MLK and Black History, we need to look back to move forward

Tue, Feb 4th 2014 03:00 pm

The memory of one of the great African-American heroes was invoked at the Martin Luther King Jr. Mass. The annual tribute, held at SS. Columba & Brigid Parish in Buffalo, was celebrated Jan. 19. The Office of Cultural Diversity sponsored the Mass.

Indianapolis missionary, Father Chester P. Smith, SVD, served as guest homilist, with Bishop Richard J. Malone as main celebrant. When Father Smith speaks about Dr. King or reflects on Black History Month, he thinks of the progress the African-American people have made. Segregation has long since passed. Black athletes are allowed to compete along with whites. Minorities have been named CEOs of businesses and hold even the highest political offices.

"I think we've come a long way, but if Dr. King were here he'd say we still have a lot to do, a whole lot to do, especially with youth, to share with them who this great prophet was all about and why was he committed to nonviolence," he said.

He feels the Black people need to implement Sankofa, a West African term, meaning to look back to see the future.

"You got to go back into your past in order to move forward in the future. I think we as a nation, particularly we as black people, have to be about Sankofa in relation to Dr. King."

People should re-examine the Civil Rights Movement to see why King chose nonviolence as a philosophy and method to work for Civil Rights. What led Jackie Robinson to be allowed to play Major League Baseball? How did Rosa Parks end segregation?

"When you don't begin to look at life from a historical perspective, Sankofa, then you seriously might go back and do those things those people did. You tend to repeat some of the negativity in history," he said.

Father Smith himself is a figure in Black history. He and his brother, Charles, are the first African-American twins to be ordained priests in the United States.

During Mass, Father Smith spoke on the five spiritual senses - power, purpose, passion, perspective and prayer. Dr. King, the Southern Baptist preacher and Civil Rights activist killed in 1968, lived his life and preached with those five spiritual senses.

"His eloquence and passionate love for civil and human rights rooted in techniques of peaceful demonstration promoted by Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther mentioned a dignity to peoples' lives and a new hope for humanity. Throughout his brief life his words communicated his vision, his passion and his faith, and they demonstrated his power to serve," Father Smith said.

After Mass the Chicago-born priest sat for a short interview in which he spoke about his work with black youth and the progress made by African-Americans.

Father Smith was in the fourth grade when he first became interested in being a missionary priest while watching the Divine Word Missionary priests who staffed his parish instill the importance of community in the youth.

"Everyday they would tell us we could become leaders in the community. They always put emphasis on that, on leadership and doing something for the community in terms of service," Father Smith recalled.

After attending a minor seminary in Wisconsin, Divine Word College in Epworth, Iowa, and then novitiate in Bay St. Louis, Miss., and Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, he expected to do his missionary work in South Africa, the Congo or Brazil. Instead he stayed in Chicago and served at St. Anselm, a large African-American parish, enjoying his work in youth ministry. He noticed single mothers ran most households, as young men 18-26 were going back and forth to jail. At this time Father Smith became interested in Rite of Passage programs.

After studying similar programs in the U.S. and Ghana, Father Smith developed the Ambassadors of the Word Rite of Passage programs for community, school and parish. The program helps the young people learn about their history, identity, culture, how to stay away from gangs, save money and manage time. Every two years he takes kids on an international trip to places such as Africa, Australia, Brazil and Trinidad.

"We built a Rite of Passage program that was so unique. It was really helping the boys, so a lot of the leaders in the community wanted to start one for the girls also," he said. "We built a Catholic spirituality with the young boys and the young girls that really, I thought, sustained them into adulthood."

Although the program was designed for African-Americans, he thinks it would be good for any culture, as all young boys need structure and discipline in today's do-what-you-want culture. Eighty percent of participants go to college and are successful.

He authored the book, "Boyhood to Manhood: A Right of Passage Manual for African-American Boys."


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