What does Church mean to you?
It’s a question that Black Catholic teens and young adults explored at the annual Kujenga youth leadership conference, held July 30 at St. Alphonsus Liguori “Rock” Church in St. Louis.
Sydney Akers said it was the opportunity to meet other young Black Catholics that prompted her to attend. The rising sophomore at Incarnate Word Academy became Catholic when she was a seventh-grader at Our Lady of Guadalupe School in Ferguson.
“It was the community, and how we came together” that piqued her interest in becoming Catholic, Sydney said. “And I like the Eucharist — other churches don’t have that.” She enjoyed meeting Black Catholic teens from other parishes in the archdiocese at Kujenga and is hopeful about building new friendships with them in the future.
The annual conference, which seeks to build leadership skills (Kujenga means “to build” in Swahili), increase spirituality and solidify self-identity, was sponsored by the St. Charles Lwanga Center. The center, supported by the Annual Catholic Appeal, promotes Catholic teaching, Catholic spiritual formation and leadership development, including advocacy for justice and racial equity concerns within the Black Catholic community and beyond.
Developing leadership skills is an important step in becoming more fully involved in the life of the Church, said Carol Henderson-Powell, a St. Alphonsus “Rock” parishioner, who led the opening prayer. She also reminded them that the Church is more than just a structure. “The people are the Church,” she said, reiterating the conference theme, “I am Church.”
Elements of African culture were woven throughout the day. Teens were placed into groups and worked together to choose a Swahili name for their families, and each participant chose an individual Swahili name with different meanings.
Young adults and adults who led the family groups also were invested as elders and presented with brightly colored stoles. Elders are an important part of the community, who through their lived experiences serve as mentors to the younger generation.
The cultural aspect is an important part of Kujenga, said Richard Buckley, one of the conference organizers and a member of St. Alphonsus “Rock” Parish. “It’s helping young people connect to the significance of the African fabric,” he said. “It’s the things that (African ancestors) believed in, what gave them the center of their belief in God. And it’s the things that help African Americans keep connected. If you don’t know where you came from, you don’t know where to go.”
‘I am Church’
One of the team-building activities included standing in a wide circle and throwing a ball of yarn to different individuals; as they caught the ball, each was encouraged to share what Church means to them. Overwhelmingly, they said it was the people, not the buildings that make the Church.
“It’s not a place, it’s a people,” said elder Caleb Camp, a member of St. Alphonsus “Rock” Parish. “I live by God, family and purpose. But it’s all about the people.”
Jessica Pou, also a Rock parishioner, recalled a major fire that took place at the church from a lightning strike in 2007. The parish held Masses in the gymnasium while the church building was restored. “It didn’t matter where we had Mass,” she said. “Where two or more are gathered in His name, it’s Church.”
Other participants described Church as a community of love; having the freedom to talk to God every day and to pray for family and Church family; being kind and welcoming to others; and building relationships with others to spread the Gospel.
A new generation of Black Catholic leaders
DeAnna Nash began attending Kujenga when she was in the eighth grade. Now at 28 years old, she serves on the planning team and helps lead a family group as an elder. “It’s like a family,” said Nash, a member of St. Augustine Parish in St. Louis. “I have made friends through different parishes — I still talk to friends I made 15 years ago.”
Connecting with other Black Catholics has been a blessing, she said. “Being Catholic in general is hard, and being a Black Catholic can be harder,” she said. She sees events such as Kujenga as an opportunity to raise up a new generation of young Black Catholics for leadership roles in other aspects of the Church, including in their parishes and other organizations such as the St. Charles Lwanga Center.
“My faith is important to me, and being around elders and learning from them is also important,” Nash said.
Daija Loggins, another young adult elder who attends St. Matthew Parish in St. Louis, said she hopes the high school teens attending Kujenga gain new friendships with other like-minded people who are focused on faith.
“I love it, because I know what it did for me as a kid,” said Loggins, who attended her first conference as a rising ninth grader. “The cultural aspect gives us a strong sense of what it means to be a Black Catholic.”
>> History of Kujenga youth conference
Kujenga, a leadership conference for African-American Catholic teens, began in the Archdiocese of Chicago in October 1977. Kujenga is a Swahili word meaning “to build.” Its focus is to foster leadership skills, increase spirituality and solidify self-identity.
Youth ministers from the Archdiocese of St. Louis and Diocese of Belleville, Ill., attended Kujenga’s 25th anniversary in Chicago in November 2004. Both dioceses sent youth and adults to the conference in Chicago. Seeing the impact on young Black Catholics, the Diocese of Belleville had previously started a local Kujenga conference in 1992. Young people from the Archdiocese of St. Louis began participating in the Belleville conference the following year.
Within two years, the number of participants from the Archdiocese of St. Louis grew significantly. Linda Ross and Corliss Cox, youth ministers from St. Augustine Parish in St. Louis, joined the Kujenga planning team by 1996.
After a decline in the African-American youth population and finances in Belleville by 2001, the St. Charles Lwanga Center, then under the direction of Jane Brown, assumed responsibility for organizing the annual conference. The center, located in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, promotes Catholic teaching, Catholic spiritual formation and leadership development, including advocacy for justice and racial equity concerns within the Black Catholic community and beyond.
Over the years, the conference has grown in participation and expanded the roles and responsibilities of the youth and young adults. They continue to serve as family leaders during the conference and are part of the planning team.
The conference has been held at several locations in the St. Louis area over the years, with a hiatus in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic.
>> St. Charles Lwanga Center
The St. Charles Lwanga Center was formed in 1978 as a center for spiritual formation and leadership development serving the African-American Catholic community.
The mission of the center is to promote Catholic teaching, Catholic spiritual formation and leadership development, including advocacy for justice and racial equity concerns within the Black Catholic community and for all who collaborate with them, in accord with the Gospel of Jesus Christ and in the tradition of the Roman Catholic Church.
The center oversees ministries in several areas:
• Evangelization: Liturgies, pastoral care for individuals and engaged and married couples, a Bible study and Crossroads retreat for busy people
• Youth ministry: Preparation for the Sacrament of Confirmation and the annual Kujenga youth leadership conference
• Advocacy: Initiatives promoting racial equity and social justice concerns, including consultative services relating to cultural awareness
• Ministry of consolation training and support
• Legal ministry
• Planning the archdiocese’s annual Mass commemorating the birth and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Model of Justice Awards program
• Annual St. Charles Lwanga Testimonial Dinner and Celebration
Sponsoring parishes include Blessed Teresa of Calcutta in Ferguson, and in St. Louis the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis, Most Holy Trinity, Our Lady of the Holy Cross, St. Alphonsus Liguori “Rock” Church, St. Augustine, St. Elizabeth Mother of John the Baptist, St. Matthew the Apostle, St. Nicholas and Sts. Teresa and Bridget Church.
Father Arthur Cavitt is the executive director, and Corliss Cox serves as special assistant to the executive director. For more information, visit archstl.org/lwangacenter or call (314) 367-7929.