tell people to be the change that they want to see. If there is a ministry you want to see at your parish, start it. We can’t wait for the parish priest to implement everything.”

Deacon Cave said it is also important to make sure that parishes offer a welcoming experience for everyone who walks through the doors. He said St. Martin de Porres works to be a welcoming church, and  has recently seen an increase in the number of students from the University of South Carolina who are attending Mass.

Sister Roberta described her experience growing up in Kingstree, an era when the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur ministered to the black community and offered both spiritual and social opportunities for young people.

“The Church was everything to us back then,” she said. “Now, some young people think the older, institutional Church doesn’t promote the Gospel, and that older people don’t live what is in the Bible. Many of them think they don’t need the Church for anything. This is a profound crisis of faith.”

The group came up with a sizable list of solutions to the crisis: offer more activities specifically for youth and young adults, incorporate elements of traditional African-American worship at Masses, promote an atmosphere of welcome and understanding, and actively encourage parents to involve their children in the life of the Church.

“Know that this is a movement of Christ,” Father Okere said. “God will provide the results.”

Miscellany/Christina Lee Knauss: Deacon Leland Cave of St. Martin de Porres Church in Columbia and Erena Allen from St. Anthony of Padua Church in Greenville take part in a discussion during a meeting on evangelization to black Catholics held Sept. 25 at the State Museum in Columbia.