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Gospel music catechesis helps enliven N.C. Catholic parish

The innovative program at Holy Cross Catholic Church in Durham, North Carolina, is led in part by a young Black Catholic.

Children singing at Holy Cross Catholic Church, a Black parish in Durham, North Carolina. (HCCC)

Raleigh-Durham’s only personal parish for Black Catholics has for 84 years been serving the community with Afro-centric liturgy, outreach, and service.

In recent years, however, Holy Cross Catholic Church has added an innovative twist to its repertoire: gospel music catechesis.

“Especially for the younger kids, they can grasp some of these concepts through music,” said Eyram Klu, a Duke University graduate student and security analyst who assists with the program—originally an idea from the faith formation director, Carolyn Holmes.

“We’ll sing gospel songs, Negro spirituals. ‘This Little Light of Mine,’ ‘Peace Like a River.’ We did ‘Wade in the Water’ last Sunday.”

Klu works with Anne Daaleman, a retired music teacher who helps design the curriculum and teach the songs. Together, they engage in interactive discussions with the children while teaching the songs to bring out the basic concept of the Catholic faith.

Their classes range in size, but this year they work with more than 60 youths in the parish, which is predominantly African American but welcomes families from a variety of cultural backgrounds.

Fr Pius Wekesa (left) speaks to children at Holy Cross Catholic Church in Durham, North Carolina. (HCCC) 

Holy Cross, located in Durham near the campus of North Carolina Central University, was originally founded in 1939 by the Jesuits, a religious order known for inculturating the faith in various contexts. Daaleman says the social focus was a major reason she and her family first started attending the parish.

“We felt very at home with this parish that addressed racial injustice and social justice issues directly,” she said, adding that catechesis is not the only area where the church is engaging the youth in Black Catholic identity.

“One of the catechesis classes is presenting a Black Stations of the Cross for Holy Week. I think the music has to be a part of that as well and where the children can celebrate Black culture,” she said.

Klu himself, a recent convert who is a member of a predominantly White parish in Raleigh, is of Togolese and Ghanaian heritage and originally encountered Holy Cross without knowing its connection to the Black community.

“I wanted to go to Confession before Mass and I downloaded the MassTimes app and Holy Cross was the only parish that had it for an hour before Mass,” he said.

“There was this huge welcome and excitement at a young Black Catholic coming to Mass.”

With a background in music as well as Charismatic Christianity, Klu says parish leaders soon contacted him about getting more involved. Before he knew it, he was helping with music at the parish, including the diocesan African Heritage Mass. His experiences at Holy Cross were his first introduction to the Black Catholic liturgy.

“I think it's an important aspect to feel safe with your identity in a church and feel recognized,” he said.

“I had started to wonder like, ‘Does the Catholic Church even have spaces like that?’”

Ironically, Klu's musical experiences included singing in the gospel choir at Duke, including a performance at the university center named for Mary Lou Williams, one of the nation’s first Black Catholic liturgists. She taught jazz at Duke and was a parishioner at Holy Cross in her later years.

“That blew my mind,” Klu said.

Williams herself was a major proponent of the power of music in Catholic liturgy, an idea that lives on in her former parish through Klu and others.

“Music is an essential sensory compliment to the experience,” said Holmes, the DRE who first suggested the musical catechesis at Holy Cross, and who travels more than an hour each way from Lake Gaston to assist at the church.

“To engage the youth in our church in an intentional way through music sessions held each week before going to class has increased their attention to what is happening throughout the Mass.”

The children, most of whom are Black, are nevertheless a display of the diversity of Raleigh-Durham. Holy Cross has in recent years become a home not only for African Americans but for African immigrants and their descendants as well. The parish also has several families of Caucasian and Indian ancestry.

The pastor, Fr Pius Wekesa, is himself from Kenya, though now incardinated in the Raleigh Diocese. He arrived at Holy Cross in 2021. He says the innovative catechetical ministry is a boon both for the culture as well as for helping young Catholics retain their faith—a point echoed by Klu and Daaleman.

“The faith formation that was here [when I arrived], the kids were learning just once a month,” he said.

“We have to go to church every Sunday. So every Sunday, they should get to know their faith… When I reported for duty, I told them I’m investing in the youth. A parish with no youth is a parish with no future.”

Now, instead of having religious education once a month, the children lead a monthly youth Mass, where they share what they’ve learned and lead the congregation in song.

“We try to highlight people that have other musical talents, like if they’re a soloist in choir at school. Some of them play instruments. We’ve had a violinist play, and a flutist as well,” said Klu.

“People loved that, and it helps the children get more engaged. It gives them a reason to like coming to church.”

The next big event for the parish youth, after leading the Stations on Good Friday, will be the culmination of sacramental preparation, scheduled for May. Several children will receive First Communion, and another candidate will be confirmed in June.

For Klu, the growth of the church has helped grow his faith as well. He continues to split time with his home parish, St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church, but says his work at Holy Cross is worth the extra miles and effort.

“It really changed my life,” he said.

“It’s an awesome thing to be part of.”

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger and a seminarian with the Josephites.

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