At Amanda Gorman’s Black Catholic LA parish, ‘it’s like everybody here is a freedom fighter’

At Amanda Gorman’s Black Catholic LA parish, ‘it’s like everybody here is a freedom fighter’

Video Courtesy of Amanpour and Company


At St. Brigid Catholic Church, the Rev. Kenneth Keke preaches that the gospel of Jesus Christ is not only about eternity, but about “having a human face, loving one another.” Keke’s message stresses unity and that a “common humanity is what we need for us to live in peace.”

“That is liberation theology and that is what we preach here,” said Keke, the St. Brigid priest from Nigeria.

This is the South Central Los Angeles church where 22-year-old Amanda Gorman, the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history, grew up singing in the youth choir, taking her sacraments and reciting her poetry.

Gorman, who graduated from Harvard University last year, captivated Americans with the recent recitation of her poem on national unity at President Joe Biden’s inauguration. Since that day, she has signed on with IMG modeling agency and has been invited to recite a poem at the Super Bowl on Feb. 7.

“She would always get standing ovations,” said Floy Hawkins, a parishioner and former director of religious education at St. Brigid. “We were in just as much awe of her then, as we were when we all witnessed her at the inauguration.”

St. Brigid, which established in a small rented house in 1920, has a rich history in Los Angeles.

“St. Brigid was one of the first parishes in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles that encompassed the entirety of Black Catholicism,” said Anderson Shaw, director of the African American Catholic Center for Evangelization.

What used to be an Irish parish is now a predominantly Black and Latino congregation where, Keke told Religion News Service, parishioners take pride in their community and often “push me to do something … to fight more.”

“We need to liberate our people more,” Keke said they tell him. “It’s like everybody here is a freedom fighter.”

St. Brigid is an Afrocentric Catholic church in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles that’s overseen by the Josephites — a religious community of Catholic priests and brothers that centers its ministry in African American communities. The Josephites formed in 1871 to meet the needs of newly freed people after the Civil War.

The Josephites arrived at the South Central LA parish in the late 1970s and early 1980s, after African Americans had migrated to the city from Louisiana and Southeast Texas in search of jobs at aircraft construction companies, said the Rev. Thomas Frank, vicar general of the Josephites, who served as pastor at St. Brigid from 2007 to 2011.

Frank said the Josephites took over the parish at the written request of African American Catholics in the area. The church, which could accommodate about 800 people, was struggling with dwindling attendance and was down to about 150 core parishioners, who were mostly Black but also included a significant number of Latinos.

With the Josephites’ arrival, the parish received its first African American priest, the Rev. William Norvell, as well as an Afro-Latino Jesuit priest, the Rev. Fernando Arizti, to connect with the Latino community, Frank said.

Hawkins came to St. Brigid around 1980 after her sister encouraged her to visit. She heard St. Brigid incorporated a gospel choir during Mass, and she thought, “A gospel choir at a Catholic church?” She decided to give St. Brigid a visit and has remained there ever since.

“The relevancy, the comfort of connecting in the community and the nuances of the actual Mass, it’s very culturally relatable,” Hawkins said.

During a typical pre-pandemic Mass, an ensemble wearing dashikis and headdresses would sound African drums to call parishioners to gather for worship. A gospel choir would follow, sending congregants to their feet as they danced and waved their arms, giving God praise, glory and honor.

Inside the church, a Black crucifix is suspended above the altar. Oil paintings of a Black Joseph holding his son, a Black Jesus, and of Martin Luther King Jr. hang on the walls of the parish.

St. Brigid has become known as a pillar in the community.

It’s a member of OneLA, an organization made up of Jewish temples, schools and other nonprofit groups that work to improve housing insecurity, public transportation and criminal justice reform. The church also turns into a voting center during elections and during the coronavirus pandemic has served as a COVID-19 testing site. St. Brigid also has a food distribution ministry.

To Hawkins, the church community was an ideal and welcoming worship space for her four children.

She recalled how Arizti opened up the church space to a Muslim mosque whose building had been damaged after an earthquake.

“That was amazing,” Hawkins said. “The church was a light to the surrounding community.”

Seeing Gorman in the national spotlight now, Hawkins remembers how the poet’s mother went to the church with her twin daughters, Amanda and Gabrielle, with the hope of exposing her children to a Catholic faith “that was relevant to their identity as African American.”

The Gorman sisters were in middle school, became part of the religious education program and stayed throughout their preparation for baptism, first Communion and confirmation, Hawkins said. Amanda Gorman would participate in the church’s Black history programs through her poetry.

“Her mother was very intentional about her girls,” Hawkins said. “That was very clear, and as a result, her girls were very responsive to the African American worship experience.”

“This is a very humble family,” Hawkins added. “They’re a family that loves to share, but they are not imposing people.”

Gabrielle Gorman has made her own strides, in the filmmaking industry. Last year, she edited and directed a voting public service announcement, #Vote4theFuture, in collaboration with her sister, featuring self-taped clips from celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Cara Delevingne and Mahershala Ali. Her work, focusing on social change, has been featured in EssenceBustle and NPR.

In a video created by Gabrielle Gorman, a graduate of UCLA’s School of Film and Television, the sisters deliver a message of solidarity with images of diverse people and protesters across the city of LA. The video shows Amanda Gorman reciting a poem in the bus and in the middle of protesters:

“This is my country-Catholic grandmother on bus-defending hijab-wearing girl-immigrant learning a new language-Native remembers an old one rarely spoken in this world. This is who we are …”

In the days leading up to Jan. 20, Keke said parishioners were calling him to let him know “their very own Amanda Gorman” would be the one reciting a poem at the momentous ceremony. Enthusiasm was high.

“Everybody was excited for the opportunity Amanda received,” Keke said. “There was no doubt that she would do well. She grew to become very articulate and bold.”

Reflecting back on Gorman’s inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb,” Keke said it was about “democracy and unity,” and the importance of “living in the country as one people, recognizing one another and respecting one another.”

“That is the spirit of St. Brigid,” Keke said.

Months into COVID-19, funeral directors and clergy continue to innovate death care

Months into COVID-19, funeral directors and clergy continue to innovate death care

Video Courtesy of VICE News


Norman J. Williams has been in the funeral industry business long enough to remember how the HIV epidemic changed not only the way they cared for bodies, but also for those who lost loved ones to the deadly virus.

“We wanted to be compassionate. We wanted to be professional. We wanted to be understanding. We wanted to be nonjudgemental,” said Williams, president and funeral director of Unity Funeral Parlors in Chicago, a family business operating for more than 80 years.

There was stigma then, and to some degree, Williams said, that kind of shame still exists today as illness can sometimes be seen as a sign of poverty, bad behavior or misfortune.

“We learned we can do all of those things and still wear gloves and protective garments and still be careful how we treat the deceased, and recognize that how we behave is just as important as what we do,” Williams said.

These principles continue to guide Williams and his staff during the coronavirus pandemic that has claimed tens of thousands of lives in the United States.

Nearly five months since COVID-19 spurred lockdowns and shelter-in-home policies, funeral homes, green burial conservations and houses of faith are continuing to innovate and adjust to a new normal for death care. And they’re doing all of this adjusting while states reevaluate their plans for reopening as the number of coronavirus infections swells in certain areas of the country.

Early on in the pandemic, it wasn’t uncommon to see refrigerated trucks storing dead bodies in New York City as communities struggled with an increasing number of corpses.

Now, refrigerated trucks are being dispatched to funeral homes in Texas and more rural areas, said Barbara Kemmis, executive director of the Cremation Association of North America.

Kemmis said there’s increasing confusion among her members surrounding the different reopening stages in local regions across the country. CANA has about 3,300 members, including funeral homes, cemeteries and crematories.

As states reopen, one funeral home in one county may be allowed to host gatherings with 50% capacity, while a funeral home on another neighboring county could only host at 25% capacity.


Erika Bermudez becomes emotional as she leans over the grave of her mother, Eudiana Smith, after she was buried in Bayview Cemetery, Saturday, May 2, 2020, in Jersey City, New Jersey. Bermudez was not allowed to approach the gravesite until after cemetery workers had buried her mother completely. Other members of the family and friends stayed in their cars. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)


For Kemmis, knowing there have been COVID-19 outbreaks at funeral homes and churches has provided clarity on what they can and can’t do.

“Since we know that, everyone is trying to do their best, but it’s hard,” Kemmis said. “Funeral directors, they bend over backwards to give grieving families what they want.”

Kemmis has seen funeral homes hosting drive-thru viewings or visitations, with caskets placed under tents as family and friends drive by slowly, view the deceased and share their condolences at a distance.

In other occasions, funeral homes on cemetery property have put up large movie screens in the parking lot so crowds of people can watch the services from their cars.

Kemmis knows many people would like to hold off on memorial services for loved ones until they can meet again in person, but she believes it’s important to hold some kind of service — even a virtual one — soon after a death. Kemmis’ grandmother recently passed, and, she said, logging on to her memorial was comforting.

Not doing anything, Kemmis said, “is unfortunate because even if we had a Zoom gathering and shared memories, that would be a way to comfort each other.”

In Nashville, Larkspur Conservation, a nonprofit that conserves land and promotes natural burial, is working to find ways of preserving the “participatory element” of green or natural burials.

Loved ones typically lower the casket or shrouded body into the grave. They also fill the grave themselves, said David Ponoroff, assistant director of Larkspur Conservation.

Ponoroff said before a family buries their loved ones, Larkspur staff identifies who will be participating in the burial. Each person then gets a color-coded shovel that only they will be able to use.

“We’re trying to be creative about the ways that we’re doing the work, to make sure people who come are still able to find the meaningful, beautiful ways they get to be part of burial,” Ponoroff said.

At Unity Funeral Parlors, Williams has seen how modified visitations, or wake services, have still allowed for friends and loved ones to gather to see the deceased in a socially distanced manner.

Norman J. Williams. Photo by Bill Healy/WBEZ

In Illinois, in-person gatherings were at one point limited to 10 people or less.

During visitation services, Williams said people have been able to greet survivors and see the deceased in a come-and-go manner.

“Many people still wanted a traditional service with the body present, for burial or cremation,” Williams said. “They would be able to see the body, confront death, say a word to the survivors, but not stay.”

Williams said this has offered an “opportunity for more than 10 people to participate in honoring a life because they didn’t do it all in one time.”

To make other accommodations, Williams purchased a large TV to help broadcast services on Zoom.

In one Zoom service, 10 people were in the chapel while 50 others participated by reading scripture and offering tributes from their homes.

The funeral home chapel seats 200 people, leaving attendees enough space to socially distance. But, the hardest part, Williams said, “is a natural inclination to want to hug and to comfort and express compassion.”

“That was very difficult to resist, that urge to do that,” he said.

Another issue the industry is grappling with is the high cost of burial services, Williams said. At a time when many people may be out of work due to COVID-19, Williams said more people are choosing cremation because the cost of cemetery space continues to increase.

“It has increased at a rate that has exceeded their ability to save for it or plan for it,” Williams said.

But one thing Williams said remains constant is the need for spiritual companionship, even if from a distance. Clergy, he said, are having to redefine their presence.

“Sometimes it’s going to have to be in the funeral chapel. Sometimes it’s going to have to be curbside,” he said. “Their presence is still important …  There’s still a lot of desire to have that presence.”

For the Rev. Susan Russell, a priest at All Saints Church in Pasadena, California, navigating death care while adhering to social distancing has gotten a bit easier.

“There is a collective recognition that this is what we have to do right now,” Russell said.

But, she added, “It’s been one of the most challenging places for clergy to be in this time.”

In recent months, the church has lost parishioners to dementia, cancer and other illnesses.

“When it came time for them to pass, they were doing it on their own,” she said.

Ashes of some who have passed remain in a sanctuary space at All Saints, waiting for the time when loved ones can gather for services, Russell said.

While houses of worship in California can reopen for services at 25% of building capacity, or a maximum of 100 attendees, All Saints has not resumed in-person gatherings.

But, Russell said, just because their faithful can’t currently gather in person for rituals with candles, vestments and liturgy, it doesn’t make moments less holy.

Recently, Russell accompanied and prayed over a couple through Zoom after they suffered a miscarriage. While she wasn’t with them in person, “I know it was a holy moment to be present with this couple,” she said.

“As hard as this is, I believe we’re being reminded that the power of God’s love to bind us together is greater than even our most beloved rituals, liturgies and traditions,” Russell said.