By Mónica Romero-Amador
HUNTINGTON, L.I. — The 27th annual local Kujenga Leadership Conference, which was held this year at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Huntington, L.I., July 26-28, brings together young black Catholics to develop their leadership skills so that they can be models of faith for others.
The conference has a special meaning for Donella McLeod of Brooklyn, 27, who first attended Kujenga 10 years ago and served as a chaperone at this year’s retreat.
“In my high school, there weren’t a lot of Christians, not many Catholics and even fewer Catholics that were black,” McLeod, a native of East Flatbush, told The Tablet.
“When I attended Kujenga, I felt like I belonged. I was surrounded by young people that looked like me and were in love with Jesus,” she said. “It was a safe space to ask my questions about my faith without feeling stupid.
“It was OK for me to realize that I should not know everything just because I was a baptized and practicing Catholic. Kujenga encouraged me to be proud of my faith and to go to college knowing who I was as a Catholic, and one who was black.”
Love Never Fails
This year’s conference — entitled, “Love Never Fails’’ — was attended by 47 high school students. Most were from the Diocese of Brooklyn, but a group of about 10 came from North Carolina to train as chaperones.
The retreat challenged the participants to see themselves as deserving and builders of the love represented in Jesus and helped them understand the importance of the history and traditions of Catholics of African descent in the church.
American black saints referred to in the conference included Sts. Peter Claver, Monica, Martin de Porres and Katharine Drexel. Among the topics discussed were community involvement, higher education and evangelization.
Sandy Thomas, one of the Kujenga leaders, said that the retreat is open to “young people of different nationalities who share the same ancestral descent.”
“Kujenga is inclusive, and our main goal is to take the youth to have a relationship with God,” Thomas said.
Georgeann Campbell, a Kujenga coordinator since 2006, explained the importance of the conference to young black Catholics.
“Once a year they get to see people just like them having a leading role and feel inspired to follow their steps. They need to be preached from their reality,’’ Campbell said.
Kwame Barrett was one of the teens who came from North Carolina. He was training to be a chaperone.
“I really felt it in my soul,” Barrett said. “The speakers were great. You know, you can be anywhere and be tempted. Temptation fights and comes to you, but being here, I just felt like I was in the presence of God the whole time…it’s something bigger than you. It was really remarkable.’’
The weekend was both social and sacramental. Attendees enjoyed a barbeque, talent show and board games, and also had the opportunity to go to confession, attend Mass and experience a Holy Hour.
Father Alonzo Q. Cox, coordinator of the diocese’s Vicariate of Black Catholic Concerns and pastor of St. Martin de Porres Church, Bedford-Stuyvesant, celebrated the closing Mass.
Before the Mass, the retreatants participated in a Kujenga ceremony, which doubled as a graduation ceremony for the retreat. It included gospel songs, dances, flags, colorful clothes, and praise and worship.
Kujenga — whose meaning comes from the Swahili word for “to build up’’ — dates back to 1977, when it was founded in the Archdiocese of Chicago.
Father Martin Carter, S.A., a Franciscan Friar of the Atonement who taught at Hales Franciscan H.S. in Chicago, helped launch the conference, and he brought Kujenga to the Diocese of Brooklyn after he became the director of the diocese’s black ministry office in the 1980s. The first local Kujenga was held in 1989.
‘‘His vision of what this retreat is continues to remain in our lives stronger than ever,” Father Cox said of Father Carter.
“It was his mission to bring black youth to Kujenga to give witness to their faith and to instill within them what it means to be a leader in the church.’’
For many, Kujenga comes at a crucial time. It gives teenagers the chance to vent and to accept the choice to change. Conversion is an important step in the Kujenga process so that the participants can be a testimony for others.
McLeod recalls that when she first went to Kujenga she was about to start at Spelman College in Atlanta.
“Up until that time, I had just been going through the motions of Catholicism, attending church with my family. I received all my sacraments because I was ‘supposed to,’” she said.
After an affirming experience at Kujenga and her time in college, McLeod came back to New York rejuvenated in her Catholic faith. She now serves as a witness to others.
“Being a chaperone at Kujenga allows me to provide the same experience for young black Catholics who just like me are questioning if we belong,” McLeod, a parishioner at St. Matthew’s, Crown Heights, said.
“To help them grow and become secure in their faith is my biggest goal,” she added. “I am excited every year to have an entire weekend to let the young ones know that Jesus truly loves them and encourage them to be proud of that and to love Him back.”
Mónica Romero-Amador is an intern at DeSales Media Group.