Jersey City, N.J. — A jubilant and prayerful spirit filled Christ the King parish here Feb. 7, the first Sunday of Black History Month. Almost 200 of the church's 350 parishioners marked the National Day of Prayer for African-Americans and African families in robust song and praise.
The celebration has been happening annually at Christ the King since 1999 when Deacon Keith McKnight -- following his ordination -- introduced the custom by inviting congregants to pray, celebrate, tell their family story to one another and share a meal together. The parishioners, from tots to the elderly, gathered for a breakfast of grits, eggs, bacon, sausage, biscuits and platters of conversation and laughter following the 10 a.m. Sunday liturgy. A dozen or more homebound parishioners enjoyed leftover breakfast items brought to them by church-goers.
"These folks are hungry," McKnight acknowledged since many had arrived long before 10 a.m. to take part in a musical prelude. Among favorite hymns performed were "We've Come This Far by Faith," "Oh Freedom," plus such anthems from the civil rights movement as "We Shall Overcome" and "Ain't Going to Let Nobody Turn Me Around."
Franciscan Friar Fr. Jim Goode of New York launched the National Day of Prayer for the African-American Family in 1989. McKnight said the idea emerged in meetings of priests and deacons in the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus and nuns affiliated with the caucus through the National Black Sisters Conference. These included Blessed Sacrament Sisters, Franciscan Handmaids of Mary, Holy Family Sisters and Oblate Sisters of Providence.
McKnight recalled the breakdown of the traditional family occurring across U.S. society over the past 50-60 years. Black families have been plagued with children born out of wedlock, fatherless families and a host of troubles related to incarceration and encounters between police and young African-American men, he noted. For many families, poverty and addiction join the pantheon of problems.
"As an organization of priests, deacons, seminarians and religious sisters all dedicated to doing God's work as Catholics, we are determined to raise family values for our people," McKnight told NCR. In keeping with Pope Francis' Jubilee Year of Mercy, this year's National Day of Prayer chose "God's Mercy Pulls Us Through" as its theme.
In a prayer composed by Goode for the 2016 celebration, parishioners expressed pride in their history and recalled the great price paid "for our liberation." They called forth blessings on their parents, guardians, grandparents, relatives and friends, praying: "Give us the amazing grace to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world." They remembered the number of times God's mercy had pulled them through illness, financial hardship, disappointing relationships and family tragedies too many to tally.
They also beseeched the "god of mercy and love" to "give a healing anointing to those less fortunate," especially the motherless, fatherless, broken, sick and lonely. They included their ancestors and all departed family members in their call for blessings and prayer of grateful remembering.
Christ the King congregants hail not only from Jersey City, but from many black neighborhoods in and around Newark as well as some from Staten Island, the Bronx and even Connecticut, noted Fr. James McConnell. He and Fr. Gustavo Buccilli staff the church as part of the ministerial outreach of the Society of African Missions, to which both McConnell and Buccilli belong. The Society of African Missions, based in Tenafly, N.J., have, over decades, staffed a number of missions in African-American churches in the United States as well as being missionaries in 17 African countries. Christ the King is the only U.S. African-American parish currently staffed by SMA, McConnell said.
For 27 years, McConnell pastored Queen of Angels, Newark's oldest and largest African-American parish. Today, he directs Christ the King's RCIA program and says the first of two Sunday Masses each week.
Declining numbers and resources caused the Newark archdiocese to close Queen of Angels in 2012 and to demolish it later. Some Queen of Angels parishioners went to other churches in Newark, but many chose to make the 20-30-minute drive to Christ the King, which they now call their Catholic home.
Among the commuters is Cecilia Faulks, who comes each Sunday with her sister and others to the Jersey City parish. Faulks is one of seven or more pastoral ministers who bring Communion each week from Christ the King to shut-ins, the elderly and those too old or infirm to get to church.
"I like the idea that these people are still included in a church community even though they can't get out or attend church. It's very meaningful to them to be thought of as members of Christ the King community," Faulks said.
Each Sunday, Buccilli blesses each of the pastoral ministers before they depart with their pix filled with hosts for the 20-30 people they will visit that day. Faulks, who directed human resources at New Community Corporation (NCC) in Newark for some 30 years, now spends much of her retirement volunteering. A regular at St. Ann's Soup Kitchen in Newark, she often brings a meal -- if food is left over -- to her shut-in communicants each Wednesday.
Besides her evident joy and thanksgiving for a loving family, Faulks is also grateful for the revival of the city of Newark, which has helped many black families, she said.
She pointed to the NCC, founded by Msgr. William Linder in 1967, following riots that left New Jersey's largest city in shambles and racial strife. The NCC has provided affordable housing for some 7,000 people, has given employment to hundreds, provided financial assistance and job training to generations of black families and raised some of Newark's community leaders, she said.
Robert Orange, a nine-time cancer survivor, believes he "keeps on keeping on because God is on my side." His joy is apparent as he conducts a choir of 20 singers and musicians, including a school-age brother and sister on trumpet and organ.
"This National Day of Prayer reminds us that by praying the size of a mustard seed we can move mountains," said Orange, who added: "God has been very good to me as I keep fighting the good fight. I see my trials and tribulations as just speed bumps in the road."
When asked whether his life is an example that "God's Mercy Pulls Us Through," his eyes sparkled.
"Amen, sister," shouted choir master Orange, his conductor's arms raised heavenward.
[Patricia Lefevere is a longtime NCR contributor.]