The celebration of Kwanzaa is upon us, lasting annually from December 26 to January 1. Each day of the commemoration highlights one of the Nguzo Saba (Swahili for “Seven Principles), a series of values important to the Black community stateside and abroad.
The celebration was first envisioned by Dr. Maulana Karenga, an activist and author who, in the wake of the devastating Watts riots of 1965 in Los Angeles, saw a need for African Americans to develop their own holiday to foster unity and identity. He indeed took particular aim at Christmas as an undesirable dominant force in Western society, which had by then developed any number of secular and capitalistic accretions in contrast with its Christian roots.
Karenga later came to disavow anti-religious sentiment connected to Kwanzaa, and it has long been celebrated by Black Christians as a cultural holiday in conjunction with (or as a follow-up to) commemorations of the birth of Christ.
This year, Catholics around the country are continuing their own Kwanzaa traditions. This includes Black parishes and organizations that have long commemorated the Nguzo Saba and seek to connect their faith to their cultural identity—as many non-Black Catholics do around the world.
During Wednesday’s commemoration of Ujima (“collective work and responsibility”), St. Katharine Drexel Catholic Church in Chicago will host a virtual Kwanzaa celebration at 7pm CT with author and speaker Andrew Lyke. He is a former director of the local office for Black Catholics and is best known for co-authoring “Marriage on a Lampstand” with his wife Terri in 2017. He will be joined by the parish’s youth group for the event.
“Following in the footsteps of our ancestors, we give thanks to God for our blessings and reflect on the principles of Kwanzaa in our personal lives, our communities and our Church,” the parish said in the event description.
Also on Wednesday, the Knights of Peter Claver and Ladies Auxiliary will get in on the action by way of their unit at St. Joseph the Worker Catholic Church in Marrero, Louisiana. They will host an in-person Kwanzaa celebration in the parish hall at 7pm CT, featuring a potluck dinner and a commemorative altar with pictures of deceased loved ones and Black authors.
The KPC’s Northern States District, which covers various regions of the northern and midwestern United States, is also taking part in Kwanzaa. The district deputies and young adults will host their annual “Christ Kwanzaa” virtual prayer service on Thursday at 7pm CT with district chaplain Fr Anthony Bozeman, SSJ, who serves as academic dean of the Josephite’s seminary in Washington, DC.
“The Knights & Ladies of The Northern States Emerging Leaders and Juniors from across the District have been working very hard and need your support,” said KPC New York area deputy Shaniqua Wilson.
“This year's celebration promises to be a powerful evening of intergenerational sharing, which you won't want to miss.”
On Friday in New Orleans, St. Peter Claver Catholic Church will co-host an in-person event celebrating the principle of Nia (“purpose”), part of a weeklong celebration by Black-led religious and secular organizations in the city. The event will begin at 6pm CT in the parish hall and will feature a Kwanzaa feast, presentations, and performances.
For many years, Catholic Kwanzaa celebrations have also extended into official liturgies as well, as seen with the Evanston Area Black Catholics organization in Illinois. On New Year’s Eve at 4:30pm CT, the group will host its annual Kwanzaa Mass at St. Nicholas Catholic Church, wherein the holiday celebrating the African-American family is combined with the Feast of the Holy Family. The gospel choir from Chicago’s Our Lady of Africa Catholic Church (formerly known as Holy Angels) also takes part in the celebration each year.
“It is, for Evanston Area Black Catholics, acknowledgement of the rich cultural contributions of African Americans in the Catholic Church, and call to communal faith, love and unity,” wrote Maudlyne Ihejirika in her announcement of the event in the Evanston RoundTable.
In California, Oakland’s St. Columba Catholic Church will celebrate Kwanzaa with dual events following their Sunday Masses on January 1. At 12:30 and 4:30pm PT, the parish’s Imara Watoto (“Strong Children”) youth group will host Kwanzaa celebrations featuring music, a reflection, a traditional libation ceremony, and a community meal.
This year, the last day of Kwanzaa falls on that Sunday, which is also the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God—one of several days each year when all Western Catholics are obliged to attend Mass, even if not a Sunday, and rest from their labors. The Nguzo Saba principle for that day is Imani, said to be the one upon which all the other six rest. It is the principle meaning “faith.”
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, a seminarian with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).