Transformation happening at St. Charles Lwanga Center

Lisa Johnston | lisajohnston@archstl.org

In the 1990's sitcom Seinfeld, Elaine warns an employee that her friend George is a "bad seed."

"A horrible seed," she says. "One of the worst seeds I've ever seen."

Ultimately, she takes it back, describing him as a "fine seed."

Father Art Cavitt might use that term to describe Daniel Crawford, a 21-year-old from Florissant who has transformed himself into a good seed at St. Charles Lwanga Center.

Crawford, who just began schooling at ITT Technical College, ranks as one of Lwanga Center's success stories. Daija Loggins is another. Educated in Catholic grade schools in north St. Louis, Loggins recently started her junior year at Missouri Baptist University in Creve Coeur. She majors in education and theology. Crawford wants to be a software or web developer, working on "cool things."

Crawford and Loggins are two shining examples of how Lwanga Center can impact the lives of those who come through its doors.

"We're reaping the fruits," Father Cavitt said recently at the center, in the old convent at St. Elizabeth Mother of John the Baptist Church in north St. Louis. "It's encouraging."

Even ministers need positive reinforcement and encouragement from time to time "to see that what they're doing is not for naught," said Father Cavitt, who recently was appointed pastor of St. Nicholas Parish in downtown St. Louis. He has been at Lwanga Center for 11 years and has been its executive director for the past three. "You can see what is happening to the youth when they come to us; some transformation is happening.

"We can see it as they mature and develop and make choices in their life. It is worthwhile."

St. Charles Lwanga Center has come to the forefront in the past month, in the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting death and subsequent violence in nearby Ferguson.

In his homily at a Votive Mass for Peace and Justice on Aug. 20, Archbishop Robert J. Carlson gave it a place of prominence in the archdiocese's response to Ferguson. After re-establishing the Human Rights Commission in the archdiocese, Archbishop Carlson called on Lwanga Center "to begin a study and offer solutions to decrease violence in our communities and in our families."

While others create charitable foundations in response to Ferguson, the Catholic Church already has much of the infrastructure in place: the education component in Blessed Teresa of Calcutta and Our Lady of Guadalupe grade schools in Ferguson and nearby Trinity Catholic High School; and the community outreach component, in St. Charles Lwanga Center. The Archdiocese of St. Louis agency formed in 1978 with a mission "to promote Christian spiritual formation and leadership development within the African-American Catholic community."

Crawford, for one, is effusive in his praise for what Lwanga Center has meant not only in his life but the lives of many others in its 36-year existence.

"It's done its job beautifully, which is to connect, bring and save," Crawford said. "It saved me, and it did all the other kids as well. It's a great place to learn and to understand the Lord and other people, mainly to bring peace to yourself."

Crawford allows that the peaceful, easy feeling eluded him at times as a teenager. Born a Catholic, he was baptized, received first Communion and was confirmed, belonging to a "church family" with regular Mass attendance. However, at one point, he strayed from Church teachings; he called himself a "bad seed."

"With 'bad seed,' maybe I'm being too hard on myself," he said, with a laugh. "Even though I knew God existed, ... I did my own thing. I felt like I was alone, and that's when I started straying from school and the things I was supposed to be doing.

"It was me, myself and I, and that's all that really mattered."

Then, his mother had an encounter with Corliss Cox, Lwanga Center coordinator for youth ministry and special events. Cox invited Crawford to Kujenga, which translates as "build" from Swahili and is Lwanga Center's primary youth ministry.

"It was real simple; she asked, 'Would your son like to join this group?'" said Crawford, who was among 16 young adults to participate in Lwanga Center's very first retreat for ages 19 through 25, in August at SLU's Manresa Center. "I went and I liked what I saw -- the fun, the friendship, the talking about the Lord. It really brought us together."

Father Cavitt described Kujenga as a year-long formation, which culminates each summer with a weekend gathering, and Loggins is one of the group leaders. She started as a shy eighth grader, but Lwanga Center helped turn her into an extrovert. Photos of Lwanga and Kujenga events over the years chronicle Loggins in "various stages of life," though she joked that "it's time to retire" photos of her with a Mohawk.

Seriously, though, she said Lwanga Center provided her with a "safe haven" from the "risky environment" of her neighborhood.

"It's like a second home; it's where you can go and be safe," she said. "Not just me but my friends; it's where you can go and be comfortable with being yourself. ....

"Father Art, Mrs. Cox and everyone here are trying to show us that where you're at isn't the only place you can be. You can do a lot more."

In Crawford and Loggins, St. Charles Lwanga Center is fulfilling its mission.

"We want to be a center, a beacon, a magnet for Roman Catholicism, for activism, for the integration of faith into life, school, family and parish," Father Cavitt said. "It's critical for us to be doing that."

In short, the Center wants to develop good seeds.

St. Charles Lwanga Center
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