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Service and advocacy help Ogechi Akalegbere live out love, and her faith, in action

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 laughed as she reflected on the meaning of her name in the Igbo language of Nigeria, where she was born before immigrating to the United States as an infant with her family.

“My name Ogechi means ‘God’s time,’ which is funny, because I’m the most impatient person ever!” she said, joking about the irony of her name and the belief that things eventually unfold “in God’s time.”

Akalegbere, the Christian service coordinator at Connelly School of the Holy Child in Potomac, Maryland and the co-chair of the pastoral council at her home parish, St. Rose of Lima in Gaithersburg,  also serves as a board member and community organizer for an advocacy group in her county, AIM (Action in Montgomery).

Interviewed for the Catholic Standard’s Black Catholic Voices series before receiving the 2021 Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award award at a Nov. 16 reception during the U.S. bishops’ fall meeting in Baltimore, Akalegbere reflected on her faith, her church and community service, and how her name ties it all together.

In 2020 before the pandemic, Ogechi Akalegbere got together with her mother and asked her why she and her two brothers and a sister all had Igbo names, while their parents were named Angela and Geoffrey. Her mother explained that after Nigeria gained its independence in 1960, she wanted her children’s names to reflect their Nigerian identity and their faith.

“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,” Akalegbere said.

And in mid-November, “in God’s time,” Akalegbere, who is 33, stepped forward to receive,  the Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award, which she said she accepted as a “proud Nigerian American.”

The award from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the anti-poverty program of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, recognizes a young adult who demonstrates leadership in fighting poverty and injustice through community-based solutions. The honor is named for the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, the archbishop of Chicago from 1982 until his death 25 years ago from pancreatic cancer in November 1996. Cardinal Bernardin played a key role in CCHD’s founding and was also known for his leadership as the U.S. bishops in 1983 adopted a pastoral letter against nuclear warfare. He also spoke out strongly for a consistent ethic of life, where human life would be respected in all its stages and circumstances.

In the Black Catholic Voices interview, Akalegbere said it was a great honor to receive an award named for Cardinal Bernardin.

“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,” she said, later adding, “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?”

After accepting the Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award, Akalegbere said, “I grew up having an understanding of God through encounters with people that God has placed in my life… The Holy Spirit has pointed me along paths to serve the community around me.”

She noted that as a high school student, her first exposure to advocacy came at the end of Mass, when someone spoke about the DREAM Act that was being proposed in Maryland because some students were ineligible to pay in-state tuition because of their immigration status.

Later after returning home from college, she joined AIM, a CCHD-funded organization that she described as a “broad-based, non-partisan, multi-faith, multi-racial community organization rooted in Montgomery County’s neighborhoods and congregations.” With AIM, she trained low-income and immigrant parents to advocate for equitable access to school resources.

In her acceptance speech, Akalegbere said she learned lessons in community organizing that guide her social justice work, like “never do for others that which they could do for themselves,” which she said reflects the Catholic understanding of subsidiarity. She said she has also learned that the Holy Spirit emboldens people to hold leaders accountable and to point out social inequities.

Another lesson, she said, is the importance of encountering people and hearing their stories. “Stories told are windows into the experiences of our neighbors. How do we truly know our neighbors, if we don’t get to know them? What keeps them up at night? What prevents them from thriving?” she asked.

That work in community organizing has shaped her current role as a diversity, equity and inclusion speaker and trainer for parishes and schools. “I am honored that the Lord has seen fit that I do good things for others,” she said.

In her Black Catholic Voices interview, Akalegbere spoke about her work as the Christian service coordinator at Connelly School of the Holy Child.

“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,” she said.

Some of Akalegbere’s favorite service projects at her school include an intergenerational Zoom call that students join with the elderly and continue friendships with them. She especially enjoys the opportunities for students to go out into the community and serve meals and have a game night and other activities with women at the Saint Josephine Bakhita Shelter in Washington, which she said allows students “to recognize there is humanity even in those that are so often deemed voiceless or invisible by society.”

Serving her parish community on its pastoral council and serving the larger community through AIM are experiences that have helped her grow as a Catholic, she said, adding, “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.” 

In response to the nationwide protests in 2020 following the killings of unarmed Black men and women by police, Akalegbere has been very active as an organizer with the group Catholics United for Black Lives. She said working for racial justice through a Catholic lens helps “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.”

Akalegbere said the fact that people of color – Blacks, Latinos and Indigenous people – were hardest hit by the health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic put a spotlight on longstanding inequities and how a “throwaway culture” victimizes the poor and vulnerable.

“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,” she said.

The Synod process underway in the Catholic Church around the world will provide important opportunities for people to encounter one another and hear and learn from their stories, Akalegbere said.

“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… 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.”

Akalegbere said in her prayer life she tries to be open to how the Holy Spirit is leading her, and in recent years that led her to volunteer to serve as a catechist, which she said has deepened her understanding of the Catholic faith, “because I have to be able to explain it to middle school students.”

She recommends that young adults try to find a home parish if they don’t have one. For her, that has been St. Rose of Lima, which she has attended since she was young. “This parish has really shaped who I am… I just call this place home,” she said, explaining that she has received most of her sacraments there, from her First Communion through matrimony.

As young adults navigate life in a transient area like Washington, Akalegbere said finding a home parish can help them “grow roots and friendships and relationships” that help sustain their faith. She also encouraged them to become more involved at their parish, and join a program or group or even start one.

When she accepted the Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award, Akalegbere also had advice for the nation’s bishops, and for others engaged in working for justice.

“The Holy Spirit challenges all of us gathered here today.  Dear bishops, I ask that you never grow comfortable. We all must never, ever grow comfortable. Tension and discomfort marked so much of the Gospels,” she said, adding, “We look to you all for hope and guidance. In your leadership be a witness to solidarity and subsidiarity, get in the trenches of your dioceses, and truly engage in deep encounters with people of all backgrounds and cultures. Not for an event or a moment but deep encounters and exchanges that elicit the depths of the other’s humanity. Be a weaver, not a shredder of the beautiful tapestry of our faith.”

The young woman whose name means “God’s time” emphasized, “Disciples will never be comfortable if we are doing justice right. Listen to the stirring of the Holy Spirit and act with strength and courage.”

Link to video and transcript of Ogechi Akalegbere’s Black Catholic Voices interview