By Donna Leslie
After a two-year absence, the Kujenga Youth Retreat returned this year with many firsts and a focus on Jesus’ words from Luke 9:20: “Who do you say I am?”
A total of 80 young people attended this year’s retreat, hosted by the diocesan Vicariate of Black Catholic Concerns, July 27-29, at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Huntington, L.I. Forty-eight youth came from Brooklyn and Queens, and 32 were from the Diocese of Charlotte, N.C. Many chaperones, chaperones-in-training and leaders were from the Kujenga Alumni Association.
“Now is the perfect time for that theme,” said Kujenga alumnus A.J. Warrington ’12, “as well as for Kujengas to come back. It is especially prevalent now with what is happening to the youth today.”
“For this year’s retreat, saying that you are authentically Black Catholic – given that there is a rise in this generation recognizing and understanding their African heritage – it is very important to reiterate to our youth that you are Black by birth, Catholic by faith,” said group leader and Kujenga alumna Tamika Daniel ’09.
“Many of them are at the point in time that they can change religions, if they wish to. But they must be shown that Catholicism was once considered a white religion and the importance of remaining Catholic, as well as keeping Catholicism in your identity. You have an addition to your African identity. Many people will not see that, firsthand, when they look at you,” Daniel said.
Gathering in a prayer circle, Stephen Gregory McMullen (Brother Gregory) led a group of youth in The Lord’s Prayer. He warned young people against the negative influences affecting today’s youth, from the negative language in rap songs and videos to the practice of wearing sagging pants.
“We must get very, very real this weekend,” he told youth.
“The Scriptures say, ‘All power will be given to you.’ Unfortunately, we give it (to the devil). Has someone ever given you bad advice? ‘You can be anything you want to be’ is bad advice. What you want to be may not be what God wants you to be.”
Headed by Georganne Campbell, the Kujenga Core Team members guided youth through the weekend-long program.
Reflecting on this year’s retreat, she said, “The inspiration (was that) our children are hearing so much negative news about themselves (in mainstream media) that we needed to have a theme that was positive for them and about them. The theme (Who you say I am?) means that I am somebody special. If Luke is talking about me, then God is talking about me. And if God is talking about me, then it’s something good about what’s going on.”
Innovative Workshops, Ideas
Campbell thought this year’s retreat was “very innovative,” with new workshops and ideas, including the Prayer Service to the Ancestors and a Rosary for Jesus.
“I thought that Brother Gregory’s workshop where he did this backstory, where he talked about bullying and lying, was very powerful,” she said.
“It has been powerful and inspirational, the kids really connected with the spiritual side of it all,” said Deacon Al Saldana of Our Lady of Light parish, St. Albans. “(The theme) speaks of relationship, the relationship that we should have with Jesus, the relationship the Christ has with us. And it speaks to how we feed that relationship and how we maintain that relationship and make it grow and that we have some insight into ourselves.”
A tradition of the Kujenga retreat is Holy Hour. The main chapel is darkened with a few lights coming from lit candles in the front pews. Serving on the altar were Deacons Al Saldana, Christopher Barber of St. Clare, Rosedale, and Curtis Turner, principal of St. Francis H.S. in Baltimore, Md.
After opening prayers, solemn and inspirational music was provided by Courtney Starks ’10 and his band. During the Holy Hour, moving and powerful moments were witnessed as priests heard confessions and participants reconnected with God. Many tears were shed, and life’s burdens were lifted.
“This is a retreat that is needed in our community,” said Noelle Phillips, core team member and alumna from 2008. “It is made for us, by us, but it is fulfilling the need of social awareness and spirituality. To be socially aware, we tend to be harsh, rough, and jaded. Having that spiritual component reminds us why we do this. Our ancestors had the right approach of dealing with people, making them aware. It softens us and makes us come from a different point of view, and it also helps heal us.”
Kujenga chaperone Lisa Jean added, “We are in a day and age where kids don’t know who they are. In today’s world, knowing that they are Black Catholics is something that they should be proud of, especially in the time that we are in and the age group that they are.”
Though things change from year to year, the coordinator of the Vicariate of Black Catholic Concerns, Father Alonzo Cox, took time to remind everyone about the purpose of Kujenga. “The weekend is meant (for youth) to have an encounter with the Lord and I think that many of the Kujengans were able to do that through the Holy Hour and the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The Lord asks His disciples, ‘Who do you say I am?’ Each of us is called to act in the image and likeness of Christ.
“As Deacon Curtis mentioned in his talks (during the retreat), these young men and women are called to be witnesses of the Lord and it is my hope that they were able to hear and to truly recognized that they are the images and reflections of the Lord. Whether it is church, school, or with their friends, they reflect the Lord,” he said.
More than just a time for learning and growing spiritually, Kujenga is also a fun time for the youth. Deacon Turner led students in a role-playing activity in which they had to navigate a path between forces of good and evil, and a brain-teaser game where youth had to outwit their opponents mathematically.
Brother Gregory provided his life scenarios challenge, where youth would act out two scenes. One scene was evil, and the other – What Would Jesus Do? – was the solution.
Kujenga would not have been complete without an appearance by Bartendaz, a group that empowers youth through physical activity. Hassan Yasin Bradley, founder, provided youth with strength training and wisdom of Giant Thinking.
The final Mass on Sunday was dedicated to the memory of former chaperone Marilyn Towns-Jones, who passed away recently. Father Cox offered a fitting tribute to a fine lady and great human being.
After a fun-filled weekend, campers and chaperones made the journey home. As the Brooklyn bus moved up St. John’s Place, there were police sirens and a body was on the ground. The bus gasped. One Kujengan led everyone in the Hail Mary.
Who do you say we are? Authentically Black and authentically Catholic.
Leslie is a freelance journalist and independent television and film producer. She is a member of Our Lady of the Presentation, Brownsville.