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Lwanga honoree: Youth ministry is about taking the ‘ink off paper and making it walk’

Corliss Cox knows what it's like to do youth ministry with no money and no plan — and nothing but an intense trust in God and the ability to step out in faith.

Those were the early days of youth ministry for Cox, who was invited to work with the Ujima Youth Program, which became part of the Catholic Youth Council in the mid-1980s to address the needs of black Catholic teens. Several years prior, she had left a job in corporate America to stay home with her newborn son; by the time he turned three, she was looking to return to work.

Several people suggested she get involved in youth ministry. She already had been a mentor to the youth in her parish — St. Barbara (now St. Augustine) — so the idea was appealing. It was supposed to be a temporary gig. "I said, OK, I'll do this a couple of months," Cox recalled. "Well, I went on retreat and after that I was hooked — and it was 30 years later and I was retiring."

Cox, who later went on to lead the youth ministry program at the St. Charles Lwanga Center for nearly 20 years, was honored April 30 with the Father Edward F. Feuerbacher Lifetime Achievement Award at the archdiocesan agency's annual testimonial dinner. She was to receive the honor alongside Sister Barbara Moore, CSJ, (see related, next page); the Lwanga Center's annual award is given to those who touch the lives of others through a consistent demonstration of inspiring others and and helping them achieve their life goals.

In 1997, Cox was approached by Gloria Green, a fellow parishioner at St. Augustine and then-director of the Lwanga Center. Green suggested the idea of offering youth ministry for black Catholic teens through the center. "They had no money — it wasn't in the plan, but I guess the Lord said, 'yeah it is,'" Cox said. "The Lord provided."

At Lwanga, Cox helped co-chair the Kujenga African-American Youth Leadership Conference, co-facilitated Fallible Human Beings, a youth spiritual enhancement program in collaboration with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, and helped organize the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. memorial Mass and Model of Justice Awards. She's overseen Confirmation preparation, led teens on mission trips and attended countless retreats and social events.

Why was she so invested all those years? Quite simply, Cox said she looks back with gratitude at the quality youth ministry she received growing up in St. Barbara Parish in the Hamilton Heights neighborhood of north St. Louis.

"Back when they had more associate pastors, we had Father Thomas Robertson when I was in the sixth, seventh, eighth grade," Cox said. "He worked with the youth — we started volleyball, we had CYC, we went out on the Admiral, swim night at the Chase Park Plaza. I always remember people kept supporting us."

Cox recalled with gratitude how families have entrusted her with their teens, especially through the sacraments. "At Lwanga, that was the whole mission," she said. "I said, 'if we let anything go, we cannot let go of the sacraments. If you get into a parish and they only have a few (teens) they miss it. You've got to plant those seeds'" for an active Catholic faith.

At time of of her retirement from Lwanga in 2014, Cox saw another dream become a reality. Thanks to a grant from the Sisters of St. Joseph, the center started a young adult ministry aimed at 19-25 year olds. Starting with a day of reflection and later a retreat, the young adult ministry is meant to help young adults "be acknowledged and accepted as viable members of and voices within the Church," Cox wrote at the time of her retirement.

Cox is in a different mindset these days in retirement. Her mind is focused on those things she wants to do on her time, such as participating in the Women of Faith group at St. Augustine, which has provided prayer, service and fellowship to the women of the parish since 2006. "I tell Father (Bob), 'what is it you want now? Tell me what it is you need? OK, I can do this.' It's good to be in that spot."

Youth ministry, she said, is about giving them real experiences where they can live out the Gospel message. "I say, let's go and live this out — let's take that ink off the paper and make it walk." 

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