Keeping the fires of faith burning: Parishioners apply experiences of National Black Catholic Congress to local church

North Texas Catholic
(Sep 14, 2023) Local

A group of parishioners from Our Mother of Mercy Parish in Fort Worth attended the National Black Catholic Congress XIII on July 20-23. They are (from left to right): Shontá Giovanitti,  La'Wonda Peoples, Victor Craig, Juanita Brown, Mary Battle, Michael Barks, Marie Barks, Fred Bob, and Madeline Morrison. (Courtesy photo)

FORT WORTH — The National Black Catholic Congress XIII was held July 20-23 in National Harbor, Maryland, yet Marie Barks, Shontá Giovannitti, and La’Wonda Peoples remember it as if it were yesterday. The three members of Our Mother of Mercy Parish in Fort Worth were part of a parish contingent that made the pilgrimage for three days of worship, workshops, and service in the company of more than 2,400 mostly African-American Catholics.

Barks, who had attended NBCC twice before, was selected to join the 150-person choir. The honor was the fulfillment of a personal goal. 

Barks said, "I get so much spiritual fulfillment by singing. At NBCC, we learned the songs and the backgrounds of the songwriters. For example, God is Love was written by Father Clarence Rivers, one of the first African-American priests to write songs for the Church."

Choir practice began almost immediately. The choir members needed to be prepared for the opening Mass on Friday at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC.

"The Mass was regal," Barks said. "Cardinal Wilton Gregory, the first Black cardinal in the United States, was the celebrant. The procession was led by the Knights of Peter Claver, followed by [almost] every level of church clergy. Many of us grew up never seeing African American clergy, and to see so many in one place was inspiring."

A mural of Mary with Jesus is painted on the steps at the site of the Congress. (Courtesy photo) 

According to the NBCC, there were 200 bishops, priests, friars, seminarians, and deacons in the opening procession at the Basilica. There were 98 U.S. dioceses, including St. Thomas Virgin Islands at the Congress. In addition to the Fort Worth diocese, Catholic Texans hailed from the dioceses of Austin, Beaumont, Dallas, Galveston/Houston, and San Antonio.

"I was surprised to see so many Black Catholics from the DFW area," Peoples said. "I left with a commitment of staying in touch or coming up with a way for us to get to know one another."

Both Peoples and Giovannitti took advantage of more than 20 workshops offered during the three days. 

"I'm a fourth-generation Black Catholic from Selma, Alabama," Peoples said. "My family and the entire Catholic community were very involved in the Civil Rights Movement. I was pleased to see that this Congress wasn't afraid to address the issues we face as Black Catholics."

She added that the Congress was open to anyone, and it was encouraging to see so many non-African Americans in attendance. "It gave me hope."

Children from a nearby school spoke in the characters of the Saintly Six, six African Americans being considered for sainthood.  The Saintly Six in order of their pictures on stage (left to right) are: Venerable Henriette Delille (not seen), Venerable Augustus Tolton, Servant of God Mary Lange, Servant of God Thea Bowman, Venerable Pierre Toussaint, and Servant of God Julia Greeley. (Courtesy photo)

During the plenary sessions, pictures of the six Black Catholics who are moving toward sainthood were always present on the stage. Their stories were brought to life by children from a nearby Catholic school who dressed as the venerable they represented. Their performance was part of one plenary session, but reflective of how young people were included throughout the weekend.

There was a separate track for young people with workshops dedicated to their experiences. Their presence was heartwarming for Giovannitti. As a career teacher and parish director of religious education and faith formation, she focused on the workshops that provided guidance on attracting young people to church.

"I walked away with a goal of getting the young people from our parish to the next National Black Catholic Congress. I don't know how we will do it, but we have five years until the next Congress to find a way, and it is something we need to do," Giovannitti said. 

During the closing Mass on Sunday, young people were invited to come forward if they were thinking of becoming a priest or a nun. Barks, Giovannitti, and Peoples were all inspired by the number of young people who stepped forward.

Retired Bishop John H. Ricard of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Fla., the superior general of his religious order, the Josephites, delivers the homily at the closing Mass for the 13th National Black Catholic Congress July 21, 2023, at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in National Harbor, Md. (OSV News photo/Mihoko Owada, Catholic Standard)

"It was a sign that the Church is moving forward," Barks said, "and Black Catholics are a part of that future."

Barks, Peoples, and Giovanitti have returned home and to their parish church. They share the photos of the group standing in front of the mural by Anthony VanArsdale of the Madonna and Baby Jesus.

They remember the music in the service project room where hundreds formed an assembly line to prepare nutritious food for the Feed the Children nonprofit to distribute in Haiti.

And they treasure personal moments. For Giovannitti, it is her emotions during Eucharistic Adoration. For Barks, it was the presence of the Holy Spirit in song, and for Peoples it was the comfort and serenity of being in the presence of so many African American Catholics.

Giovannitti summed up their experience by paraphrasing retired Bishop John Ricard, SSJ, the homilist at the closing Mass.

"When we return to our parishes, it is up to us to keep this fire burning."

By Brenda Raney, a North Texas Catholic staff writer.

Religious sisters pray during the opening Mass for the 13th National Black Catholic Congress July 21, 2023, at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. (OSV News photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann, Archdiocese of Washington)

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