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'Sending forth': Institute for Black Catholic Studies celebrates 2023 commencement

This year's summer session at Xavier University of Louisiana featured five new graduates in the institute's master's degree program.

New graduates of the master's degree program at the Institute for Black Catholic Studies in New Orleans on July 14, 2023. (Nate Tinner-Williams)

The first leg in a whirlwind summer of Black Catholic events concluded this week in New Orleans, where the Institute for Black Catholic Studies held its 34th annual commencement exercises for graduates of its Master of Theology program.

The annual three-week summer module at Xavier University of Louisiana was conducted this year under the theme of “Here I Am, Send Me”—drawn from the Book of Isaiah and reflecting the institute’s more than 40 years of educating and sending out Black Catholic ministers of all types.

“A true minister, Pope Francis tells us, smells like the sheep,” said Fr Daniel Green, an IBCS graduate who celebrated the Baccalaureate Mass on Friday evening in XULA’s St. Katharine Drexel Chapel.

“The sheep live in the valley and you’ve got to go back now to the valley and be with them. But you use these moments, moments when you have seen the glory of God, to sustain you.”

This year’s crop of students included five graduating degree program students, the most since the early years of IBCS in the 1980s. They are the fruit of a typically six-summer journey, wherein scholars of Black Catholicism gather as visiting faculty to educate an intergenerational group of students interested in the history, spirituality, and theology of the African-American community.

“This unique program of academic rigor, spiritual formation, and wellness prepares culturally competent scholars and pastoral leaders to continue Christ's mission of peace. justice, and holiness in the Black Catholic community, the Church, and the community at large,” said IBCS director Dr. Kathleen Dorsey Bellow during her remarks.

This year’s graduates hailed from around the country as well, including Princess McEvilley of Virginia, Aisha C. Young of Colorado, Connie L. Bowie McCalla from Pennsylvania, and Louisiana’s own Aubrey F. Osborn. A fifth graduate, Osborn’s fellow New Orleanian Derek Rankins Jr., delivered a powerful student address to the assembled chapel crowd, emphasizing IBCS’ commitment to inculturated theology and praxis.

“What can I do, what can I say to summarize an experience that has grounded, sustained, and allowed me to see my life in a way I could not see myself?” he asked.

“Number one: Jesus is Black. Jesus knows the Black experience. He understands our reality.”

As part of its holistic academic and spiritual community environment, the institute also conducted its yearly Elders’ Retreat, which ran during the last of the three-week IBCS session. The group was led by Thelma Lucas, a hospital chaplain in Washington, D.C. who has helped with the retreat for the better part of a decade.

“It's one of the most spiritual and uplifting experiences, because these elders come here renewed, revived, and ready. And when they leave here, they are ready,” she told BCM, emphasizing that the retreat is a time to remind the older generation to impart their wisdom to the young and to remain active in the Church.

“I don't want them to think because they're seniors, that they’re supposed to sit back and do nothing.”

Part of their role this year included assisting with the IBCS’ daily “Morning Praise,” in which song, drumming, Scripture, and prayer help orient the students for the day’s academic activities.

The elders led the final day’s morning gathering, featuring each of them donned in Afrocentric garb and custom-made “crowns” (kente-decorated kufis) to present the stories of the first six African-American Catholics on the path to sainthood. During the liturgy, the senior group also received certificates for their participation in the retreat.

Later that day, during the closing liturgy for the degree program, another elder of the Black Catholic community was featured prominently, one of the founding lights of the IBCS program itself. 81-year-old theologian, author, and minister Sr Jamie T. Phelps, OP, traveled to the Crescent City from Michigan and was honored as the event’s official commencement speaker.

“The institute is a collaborative process. No one person does it. As you students have learned, you have to work together—collective work and responsibility,” she said during her address, calling the graduates, continuing students, and spectators alike to radical community and perseverance.

“It’s wonderful to be here because I feel the Spirit in this room. The Spirit that you are representing by your presence, by your prayer… This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad.”

XULA’s administrative retinue was also on hand for the officiation of the ceremony, including university president Dr. Reynold Verret, who echoed the theme of sending forth the new graduates.

“I am always filled at the graduation of the IBCS, to see the gifts that we’ve prepared and the formation of these that we send off into the world. We are sending you forth with great love,” he said.

“The fruits of the Institute are needed in the world and for all the Church and in this nation.”

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger.

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