By Arlene Edmonds

Special to The CS&T

Kujenga is about building future leaders from the archdiocesan African-American Catholic community. The weekend event brings together 10th to 12th grade students who are already taking the lead in their parish or youth group and shows them how they can further fulfill their role.

This year’s event will bring together some 40 youngsters and adults over the weekend of March 20 to 22 at St. Therese of the Child Jesus Church in Mount Airy for a variety of spiritual and motivational activities.

“Kujenga is the Swahili word that means to build,” said Father Stephen D. Thorne, archdiocesan director of the Office for Black Catholics and pastor of St. Therese. “It is a leadership program that’s been going on for about 20 years. During one weekend each year African-American Catholic youths learn about their cultural heritage, about what is unique about them and how they are blessed in some way to take on a leadership role. We focus on family life because Kujenga is about the transmission of traditional values.”

The initiative is a rite-of-passage type of program. Each adolescent is teamed up with a group of adults who serve as their “family” for the weekend. They receive guidance, mentorship and advice from the adults. They attend Mass, enjoy performances like the Messiah Dancers and have opportunities to participate in the sacrament of reconciliation.

During the weekend all the student participants will learn about the seven principles of the Nguzo Saba, said Father Thorne. The seven principles are in the Kiswahili language of the Swahili people. They correspond with the seven principles of the African-American holiday Kwanzaa, which was developed in 1966. They are umoja or unity, kujichagulia or self-determination, ujima or collective work and responsibility, ujamaa or cooperative economics, nia or purpose, kuumba or creativity, and imani or faith.

The 2009 Kujenga organizer is Tonya Banks. She said it was around November 2007 that Father Thorne approached her about coordinating the annual event. Previously she had participated in Kujenga by serving as one of the elders to the weekend family units that have become a hallmark of the program. In fact, her brothers, Fred and Derrick, also participate in the program, and her son has gone through it as well.

“We really encourage these young people who are already showing themselves to be leaders to become more active in the Archdiocese,” said Banks. “Some are already lectors, altar servers or on their youth committees. We bring in different speakers who can present to them ways to expand…. It’s just an uplifting experience.”

Banks said she attended her first Kujenga program in 2001 on the heels of healing from a spanorce. She was drawn to the program because her son was still in high school, and she wanted him to draw closer to his Catholic faith. At Kujenga, they participated in the family pledge, naming ceremony and prayer. They were able to bond and return home more spiritually refreshed, she said.

This year’s participants will meet on Friday evening at St. Therese. There, they will board buses that will take them to Diamond Ridge Conference Center in Jamison for a full Saturday of workshops and activities. Among this year’s workshop facilitators are Father Thorne, John Odom, Angie Backlcok, Fred Banks and Boretta Singleton. They will return to St. Therese on Sunday, March 22, and participate in a 1 p.m. Mass celebrated with Father Thorne.

Arlene Edmonds is a freelance writer and St. Raymond of Penafort parishioner. She may be reached at