by Donna Leslie
A few days after attending the National Black Catholic Congress, which was attended by over 2,000 delegates representing the African Diasporas from the United States and some dioceses representing Africa, the Caribbean, the military and Rome, I placed a call to an old friend, John Baynes.
“Hey, Donna!” he said. “How you doing!” My response was, “Fine.”
“Hey, we missed you at the Congress,” I said.
Baynes went on to explain that he had his plane ticket purchased and his bags packed, but his doctor ordered him not to fly. “A little heart ailment,” he said. “My granddaughter went and she can’t stop talking about it.”
I went on to tell him how wonderful it was. I told him about the 25 youths from the Youth Ambassadors program and the 60 adults representing Brooklyn and Queens who were there, and how this was one of the best congresses ever organized. We spoke about attending the next congress, five years from now.
“I look forward to it,” John said.
On July 17, John Baynes, the former director of the Office of Black Ministry for the Diocese of Brooklyn, passed away in his home in Houston, Texas.
I remember meeting John Baynes at Our Lady of Victory parish, Bedford-Stuyvesant. The late Bishop Thomas V. Daily had just re-established the office. I would be introduced to John by Father Martin Carter, S.A., then-pastor of Our Lady of Victory and former director of the Office of Black Ministry. We would talk for a long time, as I shared my experiences as a liaison member. I also spoke about the Kujenga retreat, the former weekend training retreat Praise Him!; the former Diocesan Gospel Choir (“Sounds of the Spirit of Praise”); the Black Catholic Congresses I attended.
We spoke about other organizations, such as the Knights and Ladies of Peter Claver; the Black Catholic Administrators Conference, the Black Clergy Conference and Black Seminarians, etc. I told him of the many priests I knew and still know, many of whom are the black clergy and, “There are some ‘cool white priests’ out there,” I said. “Check them out.”
To be a ‘cool white priest’ in a black parish, is to be open and fair to your parishioners. Every week, I would call him telling him of another ‘cool priest’ I knew of. Ending the conversation saying, “Of course, my pastor is the coolest of all the white pastors.” I also reminded him, “Don’t forget the ‘Brother’ clergy!” That remark brought laughter. I told him that I looked forward to working with him.
John proved to be a very popular director. He would visit parishes; write several columns for The Tablet, in which he spoke out against racism. He continued the monthly liaison meetings, in both Brooklyn and Queens. His door was always open and he was well respected throughout the diocese.
He brought forth unity at the annual Diocesan Black History Month Masses of Thanksgiving at St. James Cathedral. The Masses featured the music of the African-American, Caribbean, Haitian, Nigerian and Ghanaian communities.
In the 1990s, John Baynes oversaw the reorganization of the Kujenga Retreat, in which the three groups, Ankhs, Sankofas, and Doves, were established.
Kujenga group leader, Georgianne Campbell, shared her memory. “We would have a meeting, and after we had a discussion, he would say ‘Let’s do it.’”
Campbell, along with Angela Lewis, Jeff Hicks and Julia Primus, were the original core team members who oversaw the changes that are now a foundation of the retreat. In addition, the Kujenga retreat would be based in Scripture, with a reading from the Bible as the central theme.
“Every time I run into some of the old Kujengans, they remember the Five Smooth Stones,” said Campbell. “We would open our planning meetings with Scripture. John was always open to new ideas.”
Kujenga Leader Jeff Hicks remembered Baynes fondly. “He was a sincere, warm-hearted man, who touched so many young people’s lives.”
Kujenga leader Stephen McMullen, known as “Brother Gregory,” said, “He loved being black and Catholic and celebrated his faith with pride!”
Inspired Others to Greatness
Kujenga alum, Chris Graham also paid tribute. “He inspired many of us Kujengans to greatness that we never saw in ourselves.”
When his tenure as director abruptly ended, many were angry and saddened. John (and his late wife, Dorrett) chose to handle the matter with class and dignity. The former Harlem store owner and ministry director retired and moved to Texas, where the couple would live life quietly. I offered condolences to John and his family when his beloved Dorrett passed away a few years ago.
I last saw him, five years ago, at the last National Black Catholic Congress in Indianapolis, Ind. We stayed in touch over the years. This year, I looked forward to seeing my friend again at the recent congress in Orlando, Fla. Sadly, I will now see him, like my father, in my thoughts and dreams.
John was 75 years old. The funeral Mass took place on Saturday, July 29 at St. Mary of the Purification Catholic Church in Houston, Texas. Burial took place in Houston.
Angela Lewis, a former Kujenga chaperone and leader, best summed up John Baynes in these words: “John was a true man of God and a warrior of diversity and collaboration for the people of God. John connected with the youth affectionately embracing all with his grandfatherly love. John loved the Church and lived by the Gospel calling to love and serve.”
So, here’s to you, John Baynes. God bless you and may you rest in peace. Well done, great servant. Well done.
Leslie works as a freelance journalist, and an independent television and film producer. She is a liaison member to the Vicariate of Black Catholic Concerns and parishioner of Our Lady of the Presentation, Brownsville.