By Stephanie R. Martin
“Iron is sharpened by iron; one person sharpens another.”
Taken from the Book of Proverbs 27:17, these words will also serve as the theme for the 2015 National Black Catholic Men’s Conference which will be held in Lafayette this October. The conference, led by members of the Bowman Francis Ministry Team, will be hosted through the combined efforts of Our Lady Queen of Peace and Immaculate Heart of Mary Parishes in Lafayette, as well as St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Breaux Bridge. Organizers anticipate anywhere from 600-1,000 participants in the conference, which will aim to empower them by reinforcing their knowledge and Communion with Jesus Christ.
But what does that theme really mean, and why hold a Black Catholic men’s conference here in Lafayette, Louisiana? Quite simply, the area is more than ripe enough to reap and benefit from the experience.
“The man or young boy who participates in the conference is going to come back on fire for Jesus Christ, to do something positive for their community,” declares Fr. Chester Smith, SVD, a member of the Bowman Francis Ministry Team.
Iron is sharpened by iron—by using this conference as a platform to empower men to serve as Christ-centered leaders of their families and communities, those families and communities will in turn be strengthened and improved by their leadership.
“I’m excited!” adds his twin brother, Fr. Charles, who is also a member of the team. “I can’t wait to see the power of God working through our men. I hope every hotel will be full of men who are coming to the conference, and I hope that just the word of mouth that this conference is in town will have an impact even on those who don’t attend.”
The brothers will be joined by fellow team member Fr. Kenneth Hamliton, SVD, when they visit Lafayette to lead the conference. Though raised in the city of Chicago, Frs. Chester and Charles are no strangers to the people of southwest Louisiana or the strong Catholic heritage of the area.
One of their earliest experiences in the Diocese of Lafayette came through an invitation they received to speak at the African American Catholic Youth Congress, an annual event sponsored by the diocese’s Office of Black Catholic Ministries.
“It really taught me a lot about Catholicism,” Fr. Chester says of his experiences with the Congress. “It was different from growing up in Chicago, where there were a lot of people just joining and coming into the Church. In Lafayette, most of the young folks already have a grasp of the Catholic Church because they were born and raised in it, so I needed to gear my talks to them accordingly.”
“There’s a charism of Catholicism in Lafayette that’s very real and authentic,” echoes Fr. Charles. “It’s really a privilege whenever we work there; it’s always a time for me to be enriched by the Catholic faith, and there are so many ties in the area to the Society of Divine Word (SVD).”
Indeed, the Diocese of Lafayette has a long and fruitful history with the Society of Divine, which is renowned in the Roman Catholic Church for ministering to and evangelizing among African Americans. In fact, several of the African American church parishes in the diocese continue to be served by SVD priests today, and even as boys growing up in Chicago Frs. Chester and Charles were aware of that connection.
“I think we were both heavily influenced by Fr. Ed Delaney,” recalls Fr. Chester, referring to the young SVD priest once assigned to the church parish he and his brother Charles attended. “Fr. Delaney encouraged us to be leaders by speaking to us about other strong black Catholic leaders, and one of them he told us about was Fr. Dominic Carmon.”
Born in the city of Opelousas, Fr. Carmon joined the Society and was ordained to the priesthood in 1960. In addition to several pastoral assignments in the Chicago area, he served as president of the Chicago Conference on Religion and Race before eventually returning to Louisiana. In 1993, he was consecrated Auxiliary Bishop of New Orleans, retiring from that role in late 2006.
Hearing about these strong black Catholic leaders from Fr. Delaney and also seeing him in action as a priest of the Society of Divine Word influenced both of these twin brothers to start thinking more seriously about this call to a leadership role.
“Being around these Divine Word missionaries—the priests and the brothers—I was always moved by their dedication and the action they took,” says Fr. Charles.
The oldest of four siblings, the twins left home at the age of 13 to continue their education by attending the Society’s minor seminary. Blessed by the support of their parents as well as their sister and brother, the two of them were ordained together to the priesthood for the Society in 1988 with all of these family members in attendance.
“I think it’s a beautiful witness for the Church,” says Fr. Charles. “It was a very spiritual moment for the whole family, because it was a family project. There were sacrifices made by all of us, including our parents and our brother and sister, so we never felt alone on the journey.”
A connection with that sense of strength, love and support from family is something that the brothers hope the conference will rekindle in the men who participate. “We want the conference to encourage them to get their spirituality and their lives in order,” explains Fr. Chester. “We want the conference to provide them with the tools they need to be empowered to be leaders of their families, to be powerful instruments of love and reconciliation—to be men of valor, honor and conviction no matter what they do.”
“We want to build for them a positive image of a spiritual man,” adds Fr. Charles. “We want them to experience that everything flows from God, and how they can incorporate God’s gifts into their families and into whatever professional role they’re in.”
“Leadership, education, community involvement, ownership in taking care of their Church and their health—that’s what we want to stress,” says Fr. Chester. “We want to give them positive influences so they can overcome the negative ones and be faithful witnesses to Jesus Christ. My prayer is that the men who take part will be empowered to become the warriors that Jesus Christ needs to start a revolution that changes this world for the better.”
Reprinted by permission of the Acadiana Catholic