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Youth Group Helps Unite Spiritual Community After Katrina

by Greg Tucker

As residents returned to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, a group of young black Catholics from the Archdiocese of New Orleans formed the IMANI Team (IMANI meaning “faith” or “belief” in Swahilli), a youth group from black Catholic parishes and schools that united to serve the African-American community of the archdiocese, to encourage and to help rebuild a sense of spiritual community and renewal across the Crescent City. The efforts by this group of young leaders are being recognized with a 2012 Martin Luther King Drum Major for Service award.

Establishing any kind of group in the months following Katrina was challenging, as many residents faced the basic challenges of day-to-day living. Youth minister and team leader Ansel Augustine knew that the rebuilding efforts would require more than hammers and nails to recover from the devastation Katrina left behind.

Many residents, like Augustine, struggled with homelessness in the initial weeks and months after returning to New Orleans and needed a familiar place to call home. The churches in their parishes filled that role, and became local gathering spots.

About 100 IMANI members worked on leadership teams, planned youth group gatherings like an annual skate party, hosted out-of-town groups involved in the recovery effort, and participated in the archdiocese choir and annual revival.

In team meetings, members also discussed issues that were relevant to black Catholic youth in the church and in the greater community. One of the topics that the group tackled was the separation of the races at masses and youth events, even though they share the same beliefs.

The team's efforts helped demystify the customs and differences in styles of worship in the African American congregations – like the inclusion of gospel choirs during black services -- and break down barriers that kept the races apart.

Augustine explained that, at first, free food was a big draw for youth who came to the meetings. But as time passed, the spirit of community grew as they began to see the benefits of being involved.

“There is more respect and understanding for the way we worship as black Catholics,” said Augustine, adding that the black congregations feel that they are a respected part of the church.

Now the majority of churches are sending youth to leadership events, and they better reflect the makeup of the community at large. The archdiocese has even added a gospel choir that all are welcome to join.

Before Katrina, only two of the black Catholic churches were involved in city-wide programs -- now all 17 are represented. Plus many of the youth from the IMANI Team have moved on to other leadership positions in the archdiocese and now help plan programs in which they once participated.

IMANI Team member Chris Keys, who joined the group four years ago at age 15, has noticed the difference.

“It made me a better leader. And it showed me that if you work hard and do what you have to do, things can change,” he said. “There are more blacks on the leadership board and they listen to us more now.”

Augustine applauds the group for their growth and how their work helped improve the level of understanding among people from diverse groups and different backgrounds in the archdiocese. Once the group saw that people believed in them, they wanted to do more to help the community -- and that helped turn them into leaders who have inspired other youth who will someday fill their shoes.

“As the young people get older, they want to come back to help because they realize that people care about them,” said Augustine. He believes the group is helping to change the perception of youth and young people across the city, and Augustine is proud to be able to share their story.

“A lot of people want to focus on the bad apples. These are the good apples.”

The IMANI Team MLK Drum Major award recipients include John Smestad, Jr.; team leader Ansel Augustine; Bennetta Horne; Kevin Coleman, Jr.; Ayana Boudreaux; Helen Bloodworth; Brian Cooper; Daniel Green; Remy Jones; Mary Boutte'; Tiffany Martin; Gabrielle Freels; Felicia Boucree; and Chris Keys.

The Martin Luther King Drum Majors for Service program gives organizations and groups an opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate those volunteers who perform extraordinary everyday acts of service with reliability and commitment, but who seldom receive recognition. Drum Major awardees receive an award from Corporation for National and Community Service designating that person as a “Drum Major for Service” with the Presidential Volunteer Service Award.

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