By Vic Frierson, Denis Roberts and Karimah Crum
In the annals of both Catholic and Maryland history, the legend of Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange is well-chronicled: educator; foundress of the Oblate Sisters of Providence (the first religious congregation of women of African descent); advocate for the poor and underserved; independent thinker; and, of course, devout servant of God. Her enduring legacy is, in a word, excellence.
Since 1997, under the direction of the Archdiocese of Baltimore’s Office of Black Catholic Ministries (OBCM), Mother Lange’s legacy is formally celebrated each February at an awards banquet, at which youths and adults are honored for their service to our church and community.
For 2015, OBCM intensified the challenge for the program’s youth awardees; they raised the bar by which youth excellence is measured. Their premise was simple: identify the youth and young adult leadership and service awardees; intensify their learning experience; and, thereby,intensify their positive outcomes. Give young people the chance to feel history, rather than to just hear it; and you give them the chance to discern the difference between half-told truths, and what is the rich Biblical, cultural and historical legacy and heritage of people of color.
So, a group of over 40 trailblazing youth and young adults – including recipients of the 2015 Mother Lange award for outstanding service by youths – accepted OBCM’s challenge. These exceptional young people took part in a two-weekend program of enlightenment that started with a liturgy and then a field trip to Baltimore’s Center Stage Theater, and culminated in an ambitious bus journey that would take them from Baltimore to New York (NY) to Philadelphia (PA) to Washington (DC) and back to Baltimore – in the whirlwind span of 48 hours.
Young people participating in the Office of Black Catholic Ministries’ Freedom Ride see a play at Baltimore’ s Center Stage Theater. (Courtesy Office of Black Catholic Minisries)
Young people participating in the Freedom Ride visit the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. (Courtesy OBCM)
On Feb. 8, at the close of services, the congregation of Historic St. Francis Xavier prayed over our youth and young adult leaders … and with extended hands shared …
You O Lord have brought us a mighty long way … now, we stand with young people
of faith whose birth came forth through the path of faith of their parents, elders and ancestors. A fresh path appears now among these young ones right in front of us – who will lead us into the future through their faith and life of service.
Let us pray for them as they walk into the future
… stepping over the lines of cheap living – crossing over to rich living in Christ, stepping over the line of shallow relationships – crossing over to a deep relationship with Jesus;
stepping over the line of mundane service – crossing over to life giving service in Jesus’ name. We pray that they will stretch forth their souls, minds, hearts and spirit to receive Your Love and step into Your
compassion so that they may have life and have it to the full.”
– T. Wilson Favors
Following a reception after Mass this group departed for a presentation of the stage play “One Night in Miami.” This award winning one-act play depicted the night in February of 1964 when Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali) won the heavyweight championship for the first time and, rather than take part in the typical post-fight revelry, spent the evening in a Miami hotel room with his friends (NFL great) Jim Brown, (soul singer) Sam Cooke and (civil rights icon) Malcolm X.
Throughout the play, the four men contemplated aloud the plight of blacks in America, as well as, their own individual and collective roles toward making a difference. Likewise, OBCM’s purpose for seeing the play was to illustrate to the young participants the importance of recognizing the difference(s) they can make – individually and collectively.
Young people visit St. Charles Borromeo Church in Harlem, N.Y. (Courtesy OBCM)
Departing Feb. 14, OBCM’s bus trip – dubbed, “Harambee’s Hidden Colors Midnight-to-Midday Freedom Ride” – followed a prayer / presentation schedule that included visits to:
· Fells Point pier (Baltimore): Significant both for being the drop-off point for Haitian Catholics who would one day establish St. Francis Xavier, as well as, for its proximity to the community in which Mother Mary Lange, OSP and Fr. Charles Uncles, SSJ ministered
· Wall Street (NY): Youth walked where their ancestors were herded and traded on auction blocks
· Liberty Island (NY): reviewed history of France’s gift, significance of chains on ankles, foot
· Seneca Village (NY): a village in Manhattan, on what is now Central Park. Seneca Village was founded by and for free black people
St. Charles Borromeo Church (NY): Nicknamed, “The Cathedral of Harlem”
· Apollo Theater (NY): renowned live theater
· Schomburg Center (NY): museum, library and cultural research center
· African Memorial Burial Ground (NY): Contains the remains of over 400 free and enslaved blacks of African descent buried during the 17th and 18th centuries
· St. Patrick’s Cathedral – Toussaint L’Overture’s Crypt (NY)
· 1688 marker signifying First Protest Against Slavery in colonies
· Eastern Penitentiary (Ph)
· Johnson Underground Railroad Station and Museum (Ph)
· Girard College (Ph): a school for economically disadvantaged youths
· Independence Hall (Ph): Location where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were adopted
· The Liberty Bell (Ph): exhibit site of the famed Liberty bell
Young people visit the Statue of Liberty while participating in the Office of Black Catholic Ministries’ Freedom Ride in February. (Courtesy OBCM)
Adding even further enlightenment value to the Freedom Ride experience was the series of workshops that were presented aboard the bus. The workshops featured the broadcast of the film documentaries, “Hidden Colors (Vol. 1 & 2)”, that explore the role(s) of African and aboriginal people in history. Each broadcast was immediately followed by live, interactive “reaction & discussion” sessions, in which participants’ shared their feedback.
Because of the overwhelming success of its inaugural junket, OBCM is already working to make its Freedom Ride an annual event. Teniera Moore, 15, who attends St. Frances Academy, says of her experience, “… it was really educational. It helped me see some of the stuff my ancestors went through. Plus, it was fun to meet people from other churches and schools (places)”.
Chaperone Keisha Washington, who attends St. Peter Claver says, “I learned things about our history that I didn’t even know,” quickly adding that, “I’m the one who’s been truly blessed, to be among the group of young people that we had on this trip.”
For Michael Middleton, coordinator of youth ministry at St. Cecilia’s, the Freedom Ride demonstrated that, “… we are united, as youth ministers in the urban church, irrespective of what individual church we go to”, excitedly adding, “it’s a collaborative!”
Kevin Taylor, a 16-year-old Cristo Rey Jesuit High School sophomore, offered that, “… it taught us a lot about our ancestors that you wouldn’t necessarily find in a history book; things they wouldn’t teach you in a school.”
And finally, echoing OBCM’s long-term objective, Sandy Morgan, youth minister at St. Cecilia’s extols, “…it has lifted my spirits about who I am and whose I am. We’ve got to do this at least every year, if not more.”
Frierson is both founder and director of Partners Educating Artists, Composers & Entertainers – better known as The PEACE Project. The PEACE Project is a prevention strategy that targets teenaged performing artists from Baltimore who are at high risk of witnessing, committing and/or becoming victims of violence.
Krum is a graduate of St. Frances Academy in Baltimore