African American students receive blessings, send-off from deacons

By Joyce Duriga | Editor
Wednesday, May 18, 2022

African American students receive blessings, send-off from deacons

The Black Deacons of the Archdiocese of Chicago, in partnership with the Office of Catholic Schools, hosted an end-of-year prayer service for nearly 200 eighth graders on May 12, 2022 at Oakwood Beach in Chicago. The theme for the service was "Strength for the Journey". The morning included prayer and fellowship for students before their graduations. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Students from St. Ethelreda School sing during the service. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Father Thulani Magwaza, pastor of St. Sabina, processes in with deacons leading the service. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Members of St. Sabina School clap during the entrance song. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Joseph Saunders gives a reflection. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Students from St. Benedict the African Academy pray. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Deacon Leroy Gill gives the homily. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Members of the St. Sabina Academy Praise Dancers perform after the homily. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Deacon Richard Hudzik, vicar for deacons, blesses a student while Deacon William Pouncy prepares to hand them a compass with the words "God's Path" as a gift. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

Gathering on the shore of Lake Michigan at Oakwood Beach on May 12, nearly 200 African American students from seven Catholic schools were prayed over and reminded that God and the church are always here for them.

The Black Deacons of the Archdiocese of Chicago, in partnership with the Office of Catholic Schools, hosted the end-of-year prayer service for graduating eighth graders. Elementary schools that participated were the Academy of St. Benedict the African, Children of Peace, Infant Jesus of Prague, St. Ailbe, St. Ethelreda, St. Margaret of Scotland and St. Sabina Academy.

The intent was to go beyond a once-a-year gathering with African American students at the annual Heritage Service held during Black History Month, said Deacon Leroy Gill, who organized the event and gave the homily at the service.

The deacons, led by Gill, have held similar services in the past but had to stop them due to lack of funding for transportation of the students.

One message the deacons conveyed was that while the students are going on to new schools, they will always be part of their elementary school families. That is important for the students to remember, said Denise Spells, principal of St. Ethelreda School.

“The service was a great idea to send our students off to high school with the message that even though they’re leaving the elementary schools that are smaller … to a larger setting, that people still care about them. They can always go back to their elementary schools and talk to the teachers, deacons, the priests, whoever is there, the principal, for help and guidance along the way,” Spells said. “We know that, especially in our school, this is a home away from home.”

During the service, rapper, youth mentor and St. Sabina parishioner Joseph Saunders shared a piece about how a pivotal moment in his life led him to turn away from crime and turn toward God. He shared how the students, too, will have times in their lives when they will have to choose between the right path and the wrong path, and the devil will be there waiting to tempt them.

That message stayed with several students from St. Ethelreda School, Spells said.

“That resonated with some of them because they’ve been traumatized by violence and addiction in their own lives and they saw that somebody else younger made it. And Joseph Saunders’ message to them was they can make it as well,” Spells said. 

During the homily, Gill spoke about navigating childhood to young adulthood.

When his wife heard the theme, she suggested giving each student a compass.

“We bought a couple hundred compasses and we made these stickers that say ‘God’s Path,’ which we stuck on the back of the compasses,” Gill said. “We talked about the compass being their guide to navigate and who is the compass — the Bible and Scripture and trusting in God’s word.”

When faced with big decisions in life or the temptation to take the easy way out, the students should look at their compasses and ask, “What would God want me to do?” Gill said.

He captured the students’ attention when he shared that, when preparing for the day, he asked himself what he would  tell his younger self today. “Don’t grow up too fast” and “know that God loves you always” were just two things he would tell his younger self, Gill said.

Spells said she told her students after the service to keep the compass in a special place and throughout high school look at it. When they graduate from 12th grade, they can look back to who they were four years earlier.

As at the previous services, the event was a way to bless the students as they graduate from grammar school and move on to high school, many of them moving on to public high schools, he said.

“I just believe you need to talk to the kids,” Gill said. “Just to have a chance to have all these kids out here and know that they were sent off right. They need to gather together a couple times of year. I think it was great.”


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