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Ogechi Akalegbere tackles racism in the Catholic Church in St. Mary’s Parish talk

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, 2021 during the U.S. Catholic bishops’ fall meeting in Baltimore. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Ogechi Akalegbere serves as the Christian Service Coordinator at Connelly School of the Holy Child in Potomac, Maryland, and hosts the podcast Tell Me, If You Can, a series focused on women discussing how they inspire change in their community. 

In 2021, Akalegbere received the Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. The award is granted to individuals who work to fight poverty and injustice through community-based solutions. The honor is named for the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, the archbishop of Chicago from 1982 until 1996 who spoke out strongly for a consistent ethic of life, where human life would be respected in all its stages and circumstances.

As an advocate for diversity and education, Akalegbere lectures regularly on different aspects of race, inclusion, Catholicism, and community. 

On Feb. 23, Akalegbere spoke at St. Mary’s Parish in Rockville, Maryland on the topic, “Looking Back and Moving Forward – A Catholic Response to Racism.”

In her presentation, Akalegbere encouraged dialogue around racism and “unchecked microaggressions” in day-to-day interactions. Microaggressions are subtle slights against different races and cultures that someone may or may not be conscious of making. Akalegbere later noted she does not care for the “micro” in “microaggression,” as it minimizes the harm derogatory actions cause. 

The evening began with opening remarks from retired Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Joe Quirk, followed by a prayer from Deacon Lou Brune of St. Mary’s Parish. Pastoral Council First Vice Chair Virginia Onley introduced Akalegbere. 

Akalegbere started her talk by singing a section of poem Lift Every Voice and Sing  by James Weldon Johnson, a civil rights activist and writer during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and 1930s: 

We have come over a way that with tears has been watered.

We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,

Out from the gloomy past,

Till now we stand at last

Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

Akalegbere said the reason she chose this verse is twofold: she loves to sing and the verse’s focus on God, “who has shared in our individual and collective suffering.” The verse calls for people to hold closely onto faith and remain hopeful looking to the future.

“The sacrifice of the ancestors’ triumphs to resilience, strength in faith, are signified in the verses in this song,” Akalegbere said. “It is a source of pride…that draws emotions whenever heard.” 

Akalegbere explained that later in the song, the mythic Sankofa bird is referenced. Depictions of a Sankofa are often stylized in West African art as a bird with its head turned backwards, holding an egg in its mouth, symbolizing that people should reflect and learn from their history as they move forward.

“It is important to look back on how the people of the Catholic Church, specifically in the United States, may have played a role whether actively or passively in the sin of racism,” Akalegbere said. “Also to look at the stories of resilience, and triumph, and allyship of those who actively work to dismantle racism within the institution and our country.”

Ogechi Akalegbere, the Christian service coordinator at Connelly School of the Holy Child in Potomac, gives a talk at St. Mary’s Parish in Rockville, Maryland, on Feb. 23, 2022. Her talk was titled, “Looking Back and Moving Forward – A Catholic Response to Racism.” (CS photo/Catherine Buckler)

Throughout her talk, Akalegbere stressed the importance of reflecting on and learning from the past, despite how uncomfortable that may be. She likened looking back on the transgressions of the Church to the practice of examination of conscience, a review of actions and thoughts that go against the morals of Christianity prior to receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation. 

“In the examination of conscience, I am mindful of the times I have fallen, but also often, the times that, through the help of the Holy Spirit, I have overcome. I have stretched in my spiritual capacity to love my neighbor and repair relationships,” she said, noting that building relationships is the reward that comes from such penance. 

Although the slave trade is often considered a practice that began in the future United States in 1619, when enslaved Africans were brought to the Jamestown colony in Virginia, Akalegbere noted the Catholic Church’s involvement in slavery in the Americas during the 16th century. During colonial times, Jesuit priests relied on enslaved workers to work on their plantations in Maryland. Georgetown University is among the present-day colleges and universities that benefited from slave labor. 

Priests during those eras were said to have believed enslaved people had souls, but they were not considered equals. 

“No one sold and treated as property could ever be said to be loved as a neighbor, which is our call,” Akalegbere said. 

Sister Thea Bowman, a prominent U.S. Black Catholic who was posthumously named a Servant of God and is being considered for sainthood, said, “I come to my Church fully functioning. I bring myself, my Black self, all that I am, all that I have, all that I hope to become.” 

Considering the Church’s past and present, Akalegbere asked how she is accepted into the Church. “My parish and many parishes have mottos like ‘All Are Welcome,’ but I, being the person I am, ask, ‘How am I welcome?’ Am I welcome as my whole self or the self that makes you comfortable?” Akalegbere asked. 

Akalegbere acknowledged how Black community members often struggle to feel they are authentically embraced and practicing as their “whole selves” as both Black and Catholic in the Church. 

There are no exceptions for those who do not actively engage in overt acts of racism, however, as Akalegbere pointed out there were those in the South who did not own slaves but engaged in the sin of omission. 

“When I think of racism, I think of sin, and how you might be those passive members,” Akalegbere said.

Akalegbere closed her remarks calling on the audience to step up in their allyship—the act of supporting a group one does not belong to—and consider what they have “failed to do” when it comes to combating racism in their parishes and personal prejudices. 

 “I want a Church that is a [healing] balm, I want a Church that, when I know injustice, and I see it and live it, that I know that my priest will feel comfortable speaking truth to power,” Akalegbere said. She said she loves the Confiteor, a prayer that calls people to assume responsibility for sinful acts that they may have done or for actions that they “failed to do,” as it addresses the harm of being passive in times of struggle. 

Akalegbere’s remarks were followed by a moment of reflection led by Deacon Brune and a question-and-answer session with the audience. 

“Made in God’s Image,” an initiative of The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington that encourages people to pray and work to end the sin of racism, includes pastoral activities and outreach for individuals and parishes.

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