Music weaves conference together
“Mercy in Mission” was the official theme of the 2016 Mission Education Conference but the thread that wove the theme together was music: music that brought history to life, music that drew participants out of their chairs to clap, dance and sing along, and music that brought people –– from a variety of faith traditions –– together in prayer.
Held October 10-11 in northern Mississippi, this was the US Province’s eighth Mission Education Conference and the second one hosted by Sacred Heart Southern Missions.
Mission Education is a time for employees and other collaborators in SCJ ministry to learn about Fr. Leo John Dehon, founder of the Priests of the Sacred Heart, as well as the congregation that carries on his dreams. It is also a time for co-workers across the country to get to know one another and learn how they are a part of the worldwide mission of the Priests of the Sacred Heart.
The gymnasium at Sacred Heart School in Southaven, Miss., was filled when the opening prayer began on Monday morning. A choir of teachers and staff from Holy Family School in Holly Springs, Miss., directed by the school’s principal, Clara Isom, led the conference in the first of many songs that would be sung during the two days.
Fr. Jack Kurps, SCJ, executive director of SHSM, welcomed participants and then directed their attention to a video inspired by the 1960s television show “Mission Impossible.” Those gathered learned about a mission that WAS and IS possible: the mission of carrying on the dreams of Fr. Leo John Dehon. Making an appearance in the video was the superior general of the congregation, Fr. Heiner Wilmer, SCJ.
And then it was on to an interview with the founder himself: Fr. Dehon as “channeled” by David Schimmel, province director of Dehonian Associates. Reflecting on how the mission of the congregation must continually adapt to meet the needs of the times, “Fr. Dehon” reminded those gathered that “the situations of life continue to change and so must our responses. It is important to do what we can in the moment, and to accomplish it with much love. This is the meaning of the SCJ cross with a heart shape cut out of it.
“From the Heart of Jesus I drew compassion for all the infirmities of my brothers and sisters. I pray that all Priests of the Sacred Heart, and those who collaborate with them, will remain united to this Divine Heart in order to practice works of mercy with him.” [Click here to read a transcript of the interview with Fr. Dehon.]
The conference then heard from some of the many people who now carry on Fr. Dehon’s mission to “practice works of mercy.” Fr. Quang Nguyen, SCJ, spoke about the economic realities that exacerbate the challenges not only of the poorest of our country, but of the middle class as well.
Shakebra Young, director of the SHSM social service office in Hernando, shared her story of rising from the poverty of the Mississippi Delta to attend college and eventually earn a Ph.D. “I was like so many of our clients at Sacred Heart Southern Missions,” she said. “I know that all lives matter and that all of us have reason for hope. That is what we can do for others, help them to find hope and realize that a better future is possible.”[Dr. Young has written a book about her experience as a single mother titled A Single Mother’s Journey from Suffering to Glory: My Testament of Faith. Click here to learn more about it.]
Music brings history to life
There was no post-lunch snoozing when Ekpe, a self-described musical philanthropist, walked into the Sacred Heart gymnasium. Dressed in colorful African garments he moved among the crowd, playing traditional instruments of the continent. On stage the entertainer became an educator, sharing the history of African Americans as found in music, beginning with the songs of slaves to the blues found the famed Beale Street in Memphis. He was eventually joined on stage by some of Beale Street’s best, closing with Herbie Hancock’s classic “Watermelon Man” with conference participants on their feet and joining in on the song’s signature line.
Interspersed throughout both days of the conference were panel discussions facilitated by Sr. Cathy Bertrand, SSND, a member of the SHSM board of directors. The discussions were a way to bring to life the many ministries of Sacred Heart Southern Missions through personal accounts. Those helped by outreach programs spoke about how they in turn were inspired to “pay it back” and help others. Teachers and students talked about the Dehonian charism and how they have shared it with other SCJ institutions around the world through Schools in Collaboration. Participants in the province’s first “Spiritual Path” sessions, a monthly meeting format in which people of any faith or background can learn about Dehonian Spirituality, talked about their experience of learning about the charism and about each other.
Panelist Josephine Clark embodies much of the history of Sacred Heart Southern Missions. She spoke about how mother was a sharecropper who sought work after enduring a landowner who seemed to always take more than his fair share of her crops. She found a job in the SHSM office which was close to their home in the area where Dehon Village now stands. As a girl, Josephine also worked at the office. She has now been with SHSM over 40 years and has experienced social outreach from both sides of the equation.
“We are in the mercy business,” said Kelly Tartt, talking about the SHSM volunteer program during another of the panel discussions. Each year hundreds of volunteers spend a week or more helping SHSM do everything from major home repair to office work. “We renew hope. People come to us at their wits end, on the verge of losing their home, sometimes in fear of breaking apart their family. We share mercy together and move forward together.”
“I could sit here all day and tell stories of mercy,” added SHSM Project Manager Paul Smith.
Bishop Joseph Kopacz, bishop of the Diocese of Jackson, and Mary Woodward, diocesan chancellor, joined the conference to talk about the Church in Mississippi. Noting how widespread his diocese is, encompassing much of the State of Mississippi, Bishop Kopacz expressed his gratitude to Sacred Heart Southern Missions. Its ministries, including parishes, social service programs and schools, reach across northwestern Mississippi.
The bishop was the main celebrant at Mass on Monday afternoon at Holy Spirit Church in Hernando. After, he joined conference participants for a catered dinner at the parish hall that featured the blues music of local musician Sean Appel.
On Tuesday, Mission Education was based at Holy Family School in Holly Springs. Besides the panel discussions already noted, the day included a presentation by David Schimmel on images of the Sacred Heart, and a “Live Wax Museum” of historical African Americans acted out by Holy Name students.
Lunch was a homemade southern Thanksgiving meal topped off with sweet potato pie prepared and served by members of a local Baptist church. In the evening, out-of-town participants enjoyed a riverboat cruise on the Mississippi River complete with a Memphis blues band.
“Mercy in Mission” was the theme, but it was a theme with a soundtrack, a soundtrack filled with prayer, history and just plain fun.
Photo albums of the two days are available at the following links: