By Glen Mason
New Journal and Guide
Arts and Culture Correspondent
Oxen Hill, MD
It’s the opening morning praise and worship service at the National Black Catholic Congress XIII held July 20-23 at the Gaylord Hotel and Conference Center last Friday. The massive Maryland Ballroom is at capacity due to the “overwhelming response.”
Karen Womack of the Basilica of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception sat listening to the choir led by Ms. Lynne Gray, Director of Music for Congress XIII, and Mr. Rawn Harbor, Director of Liturgy for Congress XIII. After the invocation, she sat quietly, reflecting on the occasion. She was asked what it was like being around many Catholics of Africa’s Diaspora and her faith. What was she experiencing at that moment? Just as she began to articulate her thoughts, her eyes sparkled. There was a warm, sisterly, motherly smile as a tear rolled down her cheek.
The look in her eyes said everything: spiritual salvation. How pleased her late mother would be with her there. A retired educator, she sat speechless. Her tongue was tied with peace and happiness, and thoughts of her mother, the late Hattie Paige, reflected in her smile.
The Maryland Ballroom was filled with energy different than a usual Catholic fellowship. For lack of a better metaphor, it was how you would feel if you could travel back in time to the University of Timbuktu. Think of the peaceful exchange of minds there. The thirst for the wisdom of our ancestors. Think of the beauty of the marketplace, the colors of fabrics beyond the usual aesthetics, the gentle banter of barter.
The presence of their Lord embellished their faces.
“This is my first time attending NBCC, and the experience is more than I hoped for,” said Lauren Davenport, assistant lacrosse coach at Notre Dame of Maryland University. “It is always welcome and comforting to be in an environment where I get to be unapologetically Black AND Catholic.
“The experience became fulfilling when I got to reconnect with priests I encountered while living in Baton Rouge – who were integral in my faith formation beginning years ago. I am grateful for the opportunity to learn from so many people and to spend time in worship and fellowship with fellow Black Catholics from around the country.”
Many of St. Mary’s parishioners said they were glad to see friends from retreats, conferences, and seminars. The plenary sessions were well attended. Various parishes, especially the Basilica’s, ensured strong attendance at the sessions on racism and mental health.
The session on racism, “Synodality, Black Catholic Spirituality, and the Racial Divide,” was moderated by Daryl Grigsby, Color Me Human Board President. The mental health segment, “Leveraging Mental Health: Thriving Through Our Stories,” was presented by Regina Boyd of Boyd Counseling Services Licensed Counselors and Sister Josephine Garrett, Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth Licensed Counselor.
Father Jim Curran, the rector of the Basilica of St. Mary, said he was “extremely” proud of the number of parishioners who attended, especially the youth ministry. The significance of the role of St. Mary permeated the Congress.
“The NBCC was a wonderful experience and just reaffirmed the fact that I am a Proud Black Catholic,” said Christine Booth, a retired educator and Basilica parishioner.
Mojaan Bruce, a sophomore at Oscar Smith who attends St. Mary, said the Congress was a leap of faith for him as part of the Basilica’s youth ministry. He shot a video for the Basilica’s coverage of the convention.
“As a recent member of the Catholic Church, the XIII Gathering of the National Black Catholic Congress provided inspirational affirmation of the universality of the Christian spirit,” said Blake Morant, a law professor at George Washington University, where he was Dean in 2014-2019. “To witness so many individuals of color manifest a spirituality that is endemic in Catholicism reaffirmed and inspired.”
He continued, ”The XIII gathering, which was racially inclusive, serves as testimony to what we need in contemporary society. Namely, despite our differences, our commonality of humanity remains an indelible bond. “
“The significance of the Basilica being a presence at the Congress came in two ways,” according to Ortega Pretlow. The sermons for Sunday’s (closing) Mass said it all.
“As Catholics, particularly African-American Catholics, ‘we are wheat ready to flower the world,’” said Pretlow. “Another Bishop told us we, as a race, have come to a time in our lives where we need to stop defending ourselves as a race but give to the world who we are: spiritual beings created to evangelize to those who don’t know Christ and who our God is. And that is what the village of the Basilica does.”
“This was my first time attending the 13th National Black Catholic Congress. I didn’t know what to expect because I’d never attended one. I chose this one because the location at National Harbor was close to my home and easily accessible for traveling there. I only knew that Black Catholics would attend it from around the country,” said Mona Gunn.
“It was quite impressive meeting Black Catholics from the different Dioceses and Archdioceses around the country. The first plenary with the roll call and shout-outs from each Diocese or Archdiocese was exciting to see and be a part of at that session.”
Gunn added, ”Visiting the exhibit area and seeing the Basilica of St. Mary’s booth as soon as you walk in the room warmed my heart. It was a great opportunity for educating Black Catholics around the country that the Basilica is the only African-American Basilica in the United States.
“I look forward to attending the next one now that I know what to expect. That was the message I got from those who were not first-time attendees. They said I would be hooked and return for the next one.”