Catholic Standard El Pregonero
Classifieds Buy Photos

Black Catholic Voices interview with Ogechi Akalegbere, 2021 Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award recipient

Ogechi Akalegbere, the Christian service coordinator at Connelly School of the Holy Child in Potomac, Maryland and a member of St. Rose of Lima Parish in Gaithersburg, received the 2021 Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award on Nov. 16 during the U.S. Catholic bishops’ fall meeting in Baltimore. This photo was taken outside Connelly School of the Holy Child. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

(Ogechi Akalegbere, the Christian service coordinator at Connelly School of the Holy Child in Potomac, Maryland, received the 2021 Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award on Nov. 16 from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the anti-poverty program of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. She is a member of St. Rose of Lima Parish in Gaithersburg, Maryland, where she has served as a catechist and as co-chair of its Pastoral Council. She has also been active as a board member and community organizer for Action in Montgomery, a community advocacy organization rooted in Montgomery County’s neighborhoods and congregations. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington’s multimedia team of Geoffrey Ros and Ron Bethke taped the interview at St. Rose of Lima Parish’s Historic Chapel, and Mark Zimmermann, the editor of the archdiocese’s Catholic Standard newspaper and website, conducted the interview. Here are the video and transcript of the interview. )

How would you summarize your faith journey as a Catholic who is African American?

Ogechi Akalegbere – “So, I was born in Nigeria, and I was born to two Catholic parents and they baptized me in the Catholic faith back in Nigeria, and I’ve grown up with that faith foundation really integral in my family life and prayers and attending Mass and receiving the sacraments. I think for me the biggest way that I could summarize my faith journey has been “hills and valleys.” There have been a lot of successes and triumphs and ways that my faith has really helped me grow, but also in the moments of desolation and separation I felt with my relationship with God, I’ve also grown as an individual because it’s challenged who I am, what I stand for, and how I interact with the people around me. And I think that foundation that my parents set, especially in encouraging us to participate in religious education and in service, has really formed the woman that I am today.”

How does it feel for you to be back home at St. Rose today?

Ogechi Akalegbere – “Well this is the perfect place to do this. This parish has really shaped who I am. I think I would not be the person that I am today if it wasn’t for St. Rose of Lima. The multicultural aspect of our parish has really shaped and formed my love for diversity and diversity work. The opportunities to really engage in the community and service, and using my time and talent, has really been a way that I’ve grown in my gifts as a young adult and even as a teenager; and I just call this place home. I received most of my sacraments here, even marriage here, and I would not call any other place home.” 

What have you learned from the witness of faith of other Black Catholics, how has that shaped your life?

Ogechi Akalegbere – “I think my first example of the witness of faith of Black Catholics would definitely have to be my parents, specifically my mom. My mom is probably the most religious, faithful person that I know, and her steadfast faith, especially after dealing with many trials and tribulations, has really encouraged me during moments of valleys, like I explained earlier. I think that watching her form of faith, her form of faith expression, really encouraged me to be more contemplative and to be more personal in my relationship with God. She could pray for hours and hours (and I am not gifted in that way), but I also realize that even though we have different forms of  faith expression, she’s been a great example of really trusting in the will of God.

“Other faith examples that I’ve been blessed to have later on in life, have been examples of saints, like St. Augustine. St. Augustine is very much like me, in some ways, and obviously very different than me in other ways. I really enjoyed reading his book The Confessions and learning about his moments of spiritual desolation and questioning and really that tension of faith and spirituality that he had. He’s also a bit of an over-thinker like I am, and so I connected with him on that philosophical level as well. But for me, him being a Black Catholic man, and he was the first Black Catholic saint that I was ever exposed to, was really poignant in me being able to represent my whole self, in my faith.

“And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my personal hero, Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman. Again, I see so much of a mirror in who she is and who I am, and she represents all that I hope to be and more, if I am ever to become a saint. Her joyfulness, her passion for really bringing her whole self into her faith, and encouraging others to do so, and even just her bursting out into song in speeches. I love to sing as well. I think that when I can bring joy and bring my whole self into my faith, that is when I’m living out my purpose the best, and she really is a great example for that to me.”

How does your faith shape your work as Christian service coordinator at Connelly School of the Holy Child, what are some of the key service activities there, what impact do you hope that has on students, and what have you found most inspiring about the students as they are engaged in this service?

Ogechi Akalegbere – “For the past three years, I’ve been the Christian service coordinator at the Connelly School of the Holy Child. 

“My faith is integral into the work that I do. I’ve always had a passion for service. I didn’t even know it was a job until I applied, and I’m so blessed that I can actually do this as a job. I think that service is one of the ways that I can live out love in action, and being able to encourage students, and young girls especially, to figure out how they can use their gifts in service for others is a real blessing. 

“Some projects that I really am in love with that we do as a school, one is an intergenerational service project where students get to do virtual conversations with the elderly, and so on any given Zoom call, it’s myself, the Gen Zs, Millennials, Gen X and Baby Boomers all together talking about different themes and really giving of themselves, their stories. And I found that in whatever service you do, if you take the opportunity to have a real encounter, a real exchange of self, you can really expand your worldview, and I've loved that some of the students have taken this small few weeks experience and grown from it and continued a relationship with seniors that they’ve gotten to know through service. Other opportunities that I love to participate with students are the areas where we get to go into the community, whether it’s serving meals or having a game night and Valentine’s Day party with women at the Saint Josephine Bakhita Shelter in D.C. and really allowing students to recognize that there is humanity even in those that are so often deemed voiceless or invisible by society. 

“Service is important to me in my own personal life. I serve as a board member and community organizer with Action in Montgomery and also on the Pastoral Council here at St. Rose of Lima. I think from a young age, it was one of the few ways that I really felt that I could inject myself in my community. I’m a bit of a know-it-all, and I like to know and really engage with all types of people and know how all the pieces work. And so whether it’s on the grander scale as a board member or in the trenches in the community really getting involved with my parish and flushing out the vision of how the parish will look like, I want to see how I can use my gifts and my voice and my insight in service to my community, whether it’s my parish community or the larger community, and in those experiences I’ve grown as a Catholic. I think that has really helped shape why I am Catholic and how I can live out that faith in a tangible way, and I’ve also grown as a citizen in my community really recognizing the inequities that are around me and really recognizing the people in the pews around me as well as a parishioner.”

What is your reaction to the nationwide demonstrations for racial justice that have happened since the spring of 2020 in the wake of unarmed men and women of color being killed by police? Tell me about your involvement with Catholics United for Black Lives, why is that important to you, and what impact do you hope that group has?

Ogechi Akalegbere – “My reaction to the demonstrations that happened this past year in relation to racial injustice, especially the disparity in killing of unarmed Black men, was sadness, but also it was not surprise, because if you pay attention to the stories of Black individuals in this country, the narrative has continued over and over and over again. Living in Maryland witnessing the killing of Freddie Gray in Baltimore and the uprising that happened in this state, seeing it on a larger scale in the media coverage because we were in our homes and really focused on the news, really re-triggered some emotions for me, but also reignited my passion for social justice that, if I’m being honest, had grown complacent.

“And I also recognize that even though I have parishioners that I love, I didn’t really have a solid group of Black Catholics that I could talk to, and really have a shared experience with and a shared focus on the flourishing of Black lives, so my involvement with Catholics United for Black Lives was really an answer to that. I was blessed to be asked to be on their board, and as a board member, I also serve on their Community Organizing Committee, and a Community Organizing Committee allows and helps embolden members, allies and people that are interested in the flourishing of Black lives to really figure out the needs in their own communities, wherever region they live in and how they can help solve inequities, but through that Catholic lens and to teach others that organizing and social movements are not in conflict at all with our Catholic call, in fact, it's one of the most beautiful ways we can live that out.”

People of color – African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans – have been hardest hit by the health and economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. What does this say about our country, and what should our country do about this? 

Ogechi Akalegbere – “I think that during the pandemic we recognized that people of color; Black, Latino, (and) Indigenous, were hardest hit by the pandemic socially, financially (and) medically, and those issues have always existed, but the pandemic really put a spotlight on the inequities and forced people that had the privilege to maybe ignore or forget about those problems to have to focus on it. And I think what it says about our country that this has continued for so long and unfortunately will likely continue once we come out of this pandemic is that we are so tied to this idea of a throwaway culture, where some people are dispensable, the elderly are dispensable, those that don’t contribute financially to the economic market can be dispensable, but they are not. Our health, our value, everybody’s value is intertwined, and my hope is that as we move towards whatever this new normal looks like, we remember the lessons learned and we remember the people left behind and forgotten and hurt the hardest, and we place our emphasis and our resources and our values towards making sure that those margins decrease rather than increase.”

Cardinal Gregory has noted that while the nation confronts the coronavirus, it must also address the virus of racism. What do you think the Catholic Church should do as an institution to combat racism, and what do you think individual Catholics should do?

Ogechi Akalegbere – “I agree with Cardinal Gregory that we must address the virus of racism. Racism is a sin, and when I think of sin, I think of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and in that sacrament we must first acknowledge that we have a virus, have a sin at all, and until we do that, and unfortunately we have people within our pews, within our communities, that are choosing to ignore that it even exists, until we really collectively acknowledge the sin of racism and then uproot that, we have a long way to go.

 “I also think that one of the ways that we can really break down biases and barriers are through moments of encounter. I think it's fitting that we are starting the Synod process. One of the lessons I’ve learned from community organizing is the value of storytelling and relational meetings and relational conversations. If you don’t know your neighbor, you cannot advocate for and recognize the humanity of that neighbor, and so for the Catholic Church collectively, the Synod is a great step, if we invite everyone that is often voiceless to the table and individually we can challenge ourselves to really understand who our definition of neighbor is and who is not included, who gets to have a voice and whose narrative is told for them. If we continue to have those encounters and conversations and really listen and really do the work of seeking reconciliation with one another, we can start to solve the problem of racism, but understanding that just listening is not the end step. Listening is actually the beginning to a process of reconciliation and personal change and systemic change, as well.”

How have you kept the faith, both your Catholic faith and your faith for our country, over the years, despite this “virus” of racism that has infected both, and what gives you hope for a better future for our Church and our country?

Ogechi Akalegbere – “It’s been difficult to keep my faith and my faith in this country, especially given the events that have taken place in the last couple of years, but I think that growing in relationship with fellow Black Catholics, with other allies and people that have a real passion for getting rid of the sin of racism within our Catholic Church and the world, I think that has really helped me along my journey. 

“I also think that my work that I’ve always liked to do in service and encountering other people has continued my faith journey, even when I felt great disappointment, even when I've been on the receiving end of racism here by members, or people that I encounter day-to-day, I think, again relying on my faith and conversation with the Holy Spirit who hears all of my different types of prayers and frustrations and groanings, and learning about different saints that have also had a passion for social justice has also fortified my journey.

“This problem of racism, this problem of division, is not a new one in our country, and I think that reaching out and finding the examples of the faithful that have overcome this, examples like Sister Thea Bowman, examples like Sister Mary Lange and Augustus Tolton, those men and women who really have had to endure a lot in this country but have kept their faith. Those people have really sustained my faith journey and kept my faith. I find hope in this work in young people. I’m blessed to work with amazing, amazing young women who really encourage me and embolden me to do more, to continue on the path and to not lose hope because they give me hope. They have a trust in us. They are not the future. They are actually the present, and their present purpose and present involvement is what we should all be tapped into, because they will really be the ones to help us along this journey.” 

Could you share with us some of your personal experiences of racism, to help us understand what people of color go through?

Ogechi Akalegbere – “Some of my personal experiences of racism have been micro aggressions and for me when I think of microaggression, they’re like tiny razor marks that you may not see but imagine washing your hands and putting on hand sanitizer, you'll feel that paper cut or razor mark. And it really damages the person in a way that takes away part of their humanity or makes them feel less than. 

“And some examples have been in my work in doing community service with students. When I go to a service site to donate books or canned food items, and I get the assumption that I'm here to receive, which is no shame. I’ve been on the receiving end of charity in my life, and I have no shame with that, but constantly being assumed to be in need and not in the giving role, and not capable of being a giver, and being mistaken for different types of Black individuals, because there’s only two of us in the room, or you’re not taking the time to get to know the other Black individuals in your institution, being told that your idea is not good enough, but then having to hear your white colleague share the same idea and then being praised.

“So those are just some that come to my mind. I’m sure there are more, but the way that my brain works, in protection for myself, sometimes I put those away because it is how I survive in this world. It’s how I try not to get angry too much. I think the worse are the microaggressions, the gaslighting, the ‘what if.’ When I share an experience of racism, being told that I’m over-exaggerating. I had a Catholic woman that I very much admired tell me that, ‘You seem sensible. so why are you so upset about the murder of Breonna Taylor?’ and, ‘Don't you think that this was going to happen because her boyfriend was this, this, this and that,’ which you all know has no merit in the value and dignity of someone’s life. And then to try to coach that gaslighting with ‘you’re one of the intelligent Black women that I follow, so you shouldn't be like the other Black women that are up in arms about the killing of a Black woman,’ that looks and feels just like her. 

“That was probably the most hurtful exchange that I’ve ever had, and I’ve had exchanges like that ever since, and I think that sometimes, especially in this area where I live, people expect racism to look like Charleston. They expect racism to look like January 6th, the insurrection. But racism and microaggressions are the most insidious forms, because they are coached in good intentions, but (they have) bad impact, and it really can do a number on someone’s psyche, their sense of value and their sense of self.

“And I’ve witnessed racism against students that I love and cherish at my school whether it’s about their hair, whether it’s about their qualifications to get into an Ivy League school, and how are they even considering applying to this school, they should lower their expectations. And it angers me, but I also recognize that my role isn’t just to be the service coordinator. My role as one of the few Black faculty at my school is also to be a witness and a voice and advocate for those girls that have to navigate youth in that way, and teach them that it doesn’t always get better, but it does change, and they can they can find hope and solace in talking to someone like myself.”

“…A lot of people don’t realize, and I didn’t realize, when I think of centers of racism and where I should be careful, usually growing up, I thought of the deep South. And then I realized even around here, in Frederick, I think Thurmont was a ‘sundown town,’ one of those towns that you just don’t go to as a Black person or stay, once it gets dark. 

“… One of my side things, I’m a competitive powerlifter, and so I’ve traveled to places like York, Pennsylvania and Ohio, and there are certain places we just did not stop. And my coach is Sicilian, so he looks like he could be Black. He’s just very blessed with his olive skin, and he would get looks, and when I first started lifting, I was the only Black person, Black female, in the whole competition, and I would get nasty comments from men, and part of it was sexism but also it was laced in racism and just, you know, having to put on a brave face because I just came to compete. So there are lots of stories. 

“...There’s a pressure to represent your race well, and just having to walk with that pressure is hard, because you want to – other people get the luxury of just being themselves – but when you’re minoritized,  you have then the added burden of not being able to be yourself, you might have to code-switch, and I worked a lot to not do that, because I know that there are Black girls that look to me as an example of how to move in this world, and if I shape-shift who I am to fit the comfort of other people, I’m teaching them that’s how they need to move in this world as well, and that’s a disservice to them, and so out of service to the young people that I encounter, I’ve grown in how I live my life and show up in this world as a Black woman, but it takes a lot of courage to do that, and I don’t fault anyone that chooses to play whatever social game they need to so that they feel safe and can have access to privileges that they might not otherwise.”

What is your reaction to receiving the Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award? 

Ogechi Akalegbere – “My reaction to receiving the Cardinal Bernardin Award is shock and joy. I am just a mere citizen that just does what she thinks is the best, and I think that to be recognized in such up a big way, especially a way that really ties in my faith, my service work and my passion for diversity and justice in a beautiful way is just a testament to how following God’s will and trying to just do your own part in God’s will, can really shape and encourage other people. And I hope that in hearing my story and in hearing a little bit about myself at the reception, people feel emboldened and encouraged to really engage in deep and meaningful encounters with those that are often called the margins.

“I think that the beauty of being a young leader is that you have the wisdom from your past and you also have the hope for the future, and I think of the image of the Sankofa bird. The Sankofa bird is a symbol that’s used a lot in African-American celebrations, but it comes from a tradition that asks you to take pearls of wisdom from the past and use that in the present, as you move your feet forward towards the future, and I really internalize that messaging, because I think that as individuals and as a country, as a Church, we can never forget our history, no matter how dark it might have been, because that really colors how we live in our day-to-day world, and it also will shape the future, and we do that as a practice as Catholics. We look to our Catholic tradition. We look to Scripture. We look to the saints. We look to our ancestors and how they lived out their faith, how Christ called his disciples to live out their faith, and often that exists in moments of tension and injustice and highlighting those that are the least. We pray the Beatitudes. We highlight those that are the least, and so if we continue to live a life that recognizes and highlights those that are the least and uplift them so that they are not voiceless but given a voice, given a platform and a seat at the table, I think then I’m doing my work of justice while I’m living out my faith well, and I hope that I can speak to that in a great way when I receive this award.

“Cardinal Bernardin was a huge mover and shaker in the social justice movement. I almost wish like, could we look back at what he talked about it, and live it out today? Remember the people that have come before us like him who are real advocates for justice, and I hope that especially the religious men and women in our Church are looking to him and looking to people like him as examples of how to really care for justice, care for those that are marginalized in our pews, in our communities, and I just hope that I’m doing him a great honor.”

What advice do you have for young adults about getting more involved in their Catholic faith, and what advice do you have for the Catholic Church about reaching out to and engaging young adults in living out their faith?

Ogechi Akalegbere – “Some advice that I have for young adults about getting more involved in the Church is that if there is an opportunity or a program or group that you want to start that doesn’t exist, don’t be afraid to be the person that starts it. Reach out to the staff or start it on your own. We have the blessings of social media and technology to really allow us resources to do things on our own. 

“One example is that I really wanted to have a small group where I didn’t have to explain things that are specific to my life as a Black woman and then open up myself spiritually. So my friend Stephanie and I started a BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Color) Women’s small group, and we met and it was nice to have a space where I can just shed the microaggressions or the heaviness and burdens that I experience especially in the year of 2020. And we could just be. And be women of color of faith, of Catholic faith, and share, and that didn’t exist in my parish and for me to start it, it may not have flourished in my parish. So be open to reaching out to other young people that might have similar interests and pooling your resources across different parishes, like for that example. 

“Another way that I think that we can really inject ourselves is to continue to ask questions of how you can serve. Sometimes you’re not going to be called upon to give your voice. So you might have to be bold enough to do that. So whether it’s joining a ministry and leading the ministry, offering up that opportunity, offering up your skill, your time, and recognizing who is not involved in the parish and bringing that to the leadership. Be careful! That might mean that you are then asked to lead a ministry, because church folks love to invite young people to do things, but if you’re ready and willing to allow the Holy Spirit to do that for you, it could mean great things, and it can really reinvigorate your faith. 

“One example is I was very resistant to being a catechist, but I also had a lot of questions on how young people were really rooted in their faith. So that led me to becoming a catechist, and I’ve been blessed to be a catechist for the past six years and in doing that, I’ve really strengthened my understanding of theology in the Catholic Church, because I have to be able to explain it to middle school students. And so be open to the ways the Holy Spirit might show the holes and gaps that are needed in your parish.

“If you don’t have a home parish, try to find one. A home is a beautiful place to have and a home of faith is a beautiful (place). I know in the D.C. area, we’re very transient and it’s common to go to different Masses at the most convenient times, but find a home. Find a place where you can grow roots and friendships and relationships, because relationships are what is going to sustain you. When sometimes your faith relationship with God may not be as strong, God has always proven himself through the relationships of the people He puts in my life.

“And I think the Church needs to be open and get rid of this phrase that ‘the young people are the future of the Church.’ We are not. We are the present, and the young people that I teach are the present of the Church, and if you think about us as the present of the Church, you think about us as being needed and being needed to be heard and encouraged and invited, and to reach out to us when we challenge, or create tension, or have viewpoints that are not always the way that things have been, to be open to change, to be open to a deeper understanding or a different understanding and to really create a landscape of the Church that continues after you leave. 

“After I’m not here, I want to create a landscape of a Church that allows the people that I teach in middle school and their kids to feel welcome as their whole selves in the parish.” 

(At the end of the interview, Ogechi Akalegbere discussed how she had gotten her first name.)

“Last year in 2020 before the pandemic hit, I had a mission to go on a date with my mom, kind of like a mom-daughter date. (On) one of those dates, I asked her, ‘How come my siblings and I all have Nigerian names, Igbo names, and you have (the name) Angela, and daddy’s Geoffrey?’

“And she laughed, and she said, ‘If you know Nigerian history, Nigerian independence took place in 1960.’ 

“And I’m not going to give my mom’s age, but my mom and dad were both born before that. My grandparents wanted, and so many parents even in my mom’s generation, wanted their kids to assimilate well. This is a common thing in Asian tradition and Hispanic tradition and even in African American tradition, naming your child a name that will be accepted by basically the Anglo or White American communities, or the White European (community) if they immigrated to Europe.

“But my mom, in a bit of a revolutionary twist – and if you met my mom, she’s the least activist person I know, she thinks all the organizing I do is a little too agitating – so it was funny for me to hear that her and her brothers had really wanted to reclaim the Nigerian identity and to share that with their kids. All of our names are also Christian-related names or faith-based names.

“My name Ogechi means ‘God’s time’ (in the Igbo language), which is funny, because I’m the most impatient person ever!

“In her own small way, she (my mom) was trying to really inject culture into her future kids, and she made that conscious decision to really anchor us in our faith. My faith is part of my name, and my culture is part of my name. I hated it when I was a young kid, and people would mispronounce it all the time. But I’ve grown to love it, because it makes me who I am, and it really melds together my faith and culture in just one simple name. So I just love my name now, and I love that my mom finally told me the story of why (I have this name). She has such a simple name (Angela), an Anglo name, and I do not.”