by Donna Leslie
Seventy young Catholics from 11 diocesan parishes were inspired to take up their shield of faith at the 23rd annual Kujenga Youth Leadership Retreat, Aug. 2-4, at the Immaculate Conception Seminary in Huntington, L.I.
Sponsored by the Vicariate of Black Catholic Concerns, the weekend retreat experience offers diocesan youth an opportunity “to build” (kujenga in Swahili) their leadership skills and spirituality.
This year’s theme, “Take up the Shield of Faith” (Eph 6:16), was selected by seminarian Mark Bristol, new Kujenga coordinator, “to encourage young people in this Year of Faith to take their faith seriously and to nurture it through prayer, study, and participation in the life of their parish church.”
“In light of the wave of increased violence against teens and young people today,” he said, “it is clear that evil exists and death is the reality our young people face more than ever.”
Faith Trumps Fear
“In the face of this reality,” he added, “we, as Catholics, are not paralyzed by fear and despair because we have something more powerful than guns or bombs; it is our faith in Jesus Christ.”
Taking up the shield of leadership with Bristol were older youth participants, known as Chaperones In Training (CIT), and graduates who form the Kujenga Alumni Association. Not only did CITs and alumni take an active role in planning and organizing the activities and events, including the Kujenga Olympics and talent show, but they also served as mentors and group leaders.
Among the youth leaders were transitional Deacon Evans Julce, diocesan seminarians Jose Henriquez Castaño, Daniel Kingsley and Uri Melchizedek, and seminarian Kareem Smith from the New York Archdiocese.
Guest presenter, Father Christopher Rhodes, a priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville, Ky., opened the weekend retreat by singing the African-American spiritual, “Give Me Jesus,” before leading youth in a solemn outdoor reenactment of the Way of the Cross.
Over the course of three days, the shield theme figured prominently in prayer and penance services, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and presentations on the topics of faith, the sacraments, the Word of God, works of mercy, chastity and prayer.
Youth prayed for African saints and ancestors with retired Auxiliary Bishop Guy Sansaricq, diocesan vicar of Black Catholic Concerns, and received wooden cross necklaces to remind them to keep Christ close to their hearts.
During the penance service, Bishop Sansaricq spoke to the youth about the challenges they face as young men and women and how he faced similar tests and trials in his younger years. He spoke about temptation and the true meaning of respect.
The Kujenga retreat, Bristol said, encouraged youth to be men and women of prayer, love and charity, rather than anger and violence. “We are giving them an opportunity to experience a God who is ‘gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love,’” he said.
During group discussions, the Youth Catechism (YOUCAT) book was used as a guide for young people to learn more about the faith and be prepared to answer questions their peers or non-Catholics may ask about their Catholic faith.
Kujegans enjoyed playing games at the Kujenga Olympics and showcasing their unique abilities at the annual talent show. They rejoiced when a familiar face arrived – newly ordained Father Dwayne Davis, an alumnus and former coordinator of the program.
“It is always good to see young men and women gather,” said Father Rhodes, who felt it was “a blessing” to be among the young people, seminarians and adults who brought the day to fruition. He hoped the retreat would give youth the strength, support and affirmation they needed to face the realities of their everyday lives.
Rite of Passage
The weekend ended with the annual rite of passage, a graduation ceremony in which the oldest youth participants make the transition into adulthood.
In a special way, they remembered Bianca Petillo, who was killed while crossing an intersection in Queens in mid-July. She graduated posthumously in the presence of her brother Justin and sister Brittany, both of whom participated in the weekend this year.
“She was very close to her siblings, and she was well on her way to college in the fall,” said Tamika Daniel, CIT and Kujenga alumna. “Bianca always put God first in her life and loved serving Him in all ways.”
As the weekend closed, youth left with a shield of faith sheltering their hearts and minds.
“Kujenga, for me, is a time for young people to come together and know that it is okay to praise God openly,” said Brandon Dingle, a parishioner at Our Lady of Charity, Weeksville, who graduated from Kujenga this year.
Reflecting on his first Kujenga experience, Jonathan Duncan, also a parishioner at Our Lady of Charity, said, “It was an opportunity to give any troubles or burdens from your heart to God.”
[hr]Donna Leslie, a freelance journalist and filmmaker, is a parishioner of Our Lady of the Presentation-Our Lady of Mercy, Brownsville.[hr]