On November 16th the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) presented the 2021 Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award to Ogechi Akalegbere of the Archdiocese of Washington. Ogechi was honored for her work to empower low-income parents and to help parishes understand equity and racism with the CCHD-Supported group Action in Montgomery (AIM). To learn more about the Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award, please see the USCCB press release. Ogechi's remarks offer reflections on the call to work for justice and peace in our communities:
Thank you, Bishop O’Connell, Cardinal Gregory, and the Subcommittee on the Catholic Campaign for Human Development for this award. Before I can stand here and share of myself. Before I can truly give thanks, I have to invite in the One who works through all things that inspire me, all things that frighten but push me. I must call upon the One who moves and shakes up my life for good.
Let us pray,
Holy Spirit illuminator of the margins, balm for weary Souls.
Holy Spirit giver of wisdom, ignitor of courage.
Holy Spirit comforter in the valleys and champion during the hilltop victories of our days.
I call upon you in thanksgiving and praise. For you are indeed… (sung) “Waymaker, miracle worker, promise keeper, light in the darkness...that is who you are” 3x
As you would have read I am a proud Nigerian American who stands here in awe and thanks for this honor.
I grew up having an understanding of God through encounters with people that God has placed in my life and moments that are nothing more than sacramental moments. My personal faith has always included themes of charity, justice, culture, and encounter.
The Holy Spirit has pointed me along paths to serve the community around me. My first large-scale exposure to the impact of advocacy was in high school. Someone had just spoken at the end of Mass about Maryland’s proposed Dream Act and an action that was taking place that day. I was getting ready to go off to college and the thought that some of my peers were ineligible to pay in-state tuition because of their immigration status, frankly, boiled my biscuits. It was also the first time I recognized that even though our lives as immigrants and first-generation Americans were not at all easy, I had the privilege and a duty to do something with it as a naturalized citizen.
That exposure encouraged my thirst to know more about the experiences of the undocumented and other individuals in the margins. It led to working, in college, to help get individuals in the Hill District of Pittsburgh registered to vote. I enjoyed stopping and engaging in conversations. Those conversations were what made me learn of the many inequities I missed doing general charity projects. I learned of transportation issues and food deserts that existed and saw the first taste of gentrification that has grown in Pittsburgh today. Once again I felt the responsibility to use my privilege to advocate for those I encountered, many of whom were ineligible to vote due to previous incarcerations. They couldn’t vote but I voted for their best interests and once again recognized the responsibility of my privilege.
It was only natural that I would have joined the CCHD-funded organization Action in Montgomery, or AIM, after returning home from college. The Holy Spirit loves a full-circle moment. The relational component of organizing came naturally to me. If you are unfamiliar with AIM, it is a broad-based, non-partisan, multi-faith, multi-racial community power organization rooted in Montgomery County’s neighborhoods and congregations. There are three lessons that I have learned from community organizing that I hold dear to me in my social justice work.
The first is to never do for others that which they could do for themselves. That was a philosophy that was ingrained in me as I began working with action in Montgomery and it's a philosophy that is rooted in our Catholic understanding of subsidiarity.
The second is to fall in love with tension and discomfort. At times you may be the only or one of few courageous enough to hold those at the seat of power accountable or to point out inconsistencies or inequities. The Holy Spirit emboldens us, just as He has for saints before us, in those moments.
The last is that one person’s story can truly change the world. I have learned this from reading and studying Holy women and men I admire. I think of women like Adamma who I had the honor of doing a relational meeting with years ago and feeling her hidden power, who now leads her community to provide accessible covid testing and vaccines, and speaks up in front of elected officials. Stories told are windows into the experiences of our neighbors. How do we truly know our neighbors if we don’t GET TO KNOW them? What keeps them up at night? What prevents them from thriving. Funding from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development has helped AIM expand its ability to reach into the would-be margins of our county and call in those deemed voiceless into that collective power of voice and accountability. Recently Pope Francis spoke of Collective Samaritans in his address to participants in the IV World Meeting of Popular Movements. I am proud to be a part of groups like AIM which allow us to be those Collective Samaritans to our neighbor.
My work in organizing encouraged me to become trained as an equity facilitator and trainer for my county. It has since grown into my current role as a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion practitioner and speaker for parishes and schools. I am honored that the Lord has seen it fit that I do good things for others.
The Holy Spirit challenges all of us gathered here today. Dear Bishops, I ask that you never grow comfortable. We all must never ever grow comfortable. Tension and discomfort marked so much of the Gospels.
We look to you all for hope and guidance. In your leadership be a witness to solidarity and subsidiarity, get in the trenches of your dioceses, and truly engage in deep encounters with people of ALL backgrounds and cultures. Not for an event or a moment but deep encounters and exchanges that elicit the depths of the other’s humanity. Be a weaver, not a shredder of the beautiful tapestry of our faith.
Disciples will never be comfortable if we are doing justice right. Listen to the stirring of the Holy Spirit and act with strength and courage.
Thank you again for this honor. I pray we are all fiercely and joyfully seeking deeper encounters with each other and inviting more young leaders and organizations into the work of love in action through justice.
Watch Ogechi deliver these remarks at a reception on November 16, 2021, during the U.S. Bishop's 2021 Fall General Assembly.