Following a series of fortuitous events (facilitated, she is quite sure, by the Holy Spirit), Dione Grillo found herself surrounded by more fellow African American Catholics than she had ever seen gathered in one place in her entire life. The experience was both beautiful and spiritually uplifting, filling her with a range of unexpected emotions and a newfound sense of “connection.”

“There was such a sense of community, such a sense of familiarity — it was a truly communal [encounter], feeling like you were in the bosom of a community,” Grillo described to Angelus News about her early July experience. “It’s about being able to go and be with people who have a similar life experience.”

Grillo was among more than 2,000 delegates from across the U.S. who gathered in Orlando, Florida, July 6-9 for the 12th National Black Catholic Congress (NBCC), which is presented every five years. The theme for 2017 was “The Spirit of the Lord is Upon Me: Act Justly, Love Goodness and Walk Humbly with Your God.”

For Grillo, coordinator of advanced catechetical ministries and basic catechist formation for the Office of Religious Education of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, her first-ever NBCC gathering was a memorable succession of back-to-back “wow” and “aha” moments — beginning with the first time she attended a Catholic liturgy led by a U.S.-born African American bishop.

“I never realized how important it was until I saw him,” she recalled, pausing as she choked back tears. “I thought, ‘I get it now.’ I always say that representation matters, but it wasn’t until I saw [that] bishop leading us in the liturgy — so knowledgeable, such a man of God, but also a man of color.

“That was the first moment that stood out,” she added. “I think it was at that moment that I realized that maybe this is more important to me than I realized.”

Notable NBCC speakers included Bishop Edward K. Braxton, bishop of Belleville, Illinois; Father Maurice Emelu, founder of Gratia Vobis Ministries, Inc., a global ministry for New Evangelization; Dr. Tricia Bent-Goodley, a renowned speaker and professor at Howard University; and Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, who praised black Catholics for “raising their voice in support of social justice and all the commands of the Gospels.”

The workshop and presentation topics addressed throughout the NBCC included discussions about Catholic faith/spirituality — such as the power of prayer and the meaning of the holy Eucharist — but also explored a wide range of issues related to race/multiculturalism and social justice, such as leadership, domestic violence, mental illness, prison ministry, mass incarceration, the racial divide and the challenges and opportunities facing black families and more.

According to Valerie Washington, executive director of the NBCC, the overall goal of the gathering was for “Congress XII attendees [to] learn about issues impacting our brothers and sisters, and [then] leave Congress equipped to serve and better [those] situations. … That is what the Congress theme — ‘Act Justly, Love Goodness and Walk Humbly with Your God’ — is all about.”

Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and archbishop emeritus of Cape Coast in Ghana, presented the keynote address on July 7. Drawing on the theme of the NBCC, he described the Holy Spirit as a force for the “reintegration and re-enfranchisement of all of God’s children in a mission of inclusion — leaving no one on the periphery.”

Ministering to those on the peripheries was an important message conveyed at both the NBCC and during the Convocation of Catholic Leaders, which was held just days earlier, also in Orlando, noted Anderson F. Shaw, director of the African American Catholic Center for Evangelization (AACCFE) in Los Angeles.

“This whole concept of evangelization, starting at home and then reaching out to those on the peripheries” — including the homeless, those with same-sex attractions and other groups who are being (or feeling) left out of the Church — “this is what missionary discipleship is all about,” explained Shaw, who attended both gatherings. “We even incorporated what we discussed [about missionary discipleship] into the new [NBCC] pastoral priorities plan.”

For Shaw, who was one of several individuals from dioceses and archdioceses across the U.S. who collaborated on the NBCC pastoral priorities, the joint effort was a major highlight of the NBCC. “[Archbishop José H. Gomez] asked me if I would represent the Archdiocese of Los Angeles,” he said.

The group members commissioned to work together on the pastoral priorities met several times throughout the four-day gathering to share and discuss ideas, and the final version of the plan “took a lot of deliberation,” noted Shaw.

The updated pastoral plan addresses existing concerns and long-term goals to provide a general guideline for moving forward in faith and community for African American Catholics, he said. Highlights include:

> We commit ourselves to dismantle racism in all forms, which is an obstacle to justice and evangelization. We also commit ourselves to address the challenges of mental illness, mass incarceration, domestic violence and others.

> We commit ourselves to love goodness by sharing our faith with others using creative ways, especially social media, as we evangelize in our community.

> We commit ourselves to listen and respond to the needs of the youths and young adults in our community as we pass on this legacy of our faith.

“The NBCC was [initially] started in an attempt to create a vision and a pastoral plan for the African American Catholic community and so that has been the backdrop for all the congresses,” said Shaw. “At every congress there are always a lot of fantastic speakers, a lot of great friends from across the country and different liturgies and other great things going on, but if you don’t have something to bring back home to share with people as you move through the next five years, then maybe [the NBCC] was just a wonderful gathering and that’s where it ends.”

To help ensure that the hope and enthusiasm cultivated during this year’s congress doesn’t dissipate over the coming months and years, NBCC staff members will be working on developing specific strategies to accompany the pastoral priorities, to put its components into action, according to Shaw.

Grillo said she is eagerly looking forward to suggestions for “practical, concrete steps to help put that hope into action, to put those good feelings into action, so that I can be a positive influence in my community and in the world.”

“[Realizing] there are still so many communities that are underserved — including mine — what that meant for me as a minister, as a woman of God, as an African American woman was a very humbling experience,” she said. “We have a lot of work to do. … It’s a social justice issue. … Who is on the peripheries? Who is not at the table? — or who feels like they don’t have a seat at the table?”

It’s about “being intentional” in reaching out to those who are underserved, she added, “to make them feel invited” so they won’t fall away from the Church.