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Catholic Church takes fresh look at ministry on historically Black campuses

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WASHINGTON — The church is taking a fresh look at ministry at the United States' historically Black colleges and universities.

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

Although Blacks are a minority within the U.S. Catholic Church, numerically they trail only a few Protestant denominations — themselves historically Black — when it comes to total members.

The key, according to three campus ministers at HBCUs, is similar to those of other groups at other stages in life: Meet the students where they are, not only physically but where they are in attitude.

"I had to go out to the campus community to engage the students. They will not come to your office or anything like that," said Josephite Father Elido Jerome, campus minister at Xavier University in New Orleans, the nation's only historically Black Catholic university.

Xavier also is the only Catholic institution of higher education among the 107 colleges in the United States identified by the U.S. 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," laughed Father Urey Mark, campus minister at the Atlanta University Center, which is home to three HBCUs — Morehouse College, Spelman College and Clark-Atlanta University — plus nearby Georgia State University.

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

The coronavirus pandemic stifled activity throughout the country, and HBCUs were no exception. "Georgia State opened to a limited capacity" last year, Father Mark said in a Dec. 4 phone interview, and credited the 25 students from Georgia State "who came to Mass regularly and kept the program alive."

Other struggles are more common. "That cohort, that age group are going to have the same struggles, the same challenges, the same issues," said Father Boxie, the first priest-chaplain at Howard in about a decade.

"Being Black and Catholic, you're sort of double minority," he added, noting how HBCUs come off as "very Protestant. Your coming in as Catholic is very different. People see that as odd: 'How are you Catholic? How does that happen?' There are a lot of students who struggle."

Catholics make up about one-fourth of the Xavier student body, but Father Jerome does not cater to them to the exclusion of other students.

"Our center is open to all faith traditions. I have done things with Muslim students. We have done an interfaith event with Muslim students. We had music and read some passages from one of the Sufi mystics," he said, adding they have conducted mindfulness exercises with the university's Buddhist students.

But there are opportunities to express their own Catholic faith, including a mission trip to Honduras that Father Jerome considered a great success, and a "cooking night" in conjunction with Catholic Relief Services' annual Rice Bowl program in Lent. Students also have done advocacy work on items deemed important by the nation's Catholic bishops.

Father Boxie's students took on the liturgical ministry roles at a nearby parish for a Saturday night Mass honoring Black Catholic History Month in November — and some of them returned to campus for the weekly Sunday Mass there.

The Atlanta University Center campus ministry has its own draw in the Lyke House Catholic Center, named after the late Atlanta Archbishop James P. Lyke, the second Black archbishop in the U.S. He died of cancer in 1992.

"Our mission has been inclusivity, hospitality and inspiration that provides the opportunity for college students to belong to a faith community," Father Mark said, and "to have them rooted in their Catholic identity and to empower them." And if Georgia State students can't get to Mass there under their own power, the Lyke House has a shuttle bus to pick them up and take them back.

Xavier's Father Jerome said, "I have to use an 'encuentro' model, an encounter model. ... I get them very involved. I don't plan programs for students, I plan programs with students." He added, "I talk to them and see what their ideas are. ... Students always have lots and lots and lots of insights."

"As Black Catholic students, you matter" is part of Father Boxie's message to Howard students. "We have to engage you in your relationship with the Lord, we encourage in your walk with Christ. We are helping to form the next generation of Black Catholic leaders.

If not, "that's when they leave the faith, they walk away, the find some other community, some other faith tradition where their friends go to and they're doing a lot more than we Catholics are doing," 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 to you to learn and be confident in the Catholic faith — and also from that, sharing that experience on campus, especially with your colleagues, with your peers — how often sometimes they have misunderstandings and misconceptions of what it means to be Catholic."

His first semester isn't complete yet, but Father Boxie is already considering how to bring campus ministry to another HBCU in the Washington Archdiocese, Bowie State University in the District of Columbia suburb of Bowie, Md.

Father Mark likes to show a millenniums-long legacy of Black Catholics to his students, starting with the Ethiopian official who was baptized by St. Philip in the Acts of the Apostles.

In more recent history, he pointed to St. John Paul II's appointment of Archbishop Lyke to Atlanta; the ministry of Sister Thea Bowman — the campus ministry's music program is named after the Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration and offers musically gifted students, Catholic and non-Catholic, a chance to participate; and Pope Francis' three points young Catholics need to know: "God loves you, Christ sees you and he is alive."

"Our mission has been transforming collegians into missionary disciples," Father Mark said. "Mission is very important, you know."

Yet he and other campus ministers always have a daunting task: turnover, meaning they must find new students to replace the ones they've cultivated over four or more years.

"That's a challenge," Father Jerome said. "If you use my model — encounter by design — you are always out in the community."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021