19 at D.C. parochial school baptized Catholic

By Michelle Boorstein
Sunday, April 4, 2010; C01

The topics in Sister Emmanuella Ladipo's class that afternoon were heavy: The purpose of prayer. The nature of grace. Sin.

Then a little hand shot up, followed by a question in a worried tone: But will the water be cold when we get baptized?

The Nigerian nun, a teacher at St. Augustine's Catholic School in Northwest Washington, assured the mostly elementary school students that the water would be warm -- and the impact big.

"What do you get from baptism that you don't get from a swimming pool?" she asked, at first eliciting blank stares. She repeated the question, this time prompting raised hands before she clarified the answer: the washing away of original sin.

And then she dealt with a boy who had wandered from his seat to get a drink without asking and another who was talking with his mouth full of Cheez-Its.

This back-and-forth between such matters as the blood of Christ and raising your hand before going to the restroom has been constant all year at St. Augustine's, where 19 children ages 5 to 13 converted this weekend to Catholicism, the highest number at any school in the Washington archdiocese in recent memory. Before Easter -- the traditional time for Catholics to be baptized, or join the church -- 51 of the school's 186 students were Catholic. Now 70 are.

After the church's battering in recent weeks by a far-flung clergy sex-abuse scandal, that such a large group of children is embracing Catholicism demonstrates the resilience of the faith and how for many its meaning has little to do with Vatican controversies or papal leadership.

The baptisms are a result of a recent push at St. Augustine's and across the country to fortify the Catholic identity of Catholic institutions and to be more open about evangelizing. The goal isn't necessarily conversion, although many of the students come from families that are Christian mostly in name only. The idea is to teach children, particularly needy ones, a richly ritualized faith that they can feel close to and be empowered by. Not to mention saving some souls along the way.

Inner-city parochial schools, many of which have been majority non-Catholic for decades, are fertile ground for such a push.

In the past few years, St. Augustine's began holding weekly instead of monthly Masses and adding prayers to other parts of the daily routine. Statues of the Virgin Mary--who is particularly central to Catholicism--were placed in each room. And three years ago, St. Augustine's, called "the mother church" for Washington's black Catholics, brought in three African nuns in traditional habits to lead the school, teach and infuse the building with a Catholic spirit.

The outcome is clear among this gaggle of children who are making spiritual decisions and commitments unfamiliar to many adults. They articulate spiritual longings not typically associated with people whose feet barely reach the floor when they sit in the pews.

The way Catholics cross themselves "makes me feel like I'm not just talking to one person. I'm talking to Jesus, God and the Holy Ghost. It's like all the spirits are listening to me," said Lello Negera, a sprite of a sixth-grader whose father was tortured in Ethiopia and developed a skepticism about organized religion. "When I come out of Catholic Church service," she said, "I feel powerful."

Faith and families

About half of the 19 children have parents born Catholic who simply neglected to have them baptized, and for them the conversions might be less dramatic. For others, the baptisms represent a commitment to take solo Metro rides to attend Mass while the rest of the family worships elsewhere or sleeps in. Still others are committing their families to multiple Sunday church services so everyone can worship together.

After Saturday night's baptisms, one family has a sister who is Catholic and a sister who says she is "just Christian." Another family has four Catholic children out of five and a mother who was raised Baptist but identifies herself as nondenominational.

"Catholics, they're closer than anyone to God," Shawna' Harris-Lenoir, 11, said softly as her mother, Ty Harris, shook her head during a talk after school one day recently.

"You think you have to be Catholic to be close to God?" demanded Harris, a 37-year-old divorced mother of five, her voice and eyebrows raising. "What keeps you close to God is prayer."

Watching children color construction paper crucifixes and stare blankly when asked about a homily they just heard, it's clear that some of the new Catholics don't fully understand the decision they've made. But their burgeoning spirituality is apparent as they wonder about their connections with other people, living and dead, their purpose on Earth, and how to understand humans' complex desires.

Clergy members who work with children say that their spiritual depth is often underestimated and that the simplicity of their worldview is actually profound. In Scripture, Jesus tells his followers to "become like children," trusting, unpretentious and accepting of a higher power.

Sister Emmanuella, who converted to Catholicism in high school, said the only characteristic young baptism candidates need is desire. The rest is in God's hands.

"You have to catch them when they're young," she said. "God continues the conversion story. There's a relationship between God and a child that you as an adult don't understand."

A father's support

Lello's attraction to Catholicism is intertwined with her father's faith and their shared drive to achieve success in this country. Feyera Negera, a taxi driver, scowls when he talks about organized religion and its involvement with government corruption in Ethiopia. But there is an exception: the Catholic Church.

After working in the United States with Catholic anti-torture activists, Feyera beamed when he talked about Catholicism, even though he still considers himself a nondenominational Christian and mixes Christianity with the traditional theology of his ethnic group, the Oromo.

Talking about the Lutheran church where her family worships, Lello said the children aren't as serious about the service as those who go to Catholic Mass. They cry. They text.

She predicted that Catholic baptism will change her, that her original sin will be washed away, that she will become a better human being. Asked what sins she worries about, she had a quick response: "Everybody sins. But I don't want to sin as much as everybody. I want to be different from everybody."

Hearing this, Feyera smiled. Maybe his daughter didn't understand everything about her conversion, but "she has high standards. She will go to Harvard and Princeton. She will be more powerful."

Officially, teachers at St. Augustine discuss conversion with students who have expressed some interest. The first step is sending home a permission slip to parents. But in reality, children sometimes become interested because they don't want to be excluded. During Mass, for example, non-Catholics cross their arms as they approach the priest for a "blessing"; Catholic students take the wafer that represents communion with Christ. Some children who were baptized this weekend said they think that "Catholics get to do more stuff," such as being picked when the archbishop wants to meet some students.

Talking to God

But the Rev. Patrick Smith, pastor at St. Augustine Parish, said the goal is not to convert devout children to Catholicism but rather to give unchurched children the tool of prayer that is a constant in St. Augustine's day.

"I tell them, 'Instead of worrying that doesn't help, you can pray.' It's trying to help them very practically. And they get that by being in an environment where it's normal to talk to God every day, throughout the day."

That resonates with Ty Harris, who is studying defense intelligence and raising five children on her own. Harris said her belief in God saved her during a difficult childhood in Washington, when she often attended church alone.

"I knew my mother may not have been watching me, but someone was. I knew it was God," she said.

So when her daughters tell her that Catholics are "closer to God," Ty isn't alarmed. In fact, she said she was wrong to initially put academics ahead of religion as a priority for their education, even though, she conceded, she doesn't know much about Catholicism.

"As much as I stay on them, I need all the help I can get," she said. "And religion is very important."

Sister Emmanuella was trying to explain that late one afternoon to the weekly class for baptism candidates.

"What is the difference between what we believe and what other churches believe?" Silence. "It is the Eucharist, which we believe is the actual presence of Jesus!"

A pause.

"Sir, can you take that book off your head?"

© 2010 The Washington Post Company