Noted scholar, poet, and thespian Fr Joseph A. Brown, SJ is being honored this weekend in his native Illinois during a 3-day symposium dedicated to his life and themes which have characterized his ministry.
Termed a “Sankofa Celebration”, the event is being held at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville East St. Louis Center (ESLC). Brown has served as a professor in Africana Studies at the school’s Carbondale campus since 1997.
“It is my celebration of those who went before me, in blood and in spirit, believing in me, protecting me, teaching me and confirming me,” he said in an announcement earlier this month.
“The event is, perhaps, the most glorious possible moment for all of us to rejoice in the presence of one other—seeing the promises fulfilled.”
The event kicked off with a dinner on Friday evening gathering friends, family, and students of Brown’s at the university’s East St. Louis Center, as well as via livestream. SIU president Dr. Dan Mahony was among the featured guests.
Saturday’s symposium includes five sessions led by Brown and others, including Dr. Sheila Caldwell, SIU’s chief diversity officer (with whom Brown serves on the university’s diversity advisory council). The symposium will begin at 9am CT with an address on the integration of culture in academia.
The second talk features Brown’s experiences as a university educator, beginning with his graduate assistantship at John Hopkins University in 1968 and spanning his time at Creighton University, the University of Virginia, the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana, St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, and SIU.
The session beginning at 1:30pm will feature the intersection of Black culture and Catholicism, including in the classroom, beginning with Brown’s first teaching post at a Catholic university in 1972. The theme tracks with Brown’s 1998 book “To Stand on the Rock”, released shortly after his arrival to SIU.
The final two addresses of the day will cover the future, namely the influence of the youth that will guide the next generation of cultural reflection, and Brown’s reflections on justice and faith, as well as his experience of being firmly planted in the Jesuit mind and tradition.
The final event of the weekend will be a 10am Mass at St Augustine Catholic Church in the city of East St. Louis, Brown’s home parish—located on a street named in his honor. The liturgy will be livestreamed on the parish’s Facebook page.
The symposium is also serving as a fundraiser for the Floyd and Arralean Brown Transcendence Scholarship, a new endowment at SIU named after Brown’s parents and meant to honor his legacy of faith and culture.
Born in 1944, Brown has served in a variety of roles since his entrance into the Jesuits in 1962. He has published poetry under the pen name “Luke” since 1965—including “Accidental Grace” and “The Sun Whispers, Wait”—and released “A Retreat with Thea Bowman and Bede Abram” under his own name in 1997. He also co-authored “Sweet, Sweet Spirit: Prayer Services in the Black Catholic Tradition” with Auxiliary Bishop Fernand Cheri III, OFM of New Orleans in 2006.
Brown remains active on his blog “Sankofa Muse”, where he publishes reflections as well as poetry, and was honored last year on “Jesuit Theater”, his religious order’s celebration of the longstanding thespian tradition within the Society of Jesus. Brown first became a theater instructor during his time at Creighton, and has been active in the field for 60 years.
Brown, a staunch justice advocate, was also noted in the fall as one of several Black Catholics to sign on to a statement condemning LGBTQ+ discrimination, published by New Ways Ministry on August 9th.
This weekend’s events carry a similar focus of unity and togetherness.
“The event provides a chance for all to stand in the center of the circle and cry tears of gratitude for all those who perform the construction of this circle,” Brown said in his announcement.
“We will move as far as the horizon, together, rejoicing always that we have been loved and cared for; and to proclaim that we are determined to ‘do unto others as we have been blessed in receiving.’”
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, a seminarian with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).