By Michelle Donaghey
SOUTH BEND — Everyone who attended the SANKOFA day of reflection on Saturday, March 16, went away with a feeling of peace, joy and anticipation for Easter Sunday and beyond.
“We are all going through troubles in our lives, but we know and are very encouraged that God will help us through it,” said Tania Wilson, a high school member of St. Augustine’s Parish.
“We should not doubt that He has our back,” noted Gabriell Jones, also a member of the parish and a Marian High School student who was one of 45 people of all ages who attended the conference at St. Augustine Parish in South Bend.
The day of reflection began with an inspiring drum and tambourine procession to the main conference room led by tambourine player Annie Tardy of St. Augustine Church and African drum leader James Riley from St. Matthew Cathedral Parish. The procession brought clapping, smiles and dancing.
“We’ve come this far by faith, leaning on the Lord, trusting in His holy Word. He’s never failed me yet. Oh can’t turn around, we’ve come this far by faith. Don’t be discouraged when trouble’s in your life. He’ll bear your burdens and remove all misery and strife.” The chorus and part of the verse are from lyrics by Albert A. Goodson, and they inspired the theme of the SANKOFA, “Be Not Discouraged, We’ve Come This Far By Faith!”
The first keynote speaker, the ever-smiling and dynamic young black priest Father Chris Rhodes of Louisville, Ky., brought laughter and sometimes thought-provoking reflection to the room with the story of his journey into the priesthood in his address, “A Call to Holiness: Black Catholic Faith and Vocations.”
The talk was followed by the celebratory performance from the Indiana University South Bend dance group that included African drumming.
“Faith is a part of your life everyday. In Scripture, we hear that faith is the substance of things unseen. Faith allows you to imagine something greater,” Father Rhodes said.
He presented a video on You-Tube that showed the ministry of a priest in an Ethiopian community. The simple and poor lives of the Ethopians are immersed in faith. Father Rhodes asked everyone to watch and to think about what it means to them to be black and Catholic.
“What is faith?” he asked to all after showing the video, which brought different answers from the group.
“Faith is a community experience. Faith was a community experience (there, in video),” said Tania Wilson, a high school student.
“Faith is obviously universal,” said Cheryl Ashe.
Recalling how he was not a Catholic from the start but was inspired by his grandmother’s daily walk of faith, Father Rhodes shared many interesting details. His grandmother had a Last Supper picture on the wall in her kitchen area, and she “didn’t mind being so poor, but it was so inconvenient.”
She regularly sang a song that spoke of always going to Jesus, no matter what time of day no matter what happened in life that brought audience members to sing along, “In the morning when I rise, give me Jesus.”
Father Rhodes didn’t become a priest until later in life, fighting the call the whole way, finally succumbing to the voice that came through loud and clear during a visit to Kroger one day when a woman thought he was someone else and kept yelling the words, “Pastor, Pastor!”
Bringing laughter to the room, Father Rhodes said that day he talked to God in his head responding to the “sign” from God. “I thought You’d give me clouds, visions of angels and heaven!” he noted. He thought about what he would give up — “no wife, no kids, no money!” But now he knows he is where he was supposed to be.
“Don’t be afraid to give your children the vision. Accentuate the positives you want them to see,” Father Rhodes said speaking of vocations. “Faith is a gift from God. It only increases when you begin to work on it.”
Young people were also challenged to think about their faith during one of the “Just Have Faith” breakout sessions by another keynote speaker, Ansel Augustine of New Orleans, La.,
Showing a short video clip of “Facing the Giants” Augustine asked the people in the session to put themselves in the place of the lead football player.
Augustine told the participants that, like as the player in the movie, we limit ourselves.
“I want you to not limit yourselves,” Augustine said. “Keep yourselves in the light. It will get rough at times, but remember that God walks with you. Just as the contents of a shaving cream can are under pressure, pressure comes in life. Remember you have to lean on God. Be prayerful.”
Wendy Summers, who is from St. Pius X Parish, Granger, led the “From Surviving to Thriving: Black Youth and Catholic Schools.”
Summers said, “The heart of our Church’s charge is to evangelize the unevangelized; to make disciples of the ‘non-disciples.’”
“Overall we are doing a good job of that,” Summers said. “However, many of our African-American children in our Catholic schools are caught in the middle between surviving and thriving. Someone (yesterday) said we are getting minority children in the seat, but we are not ensuring that they are feeling welcomed. Our children are facing societal problems and they don’t have teachers in our schools who look like them. We need more African-American teachers in our schools. Our teachers and the children coming to us need to be better prepared for the journey they are facing.”
While the discussion during the conference went well, she noted, “We need to return to the discussion table. As someone said (yesterday), we need to first discover the cause and then work towards a solution that will lead us to cultivate our children allowing them to excel in an academic environment where they feel valued, affirmed, welcomed and heard — so that they can go from surviving to thriving.”
Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades celebrated Mass to conclude the conference.
In his homily, Bishop Rhoades also recalled the famous words of Jesus from Scripture, taught by Jesus in different words at different times: “Let the one among you who is without sin cast the first stone.”
“If you want to avoid judgment, stop passing judgment” and “why look at the speck in your brother’s eye when you miss the plank in your own?” the bishop said.
“Jesus is calling us to be honest and to be humble,” Bishop Rhoades said. “Humble in recognizing that we are sinners in need of God’s mercy.”
He suggestes that those who have not gone to Confession go before Easter and experience the full joy of Easter.
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