On the day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Charlene Howard’s social justice class at Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington would reflect on the civil rights leader’s legacy, by hearing a recording of his soaring oratory, but first, they prayed.
One of her students, a young man, led about 20 of his classmates in a Year of Mercy prayer, commemorating the recent year in the Church when Pope Francis encouraged the world’s Catholics to seek God’s love and mercy and share it with others.
“…May we witness to the love we have received by sharing it with those most in need: the hungry, the homeless, the afflicted, and the oppressed,” the students prayed.
Then when asked if they would like to offer prayers of their own, they prayed for classmates, and also for family members who were hospitalized, and the student who led the prayer said, “I’d like to pray for the homeless. It’s cold out there.”
As the class unfolded, expressions of empathy for the poor and forgotten were part of the discussions on faith and social justice. Howard commended one student for writing in an essay about the plight of Muslim refugees whom some want to ban from entering the United States because of the fear of what ISIS terrorists have done in other countries.
As the class ended, the Carroll juniors were invited to participate in a school effort supporting undocumented immigrant students, whose ability to continue studying and working in the United States could be threatened if immigration policies regarding them are changed.
Nine days earlier, Howard was one of 156 Catholics from D.C. area parishes, schools and community organizations to receive the Manifesting the Kingdom Award from Cardinal Donald Wuerl during a Jan. 8 Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
The Manifesting the Kingdom Award is given by the archbishop of Washington to laywomen and laymen and to consecrated women and men for their outstanding service to the Church that reveals the presence of Christ in their lives and helps carry out the mission of the New Evangelization to live and share the Catholic faith.
The religion teacher was nominated by both Archbishop Carroll High School and her home parish, St. Teresa of Avila in Washington. Her nomination read, “Regardless of the title of her position, Charlene Howard works to inspire others – Carroll students, married couples, St. Teresa’s parishioners – with zeal for our Catholic faith. She takes on leadership roles, such as the chair of Archbishop Carroll’s religion department – as well as humble, sometimes invisible roles, such as dressing the altar at school Masses. She brings together diverse members of our Catholic community, including the Knights of Malta and a wide range of guest speakers, to inspire students and form them both for success in college and in (their) lives of faith.”
Howard’s class at Archbishop Carroll that afternoon later in January unfolded in a place that many in that school community consider to be holy ground – Room 325, a classroom dedicated to the memory of Robert Hoderny, a social justice teacher who died in a pedestrian accident in 1996, while crossing a street with his young foster son on a rainy day.
Hoderny taught social justice classes at Archbishop Carroll for 21 years and led students in community service programs, a legacy continued by Howard and the other religion teachers at Carroll, where students coordinate an annual Thanksgiving Food Drive – one of the largest such school efforts in the country – and volunteer at soup kitchens.
A sign above the door to the classroom reads “FORGIVE 7x70x,” a rephrasing of Jesus’s famous words on how many times one should forgive a neighbor. A mural on a back wall depicts Jesus, Dr. King, Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Cesar Chavez and Dorothy Day, with the words “Love one another as I have loved you,” near the portrait of Christ.
Howard said that day they would hear a famous speech by Dr. King on “The Drum Major Instinct,” and she encouraged them to follow along on their printed texts.
“Write in the margin things that connect to what we’ve been studying in social justice,” she said, noting that some elements of that speech related to the class’s recent discussion on the issue of mass incarceration.
The students listened intently to Dr. King’s speech, in which he warned that it is natural for people to try to be like drum majors, out front leading the parade and getting attention.
“He’s pointing out that people want to fit in,” one student said.
A young woman in the class added, “There’s another way to feel important. Go out and do something for the community.”
After the class, one of the students, William Jones, told the Catholic Standard what he admires about Howard as a teacher. “She’s passionate about what she’s teaching us. She connects biblical things to what’s going on today,” he said, adding that serving in a soup kitchen with his classmates has helped him see the humanity of the homeless people whom they meet.
Krishna Najjar, a Carroll junior in another of Howard’s social justice classes, agreed that the teacher ties together biblical stories with current issues, like racism.
“She relates how injustice is everywhere, and social justice is something that should be applied every day, to better the world,” he said.
Howard has worked at Archbishop Carroll for the past nine years, after earlier teaching and serving as acting principal at St. Francis de Sales School in Washington, which converted to being part of a charter school network in the city. She now teaches social justice classes to juniors at Carroll, and a Catholicisim course to freshmen there. Until last year, she worked in the school’s guidance department.
“I really wanted to get back to the classroom,” said Howard, who earned a master’s degree in catechesis and religious education from The Catholic University of America in 2012. “I had been trying to discern what it was God wanted me to do.”
At St. Teresa of Avila Parish, Howard said, “I’ve been in a plethora of things.” She’s taught religious education classes there and helped lead the teen Bible study program. Howard has also served as a lector and Eucharistic minister at Masses and worked to revive the parish’s Social Action Committee and served as a liaison to the archdiocese’s Office of Black Catholics.
Howard’s service continues a family tradition. “Both my parents came from very faith-filled families,” she said of the late Charles and Virnitia Wood.
Her father was a fifth generation Catholic from the Upper Marlboro area, and her mother was a Baptist who converted to the Catholic faith when she got married. “They were involved in everything and got us involved,” said Howard, whose brother became a priest. Father Chuck Wood – a former Catholic Standard reporter – now serves as pastor of St. Wenceslaus Parish in Scappoose, Oregon in the Diocese of Portland.
Howard was baptized and grew up as a member of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Washington and attended that parish’s school and St. John Baptist de la Salle School in Chillum and graduated from Elizabeth Seton High School in Bladensburg.
She and her husband, Michael Howard, have been married for 25 years. He works at Prince George’s Community College and teaches Faith Foundation courses for the Archdiocese of Washington and online catechist certification courses for the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA. They have four children and three grandchildren.
Speaking of her work at Archbishop Carroll, Charlene Howard said, “I just like teaching. It’s like breathing to me. I really feel it’s my gift, it’s what God gave me to do.”
Teaching can sometimes be challenging, but Howard said she experiences its rewards. “I like seeing the action of learning, when someone gets new information and can do something with it. That’s exciting and thrilling to me,” she said. “…It’s great to teach teen-agers. They’re evolving quickly, questioning, asking, trying to figure things out. Being part of that process is very exhilarating to me.”
Just as it is woven into the fabric of her life, Howard said her Catholic faith guides her work. “My faith is so important to me. The joy I have for my faith, I want to see other people experience that same joy,” she said.
Those are lessons she tries to impart to her students, so their faith remains a key part of the rest of their lives.
Howard said she hopes her students “acquire skills to think their own thoughts, develop their own ideas into real things, that they are very capable. I want them to connect with the fact that God is real, faith is real, and that they can see that in themselves.”