Seven lay ecclesial ministers were commissioned in late May, the first commissioned class to complete the Br. Booker Ashe Lay Ministry Program. The program, the only one of its kind in the area, stemmed from the commitment of the Black Religious and Clergy of Wisconsin to bring recognition to the contributions of black Catholics, address black Catholic history and offer support.

If you want to go:

Classes are held on Wednesday evenings from 6:45 to 9 p.m. in Milwaukee at St. Martin de Porres Parish, 3114 N. 2nd St.

For more information, contact Colleen Crane, Capuchin Province of St. Joseph (414) 416-4284.

According to Sr. Callista Robinson, a Franciscan Sister of the Little Falls, the Br. Booker Ashe Lay Ministry Program which began in January 2007, signaled a re-establishment of a lay ministry program for black Catholics in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.

“This program bears the name of the late Br. Booker Ashe, a Capuchin religious brother and founder of the House of Peace in Milwaukee,” she said. “This is a three and a half-year course of study which forms students who are laity, religious and clergy in meaningful and effective ministry with the black community and fosters new leadership among black people.”

Seven lay ministers commissioned

After participating in the course, seven lay ecclesial ministers were commissioned in late May at St. Benedict the Moor Church, Milwaukee. Students Peggy Bowles, St. Martin de Porres Parish; Earl Bracy, All Saints Parish; Armitta Kilgore, St. Benedict the Moor Parish; Minnie Linyear, St. Martin de Porres Parish; Carma Teasley, St. Martin de Porres Parish; Jolie Zimmer, All Saints Parish; and Henry Bowles, St. Martin de Porres Parish, studied the Old and New Testaments, black spirituality, social justice, servant leadership, Catholic social teaching and canon law.

While the Br. Booker Ashe program is relatively new, Black Catholic Lay leadership programs are not.

“There was a program founded in 1989 by the late (Marist) Br. Joseph Hager,” said Sr. Callista. “The program had 31 graduates from 1989 until 2003. (School Sister of Notre Dame) Sr. Shawnee Daniels Sykes, the fourth director of the (archdiocesan) African American Ministry Office, changed the name of the Black Catholic Lay Leadership Program to the Lincoln and Julia Valle Lay Leadership Program. The name was changed to honor the two black Catholic lay people who came from Chicago in 1908 to Milwaukee to evangelize black people.”

After difficulty in procuring instructors, the program was discontinued in 2003.

Program offered to all Catholics

While geared toward African-Americans, the Br. Booker Ashe program is open to Catholics of any ethnic group.

P7LAYMIN10-14-10-AFr. John Celichowski, Capuchin provincial minister, blesses the Bibles, crosses, candles, kente clothes and certificates during the commissioning ceremony, May 22 at St. Benedict the Moor Church, Milwaukee. (Catholic Herald Photo by Matt Dixon)“The Booker Ashe Lay Ministry Program is designed to engage, enrich and celebrate the traditions of the church as well as the reality of being a black Catholic from a theological, spiritual, historical, social, philosophical and psychological perspective as these impact contemporary pastoral practice and life,” explained Sr. Callista.

When retired Latin teacher Jolie Zimmer became involved in the lay ministry program it was to broaden her mind and learn about the culture and struggles of the black Catholics praying next to her in the pew each Sunday at All Saints.

The fact that Zimmer, 64, and a life-long Catholic is white made no difference to her or the rest of the class. Her reasons for taking the course were to deepen her faith and connect with others around her neighborhood and the world.

“We are one in the spirit and are joined at the heart of our faith, and I have learned so much about myself, about theology and looking through the lens of African Americans,” she said. “I have also the extra wonderful dimension to have new friends, new connections and go deeper with myself inward and outward.”

While she had no grandiose aspirations for taking the weekly course, the education on black Catholic history gave her a greater appreciation of African Americans’ struggle to join the faith and to remain grounded in Catholicism.

Course gave her confidence to get involved

“The church has been part of their culture, but unfortunately it has been flawed along the way in that women and men were not able to join certain parishes and not being allowed to enter different religious orders,” said Zimmer. “Taking this course gave me the confidence to step forward in my parish, such as becoming the hospitality minister, and taking on more in RCIA.”

Although after completion of the course, students often take on a greater role in their parishes, Zimmer acknowledges that the course’s primary goal is to bring students into a deeper awareness of their faith.

“From going deeper, the growth, the faith becomes internal and if you are going to be in ministry, it has to be internal, too,” she said. “Once you progress yourself as a human being, you are hopefully more willing to quietly step forward in a more meaningful way.”

As a teacher for so many years, Zimmer realized through the course that she was more oriented toward giving and sharing and being the boss, rather than as an open recipient.

“I have had to learn that part of myself such as organizing and being the boss of the classroom is not the only part of me,” she admitted. “Other parts of me are underdeveloped. This was the perfect time for me to take this course because I retired and now I have a chance to be of service to the church and develop a part of me that hasn’t been developed.”

With a new appreciation of her faith as a Catholic, Zimmer is excited to have the knowledge and compassion to share it with others, no matter their ethnicity.

“To be able to share the root of your belief system, your view of the world, and to be sharing that with someone else as a Catholic Christian is just the icing on the cake,” she said. “The whole journey has been interesting and nothing like I have experienced before.”

God is calling her to leadership

When 61-year-old Carma Teasley, St. Martin de Porres administrative assistant completed the class, she realized that God had called her to leadership, and with everyone – not simply within the black community.

“I don’t see the color,” she said. “I see that with what I do in youth ministry that I minister to whatever child is open to receive the message we have for them. At our ministry at St. Martin, we have many more kids than just African American youth – and I love all of them.”

Teasley, who also serves as an extraordinary minister of holy Communion, said the course is an opportunity to take ownership of the parishes and to continue educating young people in faith, and as the future – encouraging them to take ownership.

“I learned a lot of things when I went through this, it was so deep,” she said. “They had the most wonderful presenters and teachers.”

As a convert from the Baptist faith to Catholicism, Teasley had a quest to learn more of church history, doctrine and canon law.

“I will never know all of it, of course,” she said, adding, “But my interest was there and I figured that whatever I learned I could pass on to the youth so they could get a better understanding of the faith and more of an interest.”

Dream is colorless Catholic Church

While her dream is a colorless Catholic Church, Teasley said there have been many times when black Catholics, especially the youth, are ignored, or treated differently than other ethnicities. Sifting through the pain of apathy, Teasley and other black Catholics reflect on the greater call and purpose for their lives.

“It seems that we have a lot of wonderful kids who are doing great things, and yet the black kids don’t get credit for the positive things they do,” she said. “But if something goes wrong, there is a lot of attention. There are times when people ask the kid why they are Catholic, but we arm them with answers and the pride that we feel in being black Catholics.”

Teasley credits her faith with getting her through difficult times, such as the day she developed a rare tissue condition, similar to Fibromyalgia, that nearly landed her in a wheelchair.

“It appeared for no rhyme or reason, and I always tried to eat healthy, exercise, and was a non-smoker,” she said. “If I had given up and not prayed and relied on God for my strength, I would most likely have deteriorated and be in a wheelchair today.”

Course may ‘unlock hidden passion’

Armed with the deeper spirituality she developed throughout the Br. Brother Booker Ashe Lay Ministry Program, Teasley said she is more confident facing these challenges in her life, and she wants to share that message with others.

“I try to tell the kids they don’t have to succumb to obstacles and trials, because those are there for a reason and that is to make you stronger,” she explained. “As long as you can stand up – that’s good. That is what God wants you to do.”

Teasley encourages anyone interested in deepening their faith, learning about African American spirituality and their struggles to take the course – after all, she said, it may unlock a hidden passion.

“If you think about all the different areas in the church that you work or you might want to work and then take this course, you may realize that with this new knowledge, maybe the direction you were in was not really your passion,” she said. “Taking this course can open up many different passions for you.”