The Ladies of the Covenant, composed of parishioners from the Basilica of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception, Norfolk, incorporate dancing into a prayer service at the Black Catholic Evangelization Conference, Saturday, July 21.
(Photos/Jennifer Neville)

Jennifer Neville, Special to The Catholic Virginian

Evangelizing, which all Catholics are called to do, requires more than opening the church doors and inviting people inside. It means venturing outside those doors to spread the Gospel. But instead of just explaining the Good News, Catholics must live it so that others, enamored at their example, will be enticed to worship God.

Such was the message at the second Diocesan Black Catholic Evangelization Conference, “Our Faith in Action,” at the Basilica of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception, Norfolk, Saturday, July 21. Nationally and internationally renowned speakers covered topics that included spirituality, black Catholic history, racism, marriage and family life, vocations and ways to evangelize. 

Bishop Martin D. Holley of the Diocese of Memphis, Tenn., and Father Maurice Emelu, a Catholic priest, speaker, writer and TV producer from Nigeria, were keynote speakers.

“The mission of lay Catholics is to sanctify the world, not simply try to somehow earn our individual passage to heaven,” Bishop Holley said. “In fact, it would be literally heresy to suggest that we can earn eternal happiness on our own. We have the obligation to look after the welfare of the community and to contribute to its welfare and mission in whatever way we can.” 

Such advice was invigorating for conference attendee Greta Barnes who works with the RCIA at her parish, Holy Rosary, Richmond. She said the conference energized her and gave her new ideas on how to evangelize, such as offering programs and events for people in the community, particularly for the black population, young adults and young families, which may lead them to want to learn about Catholicism and to worship at the church.

Father Emelu challenged the audience to allow the Good News to “shine forth” through their “lives, words, actions and activities” so that people can see Jesus in them. Although good deeds can be large efforts, he suggested showing one’s faith in small ways, such as saying good morning to coworkers, sending a text message, calling a relative, consoling a friend or visiting a nursing home. 

“When people see this love for the Lord, they see how beautiful it is to be a Christian.” Father Emelu said.

He added that it doesn’t matter if one is “black, white or blue” because “in Christ we are all reconciled and we become a reconciling community.”

Members of the Knights of Peter Claver and participants in the Black Catholic Evangelization Conference pray the Lord’s Prayer during the event’s concluding Mass, Saturday, July 21. (Photos/Labat Photography)

Bishop Holley advised the 175 attendees to strive to be selfless and God-centered through nine habits: practice solitude, pray daily, read Scripture, worship and receive the sacraments regularly, explore the lives and reflections of saints and Christian scholars, consider sacramental devotions that flourish in the Church, accept and model unconditional love, serve others and build community.

He reminded the audience that Jesus made time for solitude at every important juncture of his life such as before he began his public ministry, before he chose his apostles, when he heard of the death of John the Baptist, after he fed the 5,000 with fish and bread, and as his suffering and death approached.

“No matter how rushed or hectic our life is, it’s important that we find time to be alone with God, even if it’s only for a few minutes a day,” Bishop Holley said.

For example, meditation could be before other family members rise in the morning, in the shower, in the car to or from work, or when your child is napping, he said. 

Bishop Holley compared devotions to shoes.

“The key is fit,” he said, explaining that it is important to draw oneself closer to God in a way that “suits you,” such as praying the rosary or Stations of the Cross.

In a panel discussion at the end of the conference, Donna Grimes, assistant director of African American Affairs at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said that although the white-only and black-only signs no longer exist, racism continues but is now insidious. For instance, she said, racism is evident as it creeps into the prison system and affects voting rights. Bishop Holley agreed that the United States still experiences racism, discrimination and hatred as evidenced in incarceration rates, graduation rates and job opportunities. 

Due to desegregation, financial strife and the dwindling number of priests, parishes and schools are closing. The consolidation means diverse membership, and while that may seem effective and preferable, the closure of black parishes may actually be a disadvantage, Bishop Holley said. 

While parishes must not restrict any ethnic group from attending, congregations which are primarily black provide a way for the diocese to stay in touch with what is going on in the black Catholic world. Also, such parishes offer black parishioners more leadership opportunities than they might find in more diverse congregations, he said.

Karen Paige Womack, a lector and an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist at the basilica, said the conference was uplifting and “recharged” her to continue serving in her parish. 

“This has been phenomenal,” Womack said, maintaining that the conference “was worth every moment.” She added, “We got fire today.”