NEW ORLEANS — Brandt Lewis lives in Jennings, La., a small, heavily Baptist town with few Catholics and even fewer black Catholics.
But next month he will be surrounded by both when he heads to Toronto for World Youth Day with the Knights of Peter Claver, a Catholic fraternal organization active primarily in the black Catholic community.
“I can't wait,” said Lewis, the 17-year-old leader of the junior division of the Knights. “The Holy Father is going to be there, and it will probably be my first and last time to get to meet him or see him.”
In addition to Lewis, the Knights will officially send more than 20 members to World Youth Day.
Lewis, who has been with the Knights since his first Communion 10 years ago, said that of the Knights who will be attending, 10 are “kids” under the age of 18.
“I am taking four people from my district in Louisiana,” he said. Lewis also praised the Knights' commitment to helping black Catholics.
“For a lot of young African-Americans, especially in towns like Jennings that are mostly Baptist, the Knights have really helped us to keep our faith,” Lewis said.
Gene Phillips Jr., 32, from Austin, Texas, will also be going to Toronto with the Knights of Peter Claver, both as a participant and as a chaperone. He said that he is excited both by the prospect of seeing the Pope and by the fact that he will be around other young Catholics.
The Knights, who have more than 45,000 members in 32 states and Washington, D.C., was founded in 1909 by four Josephite priests and three laymen. Its focus is on evangelization. Members are dedicated to St. Peter Claver, a Jesuit priest who evangelized black slaves in South America in the 17th century, converting hundreds of thousands of them.
Today, the Knights fund $75,000 in annual scholarships, assist black seminarians, conduct tutorial programs and contributed $100,000 to Our Mother of Africa Chapel in the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., according to Executive Director W. Charles Keyes Jr. He said that this would be the Knights' first official attendance at World Youth Day.
Phillips and Lewis both credited Supreme Knight Arthur McFarland for his focus on young, emerging leaders.
“Mr. Keyes and Mr. McFarland really pay attention to the young people,” Lewis said.
Poor Parishes Hurt
Because of the difficulties faced by many parishes, those who will be attending World Youth Day with the Knights of Peter Claver are fortunate, according to Ono Ekeh with the U.S. bishops' African-American Catholics office.
It is often hard, Ekeh said, especially for inner-city black parishes, to send people to World Youth Day because of lack of funds.
“I have been trying to encourage more participation at the diocesan and local levels,” he said, “but the response has been slow, partly because of funding.”
According to the latest statistics, Ekeh said, there are 2 million to 2.3 million black Catholics in the United States, primarily in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., southern Louisiana, Los Angeles, Chicago and St. Louis.
One problem, Ekeh said, is that many predominantly black parishes don't have enough money for youth ministers. He also said that many people have had to choose between going to World Youth Day and going to the National Black Catholic Congress, which is held every five years to address issues facing black Catholics. It will be held this year in late August in Chicago.
The Bishops' conference office for African-American Catholics continues to actively encourage black participation in World Youth Day. Its Web site lists fund-raising ideas and the stories of participants at previous World Youth Days. It also provides a list of black groups that will be attending from parishes, dioceses and the Knights of Peter Claver.
Fanya Burford, youth minister at Holy Spirit Parish in Naperville, Ill., will attend World Youth Day with her youth group, but her home parish, Sacred Heart — which is predominately black — will not be sending anyone to World Youth Day.
They don't have the money for a full-time youth minister to coordinate it, she said, and the Diocese of Joliet is not sponsoring any groups this year.
Two black youths are going from another local parish, but Burford said she wishes more could go to experience “the wider Church.”
“It would be great for them to see other Catholics who are from Africa and around the world,” she said. “We want to build leaders [and] we don't want to be an isolated community.”
Past participants have come back with the realization that the Church is from everywhere, she said, recalling one young man who went to the World Youth Day in Rome and was especially excited because he met “real Africans” there.
Tracy Brown, a student at DePaul University who went with a parish youth group to World Youth Day in Paris in 1997, echoed the excitement of seeing a broader cross-section of the Church.
She wasn't very interested in her faith when she attended, Brown said, but the experience was inspiring.
“I loved it,” she said. Brown was especially impressed by “the different styles of worship for God” that she saw expressed by the groups from around the world.
In retrospect, Brown said, “It probably helped to bring me back to God.” She said she would definitely go again if given the opportunity.
Many young people she knows are afraid to ask adults questions about the faith, said Brown, who now does urban ministry on the West Side of Chicago.
So for those going this year, Brown had some advice: “Being young can be hard, so take advantage of your time at the event and ask hard questions of the other young people you meet.”
(CNS contributed to this story.)