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 | Black Catholic History Month | By Kathleen Merritt

Prophetic Call to Thrive: Congress XIII Through the Eyes of Her Delegates

The National Black Catholic Congress (NBCC) convened its 13th gathering this July in Maryland. The theme was “Write the Vision: A Prophetic Call to Thrive.” Congress XIII is part of the development of the 2024-2029 National Pastoral Plan for the Evangelization of Black Catholics.

Approximately 3,000 people representing more than 80 dioceses participated. The Diocese of Charleston delegation consisted of 45 Catholic laity, eight of whom were teens or young adults, plus Father Michael Okere, vicar for Black Catholics, and Bishop Jacques Fabre-Jeune, CS.

“It still tingles when I recall the grandeur of the opening Mass at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception,” Deacon Dexter Gourdin shared. “This beautiful structure was filled with thousands of Catholics celebrating the Eucharist with three cardinals of the Church, dozens of bishops from across the nation, hundreds of priests and deacons … an untold number of participants had to stand in the aisles or among the 99 crypts and altars in the cavernous worship space of our National Shrine. How great thou art!”

Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory’s homily at the opening Mass focused on the theme of writing the vision. He explained that visionaries are important for every culture and that as Black Catholics, we have many visionaries in our heritage to follow and honor.

The physical environment of the congress space was most notable, especially the main gathering area. Portraits of each of the six African Americans on the road to sainthood occupied the backdrop. The liturgies, speakers and music created a sacred space that allowed us to have an encounter with the Lord — Black spirituality at its best! 

The congress also conducted a service project of packing meals for No Child Hungry. The delegates packed over 75,000 meals to help children in Haiti.

Bishop Fabre gave a homily so moving at the Saturday noon liturgy that the congregation stood up, cheered and clapped. He addressed the adults first then called young people to stand next to him. He wrapped a large metal chain around one participant to demonstrate the physiological and psychological effects on humans when one is being restrained. 

The bishop asked the question, “Should you thank the person for chaining you?” Everyone answered no. He then unchained the teen and asked again, “Should you thank the person for unchaining you?” Everyone answered yes. The bishop’s concluding message was to never let anyone do this to you.

Bry’Neir Seymore, teen delegate from St. Martin de Porres Church in Columbia, shared one of his “aha moments” from a youth track session. It was on leadership and what it means to lead.

“Finding out that it means to Listen, Educate And Decide was the one thing that stuck out with me because, as a younger person, it is especially important that I learn to lead,” he said.

“Each workshop was completely unique in its presentation,” Deborah Gourdin explained. “What all the workshops had in common was a well-rooted understanding of our Catholic faith and an exuberance for the power of God in calling us to thrive. Michael Gourdin and I presented two workshops on Pray the Vision: The Rosary as a Means to Thrive.”

Their workshops reviewed the history of the rosary, then provided an opportunity to pray in sync with videos, produced by the Gourdins, of the rosary. Unique rosaries designed by Deborah were presented to each participant.

I presented the workshop, Gentrification, Shared Parishes and the Evangelization of Black Catholics, on behalf of our diocese. It focused on the lived experience of Catholic parishes in South Carolina that have been affected by changes in demographics.

Nationally, the next steps are the formation of the 2024-2029 Black Catholic Pastoral Plan of Action. It will address the following issues, identified through a survey of the delegates, that are facing Black Catholics: vocations to the priesthood; youth and young adults, the future of our Church; parish life and evangelization; and social justice and racism. 

Once the national pastoral plan is in place, the diocesan Office of Black Catholics will use it to develop one for our state. An introduction to this five-year pastoral plan for our diocese, “A Taste of Congress XIII,” is being planned for early 2024.

I now feel more equipped to answer “the prophetic call to thrive" because our delegation attended. For me, Congress XIII was a joyful, intense time of encountering, listening and answering God’s call to be and to become the person he created me to be.

Kathleen Merritt is the director of the diocesan Office of Black Catholics and Native American Ministry. Email her at