'Beacons of hope' perform the work of the Lord

Lisa Johnston | lisajohnston@archstl.org

In the invocation at the 32nd annual St. Charles Lwanga Center Testimonial Dinner, archdiocesan chancellor Nancy Werner hit the nail on the proverbial head.

The St. Louis area "more than ever needs beacons of hope," she said, simply, in reference to violence last year in Ferguson and tension which persists almost eight months later.

Those beacons would be evident on this day, she said.

From three Torchbearer Award winners, to two Lwanga Legends to 20 youth and adult parish honorees, the Grand Ballroom at the Renaissance St. Louis Airport Hotel was alight with "beacons of hope" as the Lwanga Center honored leaders in the African-American Catholic community and raised funds for its mission of spiritual formation and leadership development.

The annual testimonial dinner, with the slogan "make us instruments of Your peace," came at a busy time on the calendar, as Lwanga Center executive director Father Art Cavitt noted. On the previous night, Father Cavitt's parish, St. Nicholas, and Lwanga sponsoring parish Blessed Teresa of Calcutta hosted fund-raisers, and the Annual Catholic Appeal started that very weekend. In addition, the first St. Louis Mass Mob was held the previous Sunday at sponsoring parish Most Holy Trinity.

So, busy? Yes. But overwhelmed? Heavens, no.

"If it had not been for the Lord on our side, where would we be?" Father Cavitt asked, then leading the dinner guests in song.

"Nowhere" is the answer, but the honorees on this day definitely have the Lord on their side, with Torchbearer winners Brenda Mahr, Cheryl Archibald and the Nia Kumba African-American and African women's spiritual center as primary examples.

Mahr has spent 36 years with Employment Connection in St. Louis, for the past 11 years as CEO and for 15 years before that as executive director. Employment Connection provides resources, training, and support for clients to become employed and self-sufficient.

"Knowing that so many thousands of people have been positively impacted by the services provided ... it really makes a difference in how you feel when you wake up in the morning," Mahr said.

Often, she runs into former clients at the grocery store, and they share stories about how Employment Connection helped them.

"By the time I get to my car, I'm in tears because I know they have changed their lives," said Mahr, a parishioner at St. Alphonsus (Rock) Church. "God put me in a position where I have a small, small role to play in that. God is just so good. He gives you all these blessings."

Archibald also counts her blessings. After 31 years working for the federal government, including the management of multi-million contracts for the National Neospatial Intelligence Agency, Archibald returned to college and earned her master's in pastoral studies at Aquinas Institute of Theology. She's now is the pastoral associate at St. Matthew the Apostle Parish, where she was baptized.

"I get to participate in the life of the parish," she said. "I have a spiritual gift of faith and I instill that in the community. I give my whole self to the community."

Archibald works the pre-Cana program and also Kujenga with the Lwanga Center, which has been a moving experience for her.

"One young man shared with us that it was first time he ever had a safe place to sleep at night without hearing gunshots," she said. "That's powerful."

Nia Kumba, run by the Sisters of St. Francis of Oldenberg, Ind., has provided a safe place for women for the past 25 years, taking its name from Swahili words meaning purpose and creativity.

"The woman come to be aware that God has given us all a purpose to come into this earth, that each of us has different gifts," said Sister Marian Boberschmidt of Nia Kumba, calling the torchbearer award an honor for "all the women who have been a part of us."

St. Charles Lwanga Center awards

Torchbearer Award

Brenda Mahr, St. Alphonsus Liguori (Rock)

Cheryl Archibald, St. Matthew the Apostle

Nia Kumba, African American & African Women's Spirituality Center

Lwanga Legends

Robert Caldwell, St. Alphonsus Liguori (Rock)

William Jefferson, St. Elizabeth Mother of John the Baptist

Youth honorees

Hayley Martino, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta; Codie Oberson, Our Lady of Holy Cross; Robert Caldwell, St. Alphonsus Liguori (Rock); Jordan King, St. Augustine; Raphael Green, St. Elizabeth Mother of John the Baptist; Brent Anderson, St. Matthew the Apostle; Taylor-Simone Prince, St. Nicholas; Kyle Ingram, Sts. Teresa & Bridget

Adult honorees

Sheila Davis, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta; Princess Usanga and Vickie Deason, Most Holy Trinity; Barbara Johnson, Our Lady of Holy Cross; Reola Weaver, St. Alphonsus Liguori (Rock); Kim Reid, St. Augustine; Delphine Bell, St. Elizabeth Mother of John the Baptist; Allison Leake and Joice Westfall-Hollingsworth, St. Matthew the Apostle; Diane Joiner, St. Nicholas; Edward Warren, Sts. Teresa & Bridget; Venus D. Spain-Walker, Visitation/St. Ann's Shrine; Leslie Doyle and Dr. Heather Norton, Fontbonne University 

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