By James Ramos, Catholic News Service
HOUSTON — Confronting social justice issues such as bullying was at the top of the agenda for the 600 or so youth gathered in Houston for the 23rd biennial convention of the Junior Knights and Ladies of Peter Claver.
Bullying is an issue that plagues many young people, especially African Americans.
An effort spearheaded by Kennedy Wiltz, a 16-year-old Our Lady Star of the Sea parishioner in Houston, and 17-year-old Carrington Guillory of Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Lake Charles, Louisiana, the event marked a turning point for youth division of the Knights of Peter Claver, and for the two themselves.
Recently, the Knights of Peter Claver national organization focused its actions on social justice issues affecting African Americans: racism, the criminal justice system, Black Lives Matter, human trafficking and domestic violence.
Wiltz, the Junior Supreme Lady who leads the female youth division of the Ladies Auxiliary, and Guillory, the Junior Supreme Knight, chose the issue for the July 11-14 conference due to their own personal experiences in school and peer community.
While African American students make up 15% of the U.S. public school student population, 25% of African American students reported being bullied in schools, according to a 2016 National Center for Educational Statistics report.
The National Education Association has said racism, hate and bullying can be prevented by building a culture that can intervene before incidents happen and handle them appropriately if they do.
The Claverite Junior convention included a rally that opened with a march of all the attendees, who carried a variety of banners with anti-bullying messages. Two special guest speakers followed: Shonnie Murrell, a multi-instrumentalist and BET reality star, and Alex Gotay, director of campus ministry at St. Thomas High School.
Murrell shared her experiences of being bullied while she drummed her way to being the highest leader for Grambling State University’s marching band. The experience helped her to grow as a person and achieve her dreams of working with major hip-hop stars. Gotay shared his own testimony and encouraged the youth to find their identity in Christ.
Supreme Knight James K. Ellis said the social justice rally was an effort to instill Catholic values in the youth so they can appropriately and safely call out bullying in their own communities.
He also saw the convention as an opportunity to rally young people at a time when many youths are leaving the church.
“This is so enriching to see that we can capture the attention of young Catholics,” Ellis said. “And to teach them some values about things that they’ll go on to use in life,” like democratic procedures and other civic skills. Ellis said priests and men and women religious also attended to raise awareness for vocations, especially among African American youth.
That same weekend, as Hurricane Barry bore down on the Gulf Coast, organizers said at least five groups stayed home to prepare for the storm. Barry also forced New Orleans Auxiliary Bishop Fernand J. Cheri, the conference’s scheduled Sunday Mass celebrant, to remain in the Crescent City.
The conference included service projects at Texas Southern University’s Catholic Newman Center and Covenant House, as well as addresses by Houston’s Mayor Sylvester Turner and U.S. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee.
Both Wiltz and Guillory talked about the effort that went into producing the convention.
Being a young black Catholic, Guillory said, “means a lot. You see the social justice issues … each and every day, and maybe sometimes we see it, but we don’t speak out on it.”
As the youth division’s eminent leaders, he said they see their roles as the opportunity to be the megaphone and voice the concerns of African American Catholics like themselves.
Wiltz expanded the lens of black Catholicism and that black Catholic youth are still exactly that: youth.
“It’s important that we’re black, and we’re all black together, but that we are all youth as well,” Wiltz told the Texas Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.
She said they experience the same challenges that other young people face. But as Junior Knights and Ladies, they have the richness of the Catholic Church’s teachings and leaders to help them “discover it at their own time.”
To other young people, especially after co-hosting the convention with Guillory, Wiltz said: “Don’t doubt yourself, because that’s what I do a lot. Don’t be hard on yourself when you make mistakes, because things happen. You’re human, you’re entitled to mistakes.”
Guillory agreed and said, “Just because you have a title doesn’t mean you have to be perfect 24/7. No. … You’re going to make mistakes. … But use that to motivate you, to get deeper in your belief.”
When Guillory encountered challenges, he soon realized “God’s got me” and to “sit down … pray … and talk. Let’s do this first.”
Kennedy’s pastor, Josephite Father Stephen Sohe, of Our Lady Star of the Sea, said seeing the youth gather was “everything” to him.
He saw the convention as a way for the youth to be part of the church “and be proud of it.” The youth “are a gift,” he said. “They celebrate their own gifts to the church. … While they still may have a long way to go, I see hope for tomorrow among these youth.”
Founded in 1909, the Knights of Peter Claver was created to offer African American men a venue to practice the Catholic religion. The organization has flourished with more than 17,000 members across the country and the creation of a Ladies Auxiliary and junior divisions. In Galveston-Houston, there are at least 1,875 members.