By Deacon Albert Anderson
Chairperson for the Black Catholic Ministry, Diocese of Arlington
St. Joseph of Alexandria, VA
From Friday, March 2nd to Sunday, March 4th, 2018 several members of the St. Joseph (Alexandria, VA) parish family, together with youth and elders from the Diocese of Richmond and Archdiocese of Baltimore, attended the annual KUJENGA Youth Retreat in Richmond, VA.
Kujenga is a Swahili word, meaning “to build“. Hosted by the Catholic Diocese of Richmond’s Office for Black Catholics/Asian Ministry, Pam Harris, Th.M., Director, the weekend-long experience, designed for rising freshmen through high school seniors, was ordered toward building Christ centered, family-oriented leadership skills for youth in the Black Catholic community. This was accomplished through a series of presentations, small group discussions, games and faith sharing.
The setting was the beautiful 150-acre campus of the Roslyn Conference & Retreat Center. With its peaceful rolling hills and beautiful trees, it was a perfect place for our young people to get away from the distractions of the secular world and focus on how to best use their God given talents to build up His kingdom.
All cell phones were collected Saturday morning, and, after some initial moaning and groaning, no one seemed to miss them! The day began with a wonderful breakfast (CHAKULA) in a spacious dining hall with high ceilings and lots of windows looking out over the hills and valleys. This was followed by KARIBU – Welcome and Orientation: safety briefing; rules of and expectations for the Retreat, given by Fr. Anthony Bozeman, S.S.J. and Pam Harris. A “Hand Up” rule was established whereby whenever Fr. Bozeman, Pam or one of the Elders raised his or her hand, everyone got quiet and focused their attention on whoever “had the floor”. It was a wonderful, fun and effective way to maintain focus on the speaker.
Family Elders were then introduced, and each young person was assigned to a “Family”. The Elders were responsible for: encouraging youth participation and attention during presentations and throughout the weekend; keeping all young people in their family involved during the exercises; asking leading questions posed by presenters and facilitators; encouraging family members to participate in prayer services and liturgy; and getting their “children” to and from the sessions on time. There were also Aunts and Uncles assigned for the weekend. Their responsibilities included: environment (Mass, prayer services, Karamu feast); setting up snacks; assisting with wake up/lights out, head counts.
Families were asked to choose a Swahili Family Name that suited their particular family charism. They were also asked to read and sign the Family Pledge and adhere to a strict Code of Conduct. Then, a family symbol was chosen, and each young person took part in drawing the symbol on a large poster board. It was suggested to add something that symbolizes Christ (cross, dove, church, etc.). A family member was chosen to state the family name, explain what the name meant and why it was selected. As each family proclaimed its name, a family member lit a candle on the family table.
There were interactive presentations given on each of the seven principles of the Nguzo Saba (African-American Catholic Principles and the seven principles of Kwanzaa). Before every presentation of a principle, one candle of the Kinara (Swahili for candle holder) was lit. At the end of that presentation, the candle was extinguished. Two family members from one family were chosen by table Elders for one of them to light the candle as the other reads the definition of the principle. The candles are placed three red on the left, three green on the right, and a single black candle in the center. Red symbolizes past, present and future suffering for dignity and freedom. Black symbolizes the people of African descent. Green symbolizes hope in people of African descent, self-hood, self-determination, and in the new creation and Third World of truth, justice, peace and freedom for all.
Mario Dance did a fantastic job as our leader of song for the praise and worship gatherings.
The presentations were:
Nia (Purpose): To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness – Devin Jones
Umoja (Unity): To strive for and to maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race – Ashley Dixon
Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility): To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers’ and sisters’ problems our problems, and to solve them together – Pam Harris
Kujichagulia (Self-Determination): To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves. – Mario Dance
Kuumba (Creativity): To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it – Candra Parker
Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics): To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together – Chauntele Taylor
Imani (Faith): To believe with all our hearts in God, our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness – Deacon Al Anderson
One of the most powerfully poignant times of the weekend came during Family Dialogue Courageous Conversation in the Entire Family (Authentically Black and Catholic) “Girls to Boys – Boys to Girls – Women to Boys – Men to Girls”. The objective was to encourage the teens to explore their identity as male/female African American Catholics. I participated in one of the all-male sub sessions “Boys to Men”. The personal stories shared by the young men about the challenges they face with interpersonal relationships were truly eye-opening. I’ve been told that the “Girls to Women” session was equally moving.
Sunday began in the beautiful chapel, overlooking a lush green valley. The retreat concluded Sunday afternoon with a Commissioning / Sending Forth Service. Following are some reflections by the St. Joseph delegation:
Beverly Anderson: The weekend I spent as the “aunt” to over 30 young people was so inspiring. The friendships developed, sharing and the overall fellowship shown by the youth will last with me for years. We need more weekends for youth to come together and share their challenges and struggle. Maybe this will help reduce some of the violence we are seeing in our schools.
Phyllis Johnson: The Unity, Respect and Reciprocity was refreshing to see in our youth. I left the retreat knowing our world is in capable hands. Young men and women ready for the challenges ahead!
Anthony Johnson: I served as an Elder and I could not have been [more] proud of my family. As it turned out, I had one son and five daughters. This is significant because in my own family upbringing I had six older sisters to guide and shape me. My focus was on the son but his sisters expressed and showed so much love – I simply watched and observed as a proud parent would. They helped one another and their social and play demands were such that no one was excluded. I was impressed at how well they did ‘across’ the age gap and without ‘technology’. They thrived and formed lasting friendships – that I continue to hear them speak of well after KUJENGA. Reports from my family’s actual parents are extremely positive and enriching – as I have been stopped after masses and given so much positive feedback! I witnessed great leadership at KUJENGA and it has continued back at the parish!
Cameron Hubbard: I got a chance to meet new people. And I enjoyed my new family because I couldn’t believe I had 5 sisters, which had me laughing because I really do have 5 sisters so I knew I was in for it. Learning how to be a leader and helping the community was awesome. I was happy that we made bags with soap, snacks, deodorant, toothpaste and all kinds of things to give to the needy. It made me feel good to help others. And being able to talk about the problems that we as African American Males face was very helpful. Being able to show a new altar sever what Mr. Anthony taught me really made me feel (good) to show ‘n teach my best so that the Lord and Mr. Anthony would be proud of me. And getting a chance to bond with the other altar brothers from our Church was cool. The way the church was designed I will never forget because it was beautiful and different in the way it was built. I enjoyed the trip; it was a learning experience I will never forget!
I thank GOD I was chosen to go on this trip.
Jai Thompson: I really enjoyed the KUJENGA retreat. It was nice to interact with other Black Catholic teens my age. Learning about the Black priests and saints was very interesting, and I liked the activities. I look forward to attending again in the future. The food was delicious!
Kim Thompsom: KUJENGA was an amazing experience. I met many other Black Catholics and learned so much about African American Catholic history. It is an excellent environment to be in. I enjoyed my time at KUJENGA.
Mone` Williams: Kujenga was a great experience as Black Catholic youth. It showed us as teens and individuals that there are more people like us in this world than we realize and that we have to stick together to make sure this world is a better place for everyone. We all got to fellowship and become good friends outside of Kujenga. Personally, I am on FaceTime with one of the girls almost every day and have texting group chats with most of the teens from Baltimore. Overall, Kujenga was a very fun experience and I hope to be able to go back next year.
Yours in Christ,
*Original post edited for length and clarity
Photos taken by Phyllis Johnson