Black Catholic Voices series: African priest who led racial justice march reflects on impact of racism and COVID-19
Nov 21, 2020
(The Catholic Standard’s Black Catholic Voices series continues with an interview with Josephite Father Cornelius Kelechi Ejiogu, who has served as the pastor of St. Luke Parish in Washington, D.C., for the past seven and one-half years. On June 8, 2020, he led a prayerful protest in the nation’s capital against racism and police brutality, joined by more than 200 Catholics, including bishops, priests, women and men religious and lay people. As the interview started, the Nigerian-born priest noted that his middle name Kelechi means “give thanks to God.” Father Ejiogu was interviewed on Oct. 27, 2020 by Mark Zimmermann, the editor of the Catholic Standard.)
How would you summarize your faith journey as a Catholic who is from Africa?
Father Cornelius Ejiogu – “I would sum up my faith journey as a Catholic who is from, who was born in, Lagos, Nigeria, that I have been given an opportunity to praise God. I am privileged to be born in a predominately Catholic family, my father and my mother, and aunts and uncles, all Catholic. And I learned the faith from my parents who took me to church, and I became an altar server. And I grew close to the Church from my pastor, Father Leo Flynn who was from Ireland, a St. Patrick's Father. So he was a man of faith. He was a man who loved the people he served. You may have a different color of skin, but we didn't see that. We saw a man of love, and so that love is what led me to the Church. His work for the people, for the poor, and his teaching, his preaching is what really brought me to the faith, and I started thinking about my journey when I got closer to him as an altar server.”
Is that what inspired you to become a priest?
Father Cornelius Ejiogu – “There’s this true story, when I was about four years old, I learned that he (Father Flynn) came to visit us in our house, and he told my father then that when I’m grown, that I will become a priest. I didn’t know the story until many years later. And so when I finished high school, I decided I was going to go into the priesthood because I saw him as an example. I looked up to him as one who, you know, I could imitate. I called him ‘my star.’ He became for me a star, an icon that I could follow. And so, eventually when I went into the Josephite community, I was accepted to become a seminarian, and I studied in Iperu Remo. It is a place where the Josephites have the initial formation program, where you get to begin your journey as a Josephite and eventually finish your philosophy and transition into the United States.”
What have you learned from the witness of faith of other Black Catholics, both in Africa and here, how has that shaped your life?
Father Cornelius Ejiogu – “Endurance. You know, I’ve learned from the faith community, the African American community here in the United States, what endurance actually meant. You know, it’s hard to love someone who really didn’t show love to you. I grew up in a very loving family, but I saw the African American community, who despite the fact that they were rejected in so many Catholic churches, just for the fact that they were rejected in so many communities, so many parishes, I saw what endurance can actually do.
“St. Paul tells us endurance wins us that goal that we have with God. And that’s one of the things that I have learned, that spirit of never giving up, even when others put you down. You know the African American communities have turned out to love a Church that sometimes doesn’t show love to them and put them in the basement, on the patio, or in the different loft, and wouldn't let them join in Communion when the rest of their brothers and sisters were receiving Communion. But yet they stuck, because like we normally say, ‘They came this far by faith, leaning on the Lord.’ So it’s not about the structure, it’s about God Himself who is always love, who has portrayed love to them.
“So that one word (endurance) is what has kept me going. Sometimes when I felt stuck and I feel like, you know, I can’t move forward and move backward, and I'm running out of time and frustrated, but I remember those words that these people endured, that they kept the faith. They were steadfast. Despite the pain that they had to go through, I am almost challenged to continue to live up (to) that. So, that’s one of the things I learned from them, steadfastness that came from endurance.”
Josephite Father Cornelius Ejiogu (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)
Are there instances of racism that you have experienced in society or the Catholic Church that remain painful memories?
Father Cornelius Ejiogu – “When I got here, barely a year after coming to these United States, I had no family members to go to immediately for vacation. So one of my fellow seminarians decided I should go with him to Tyler, Texas, for a vacation, and I went and I stayed with the family.
“So, one afternoon I decided, ‘Oh, I’ve been bored, let me take a walk in Tyler, Texas,’ and barely five minutes in my taking a walk in the neighborhood, in this predominately white neighborhood, I got pulled over. A cop pulled over and said, ‘What are you doing here? Do you live here?’ And I tried to explain myself, and unfortunately I didn’t have my ID with me, because you know back home in Nigeria when I walk around, I don’t walk around with my ID because everybody looks the same, but I didn’t have my ID. I couldn’t identify myself.
“So he asked me, ‘Who are you? Tell me, tell me who you are.’ So I said, ‘I’m a seminarian. I’m from St. Joseph Seminary in Washington, D.C.’ God is so kind – he (the police officer) was a Catholic himself. So, he asked me a couple of questions, say, you know, ‘Well, who is a seminarian?’ I said, ‘A seminarian is someone training to be a priest.’ So, he got convinced – he was a White police officer – that I was truly a Catholic and a seminarian. So, he told me, ‘Well, I got a call that it was a young Black man walking around the neighborhood in shorts, and we haven’t seen him around here before.’ I said, ‘That’s me. I’m just visiting.’ And so he said, ‘I encourage you to go back to the house.’
“You know, that was my first instance of experiencing racism, but the most devastating instance of racism in my life here in Washington, D.C., was when I went for a funeral for a classmate of mine. We were both starting together in (the) Washington Theological Union. And so his uncle died, and he invited me, and I went to the funeral right here in Washington, D.C., (in) Northwest, and as soon as I came into the church I sat down. I saw a family of four, and I just said, ‘Oh, let me sit with them.’ And as soon as I sat down, less than 20 seconds (later), everybody stood up and left that pew. And I'm not kidding you, and throughout the end of the entirety of the funeral, I sat by myself, nobody else, at a church that was packed.
“And I stood up (later), and I told my friend, I said, ‘This is what happened to me.’ And so he told the pastor at that time, and the pastor tried to apologize to me. It was strange, because I wasn’t used to that in Nigeria. See in church in Nigeria, you got to be there on time, you (not) only got to be there on time, you got to be there way ahead of time, to get a seat. Now for me to transition that kind of idea, to coming and sitting in a pew, a pew that takes about nine persons, by yourself, for an entire funeral, that really shocked me, but it didn’t discourage me. It just made me more aware of some of the things that I needed to know here in the United States. And I'm fine. I didn’t hold it against them. I just felt it was a moment to change, a moment to help each other, to understand that we (are) one. We are loved by God, especially we don’t try and put others down, especially in the house of God.”
What is your reaction to the nationwide demonstrations for racial justice that have happened since this spring in the wake of unarmed men and women of color being killed by police?
Father Cornelius Ejiogu – “My reaction to the nationwide protests that are going on (as a result of) unarmed black men and women killed by the police, is that I think it’s unfortunate (those deaths happening after encounters with police). As a person, I come from a family that has police officers, and since I've been pastor here in St. Luke, I have worked with police officers. As a matter of fact, two years ago, I was given the award by the chief of police, a special award for working with the police officers, especially friends, who I call my friends, in the Sixth District. So I've come to know a lot of police officers personally, their families, met their families and have dinner (with them). So I know there’s a whole bunch of great, I’m not saying good, I’m saying great, God-loving police officers.
“But at the same time, I think there are a few who are overzealous, I call them ‘trigger-happy’ police officers who have not really respected the uniform, the blue uniform that they put on. And so my reaction is that we need to speak up against those few police officers who have not done what they are actually supposed to do, we need to speak up.
“And that's what led me to help organize the march that we had (in Washington), where we went to Lafayette Square and we prayed for the repose of the soul of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Emmet Till and a whole bunch of folks who have died at the hands of police. And we marched from Lafayette Square all the way to the Museum of African American History.
“And we did that prayerfully singing, locking arms with about three bishops present, and a whole bunch of priests and religious men and women of every color. You know, it was such a beautiful experience. And even the police officers knew what we were doing, and they had cruisers who were supporting us and making sure that we got to the Museum of African American History in peace. So we did that because we wanted to call out the injustice that is happening in our country.
Father Ejiogu prays during a June 8, 2020 prayerful protest that he organized for Catholics to promote racial justice and to oppose racism and police brutality. In the photo below, marchers included bishops, priests, women and men religious, and lay people. (CS photos/Mihoko Owada)
“You know, I am a believer in life. I’m a pro-lifer, and I think all of us should be pro-lifers, no matter what creed you are. We all should be pro-lifers. I’m a pro-lifer, but I don't believe that we should only stop defending life when they’re in the womb or when they just get out of the womb. I believe that we continue to defend life from the womb, yes. The kid in the womb cannot protect itself. It is our duty to protect the kid in the womb, and I don’t use the word fetus, I'm sorry. I call them children in the womb, but we protect them in the womb and when they are out of the womb, we continue to protect them by providing health care to their mother and to them, making sure that they have affordable health care, making sure that they have good schools where they live. All of these are life issues. And when they walk down the street, making sure they don’t get to lose their lives simply because they are Black or Brown. So that’s what the march is all about.
“That’s why I say, ‘We put our money where our mouth is,’ making sure that we go up there, and unite and lock arms together, and say there needs to be some level of reform. And I think we all agree that there’s some reform that needs to be done in the police department, just like reform needs to be done in the Church, right? When we had all the sex abuse scandals, there was a need for reform. Priests were called into question, and (to take) action, and they were asked to review how things (were done). Same thing, same call. Doesn’t matter if it’s the priests or the police. Same thing. If there is need for reform, there should be reform, and that’s why I’m calling for a reform. Not taking away money, or, you know, getting rid of police, nobody wants that.”
People of color – African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans – have been hardest hit by the health and economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. What does this say about our country, and what should our country do about this?
Father Cornelius Ejiogu – “It is shameful that a country this big, a country this wealthy, a country this beautiful, God’s own country, will let its own citizens, those who live here, die as a result of this coronavirus simply because we have not done what we are supposed to do, to give adequate health care for (the) Brown and Black community. It is shameful. And indeed, ‘What would Jesus do?’ Jesus would provide affordable care, health care for all people as much as He can, because if they have good health insurance, and if they have an opportunity to go to the hospital, maybe they could protect themselves. And we see that happening, and that’s why a lot of people, a lot of Black and Brown people, have died as a result of the coronavirus, because they all have pre-existing conditions. We all do. And we do because we don’t have the good grocery stores, where we can eat things that our body needs without spending all our money.
“I, as a person, I’ve lost parishioners here, I’ve lost friends due to COVID-19, and the pandemic is raging on, and yet we’re still not doing what we are supposed to do, and it’s all about health issues, it’s all about life issues. You know, we claim to love and defend life, and we see people dying as a result of (the coronavirus and health care disparities). It’s painful. It gets me emotional sometimes when I remember the men and women who we’ve lost this past couple of months. You know, as I’m talking to you, I buried over 22 parishioners and friends here in this church. Not all of them died of COVID-19, but we still see that discrimination when it comes to health care, and that plays into why Black and Brown people are dying in droves due to this COVID-19, because of the discrimination when it comes to health care.
“And so something needs to be done. I know Congress is still battling back and forth, and you know the health care we have now is not perfect. But rather than destroy it, I’m asking, why not reform it? Make it better. It’s just painful, it bleeds my heart, that we have to come to this.”
And many of the people, a lot of the essential workers who put their lives on the line during the pandemic were people of color, right?
Father Cornelius Ejiogu – “Yes, those who work in home health care, nurses, those who work in nursing homes, the majority are Black and Brown people. And (for) a lot of them, I remember the story of a young lady here in our parish who had to quarantine from her family for over 30 days, because it’s either keep the job or take something back to your family that may wipe out the family. And she had to make the decision of living somewhere away from her family. It’s painful, but I think all hope is not lost. I’m a big believer in humanity. I’m a big believer that we can be reformed, and we can actually reform the society and be more inclusive in our pursuit for the good.
“You know this country is such a beautiful country. I came to America because I loved America. I became a Josephite because I loved the African American communities. I read their stories, and when I had the opportunity to come to serve them, I didn’t mince words. I had the opportunity of serving elsewhere, but I chose this land because of what America has done, not only for my home country Nigeria, but what America has done for the world – peace, the justice that you have helped create in so many parts of the world. But to come and to see that sometimes that peace and that justice is not as it is inside like we portray (it) outside, that bleeds my heart.”
Cardinal-designate Gregory has noted that while the nation confronts the coronavirus, it must also address the virus of racism. What do you think the Catholic Church should do as an institution to combat racism, and what do you think individual Catholics should do?
Father Cornelius Ejiogu – “I think what we need to do as a Church to combat racism is, number one, we need to admit that we have been a racist Church. It’s hard to say, but you know I believe that the first step to healing is admittance. I don’t think that we have, as a Church, admitted that we have been racist. If those words come out of our mouth, and say we have been a racist Church towards others, that begins the process of healing. It means that we admit, but we have been around it, we have talked about it and talked around it.
“But have we admitted that Black men were not accepted to become priests here in the United States? Have we admitted that? You know, (Father) Augustus Tolton (the nation’s first identified Black Catholic priest) could not even be ordained here in the United States. Have we admitted that Charles Uncles had to wait for the Josephite community in order to become a priest?
“Have we admitted that many White priests in other communities refused to serve Black communities? Have we admitted that? But it took the pope to ask the Mill Hill Fathers to come to the United States from England to bring men to come and serve African American communities, and they started off at St. Francis in Baltimore. Have we as a Church admitted that was racism at play in the Church?
“Have we admitted the fact that the reason why we don't have so many Black Catholics is because we were some of the last, the last religious groups, to be able to be more inclusive and welcoming? That’s why a lot of our Black folks are Baptist and (in) other communities. So I think the first thing our Church needs to do is to admit that we haven’t been kind to one another, and once we have admitted that, then we show that we want to make a change in our actions, in our lives.
“Thank goodness, many more Black priests have now been ordained in the United States. We have many more bishops. There are so many good things that will come out of admitting. And then once we have done that, as a Church, and asked for forgiveness, then as individuals, as parishioners, as members of the faith, then we have to go back to our individual parishes, our individual communities, and talk about it, and say, now that we have admitted as a Church, that we have not done what were supposed to do, now, if I were a racist not only overtly but also covertly, sometimes it was open, sometimes it was covert, once we admit that, then we now go to the individual. What do I need to do to be able to combat this racism?
“Archbishop Gregory has been doing his best to be able to unite the Church, and he came to us when we were so divided and we were so broken, and we were almost lost as an archdiocese, and we forget that, but his presence has brought some kind of peace and calm.
“And hopefully, we can now individually, as individuals, go back and talk to ourselves and say, ‘Okay, what is it that I’m doing an individual, as a priest? What am I doing to be able to combat racism?’ Maybe by being more open, by being more truthful, being more inclusive in the Church. Not only talk about it in different groups, small and large groups, but be about it.
“We will not be able to solve the issue of racism in the next 100 years, but if each of us begins to go back and do the best we can by the way we look at each other, the way we talk about each other, the way we welcome each other. I pride myself here in the parish, I say, ‘If there’s anything I want this parish to be, is this parish to be a welcoming parish.’ That's all I wanted. I don’t care about how good my homily will be, I just want this church to be a church where anyone can come in, sit down and worship God, and go home without feeling that they are looked upon differently. And if I can achieve that, and if we as a church can achieve that, then we are already combating the evil and the sin of racism.”
Father Ejiogu is a member of the Josephites, a religious order that serves African American Catholic parishes in the United States. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)
How have you kept the faith, both your Catholic faith and your faith for our country, over the years, despite this “virus” of racism that has infected both, and what gives you hope for a better future for our Church and our country?
Father Cornelius Ejiogu – “I've kept my faith because I looked upon so many people who didn’t lose theirs, (like) Bishop John Ricard, you know he went through a lot of stress himself and the sin of racism, and he kept his faith. I remember another great man, Msgr. Raymond East, who despite what he has gone through, stood up and remained a joyful and a happy priest. These are some of the men that I’ve looked up to. And I’m saying to myself, ‘If these men can go through all the trials and tribulation in life, and they are still happy and joyful, then I can. I will, and I’ll continue to do (that).
“It doesn't mean that is easy as a pastor here, there’s been ups and downs, but I look at my parishioners who despite COVID-19 being so deadly, they still want to come to church. They still want the Masses live streamed for them. They still want Holy Hour live streamed. They still want to be on the phone and pray the rosary together. These are the people who have made me stay strong despite the hardship and permit me (to) understand that we come this far by faith if we lean on the Lord, if we trust in his holy word, because God never fails. That’s what the Bible tells us. God never fails. He abides in us. He gives us victory, and God never fails. And knowing the fact that God will not abandon us in times of trials, I know, has kept me going.
“And I hope that I continue to stay prayed up. I continue to stay in faith despite all the sins of racism. It’s not all that gloom and doom, I still have friends, I have colleagues, I have fellow priests who are not Blacks who are with me in the fight, who are for me in the fight and who are behind me in the fight. So, with this, I’m confident that we may not destroy racism, but with our faith we can chip at it piece by piece by our own very actions as individual.”
What is your reaction to Pope Francis naming Archbishop Gregory as one of 13 new cardinals in the Catholic Church on Oct. 25, one day after the archbishop celebrated Mass at St. Luke’s Parish? What does this mean to you, and what do you think it means to the nation’s Black Catholics?
Father Cornelius Ejiogu –“To be frank with you, when I got that email in the early hours on Sunday, that Archbishop Gregory had been named a cardinal, you needed to see me pump my fists and screaming in my room like a child who just picked up a gold coin. I was so excited. I was so happy, and I’m still excited. I’m still happy.
“When I broke the news to my parishioners at the 8:30 a.m. Mass, it was a standing ovation. People stood up, and they were clapping. I mean, it’s such a beautiful experience.
“These are some of the things that we talked about, when the first African American bishop becomes a cardinal, that shows that the Church is beginning to chip away from that sin of racism and exclusion, and the Church is becoming a little bit more inclusive.
“I’m so happy. I’m happy for him, not because he’s a Black man, but I’m happy for him because he’s a good man. You know, Pope Francis always says, ‘It's good for priests to smell like their sheep and the sheep that they serve,’ I think Archbishop Gregory is one of those leaders that smells like the sheep.
“People still have a lot of words to speak about him. He visited us on Saturday. We gave him a gift, and he right there opened it up and showed it to the people. I mean those little things make a lot of difference in people’s life, (showing) you are like us, you are excited about the gift that you got, and you are willing to share it with the rest of the world. It may look insignificant, but to people sitting in the pews, it makes a lot of sense that he will become a cardinal.
During an Oct. 24 visit to St. Luke Church in Washington, on the day before Pope Francis named him as a new cardinal, then-Archbishop Wilton Gregory received a statuette of Jesus washing the feet of His disciple, as a gift from the parish. (CS photo/Mihoko Owada)
“And so we thank the good Lord, and we’re happy for him. We are praying for him that he succeeds. You never know, who says that he can’t be the next pope? Just saying, but I’m really happy for him, and I sent him a message to thank him and congratulate him on behalf of the parish, and to say to him, that we will pray for him and (know) that he’ll remember us in his prayers, because his appointment tells us that at least we have somebody who look like us who can sit at the table with the pope and make decisions. And because we know that he is a people’s person, because we know he's a person who has a pastoral heart, we all now know that at least our Church is moving and resembling what Jesus Himself wanted His disciples to be, shepherds after His own heart.”