Catholic Church Takes New Look at HBCU Campus Ministry

WASHINGTON (CNS) – Church takes a fresh look at ministry in historically black colleges and universities across the United States.

While students prepare for final exams, campus ministers help them prepare for the ultimate final exam.

Although blacks are a minority within the American Catholic Church, numerically they follow only a few Protestant denominations – themselves historically black – when it comes to total membership.

The key, according to three HBCU campus ministers, is similar to that of other groups in other stages of life: to meet students where they are, not only physically, but where they are in attitude.

“I had to go to the campus community to involve the students. They won’t come to your desk or anything like that, ”said Father Josephite Elido Jerome, campus minister at Xavier University in New Orleans, the only historically black Catholic university in the country.

Xavier is also the only Catholic institution of higher education among the 107 colleges in the United States identified by the United States Department of Education as HBCU.

“I think there is a decent amount of Catholics on campus,” said Father Robert Boxie, campus minister at Howard University in Washington. “Our responsibility, our role is to find them.

“Yes and no,” said Father Urey Mark, campus minister at the Atlanta University Center, which is home to three HBCU – Morehouse Colleges, with a laugh. Spelman College and Clark-Atlanta University – as well as Georgia State University nearby.

Although not an HBCU, the latter school has a majority minority enrollment, including 22,000 black students, more than double the study body of the other three schools combined.

The coronavirus pandemic has stifled activity across the country, and the HBCUs were no exception. “The state of Georgia has opened its doors to limited capacity” last year, Father Mark told Catholic News Service in a telephone interview on Dec. 4, and credited the state’s 25 students with ” who came regularly to mass and kept the program alive ”.

Other struggles are more frequent. “This cohort, this age group is going to have the same struggles, the same challenges, the same problems,” said Father Boxie, Howard’s first priest-chaplain in about a decade.

“Being black and Catholic, you are sort of a double minority,” he added, noting how the HBCUs present themselves as “very Protestant. Your entry as a Catholic is very different. People find it strange: “How are you Catholic? How is it going ? There are a lot of students struggling.

Catholics make up about a quarter of Xavier’s student body, but Father Jerome does not attend to them to the exclusion of other students.

“Our center is open to all religious traditions. I did things with Muslim students. We organized an interfaith event with Muslim students. We listened to music and read some passages from one of the Sufi mystics, ”he said, adding that they had conducted mindfulness exercises with the Buddhist students at the university.

But there are opportunities to express their own Catholic faith, including a missionary trip to Honduras which Father Jerome considered to be a great success, and a “kitchen night” in conjunction with Catholic Relief Services’ annual Rice Bowl program. Lent. The students also did advocacy work on issues deemed important by the country’s Catholic bishops.

Father Boxie’s students took on the roles of liturgical ministry in a nearby parish for a Saturday night mass in honor of Black Catholic History Month in November – and some of them returned to campus for weekly Sunday mass.

The Atlanta University Center Campus Ministry has its own draw at the Lyke House Catholic Center, named after the late Archbishop of Atlanta James P. Lyke, the second Black Archbishop in the United States. He died of cancer in 1992.

“Our mission has been the inclusiveness, hospitality and inspiration which provides students with the opportunity to belong to a community of faith,” Father Mark told CNS, and “to root them in their Catholic identity and to make them responsible “. And if Georgia state students can’t make it to mass on their own, Lyke House has a shuttle bus to pick them up and return them.

Father Jérôme de Xavier said: “I have to use an ‘encuentro’ model, a meeting model. … I involve them a lot. I don’t plan programs for students, I plan programs with students. He added, “I talk to them and I see what their ideas are. … Students always have lots and lots and lots of ideas.

“As black Catholic students you matter” is part of Father Boxie’s message to Howard’s students. “We need to engage you in your relationship with the Lord, we encourage you in your walk with Christ. We are helping to train the next generation of black Catholic leaders.

Otherwise, “it is at that moment that they leave the faith, that they go away, that they find another community, another religious tradition where their friends go and they do much more than us, Catholics, ”Father Boxie said.

“Part of my mission here is to say it’s cool to be Catholic, especially to be black and Catholic,” the priest said. “We have something to offer you to learn and have confidence in the Catholic Faith – and also from that, to share this experience on campus, especially with your colleagues, with your peers – how often they sometimes have misunderstandings and misconceptions about what it means to be Catholic.

His first semester is not over yet, but Father Boxie is already considering how to bring the ministry on campus to another HBCU in the Archdiocese of Washington, Bowie State University in the suburb of the District of Columbia in Bowie, Maryland.

Father Mark enjoys showing his students a thousand-year-old heritage of black Catholics, starting with the Ethiopian civil servant who was baptized by Saint Philip in the Acts of the Apostles.

In more recent history, he has highlighted the appointment by Saint John Paul II of Archbishop Lyke to Atlanta; Sister Thea Bowman’s Ministry – the campus ministry music program is named after the Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Worship and offers musically gifted students, Catholics and non-Catholics, a chance to participate; and the three points of Pope Francis that young Catholics should know: “God loves you, Christ sees you and he is alive.

“Our mission transformed middle school students into missionary disciples,” said Father Mark. “The mission is very important, you know. “

Yet he and the other campus ministers still face a daunting task: renewal, which means they must find new students to replace those they have cultivated for four or more years.

“It’s a challenge,” said Father Jérôme. “If you use my template – meet by design – you’re still in the community. “

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