A cultural celebration of faith

Diversity: St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church in Columbia celebrates an African-American Cultural Mass in honor of Black History Month.

February 27, 2004|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,SUN STAFF

At the conclusion of the noon Mass on Sunday at St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church, the congregation clapped and sang through a rousing rendition of "This Little Light of Mine." People from various racial backgrounds were involved. "Not unusual for us," said the Rev. Richard H. Tillman, pastor of the Columbia parish.

The Mass was celebrated by an African-American priest, - the Rev. Raymond Harris of Mount St. Mary's College in Emmitsburg, in honor of Black History Month, one of many cultural events the church has held in the past three years.

"We're a very diverse parish," Tillman said. "We're conscious of the ethnic origins of our folks, and we want to celebrate that and make them feel as much at home here as we possibly can."

More than 600 people filled a chapel at Wilde Lake Interfaith Center in Columbia for the church's second annual African-American Cultural Mass, organized by a 15-member diversity committee made up of members of the parish from various backgrounds and cultures. The committee was established in January 2001 to foster appreciation of the parish's many cultures and to welcome participation in church programs by all members and visitors. About 50 countries are represented in the congregation.

"The more we do these kinds of activities, the more people are attracted because they feel they are valued [and] appreciated - their heritage is being recognized," said Helen Liu, chairwoman of the St. John's diversity committee. "The parish flourishes."

The committee, which arranges about three cultural events each year, has organized celebration Masses highlighting Filipino, Haitian and African-American cultures. St. John's also offers two Spanish-language Masses each week, celebrated by the Rev. P. Antonio Velez.

The committee's inaugural event was a "diversity day" in November 2001 attended by about 600 people. More recently, a Hispanic-theme Mass in October attracted more than 500. Other projects have included a diversity workshop led by the Rev. Eric Lae, an Episcopal priest and author.

"We try to help make our community more inclusive - not just come to church, but every level," Liu said. "That's what multiculturalism is all about."

The Mass on Sunday opened with two gospel singers belting out the South African freedom song "Freedom is Coming," accompanied by guitars, piano and drums, as members of the congregation embraced and greeted each other.

Harris told the parish that even in the face of segregation in the 19th century, black Catholics knew religion could bridge the gap among races.

"When we have celebrations like this ... it's not to say this is an occasion for one group of people to tell another group of people what they should be doing. It's an opportunity to thank God that these groups exist," Harris told the congregation.

While the Hispanic-theme Mass was followed by a reception featuring tacos, flautas, rice and beans, the reception after Sunday's African-American-theme Mass featured chicken, collard greens and macaroni and cheese.

Members of the congregation said they have enjoyed the church's attempts to broaden its scope.

"We have a very diverse community, so it's nice to be able to share those different cultures. It's important for us to share all aspects," said Wendell McKay, 37, of Ellicott City.

"I want it to be like this every day," interjected his daughter, 6-year-old Alex.

The church will hold its first diversity event geared toward and run by youth members of the congregation at 7 p.m. Sunday at Wilde Lake Interfaith Center. Among the countries to be represented are Haiti, Ireland, Puerto Rico, Italy, Egypt, Germany, the Philippines and Korea.

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