For Ogechi Akalegbere, a catechist and co-chair of the pastoral council at St. Rose of Lima Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland, everyone has a story that is worth telling — and hearing.
And Akalegbere strives to ensure that people’s stories are heard — from the young adults seeking a voice in her parish to the people she encounters as a volunteer community organizer and board member of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development-funded interfaith organization Action in Montgomery, just outside Washington.
Those stories, she believes, can change hearts. Her reasoning: It is far better for people to speak for themselves than to have others speak for them.
And it’s in those stories where the Holy Spirit speaks for justice, Akalegbere told Catholic News Service.
“I learned about the importance of relationships and the importance of shared stories and who gets to speak in my work,” she said. “When you don’t have the opportunity to share stories and get noticed, the narrative can be controlled by someone else.”
Akalegbere’s efforts to ensure that personal experiences, struggles and viewpoints are heard has earned her the annual Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award from CCHD, the U.S. bishops’ domestic anti-poverty and social justice program.
She will receive the award at a reception Nov. 16 during the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ fall general assembly in Baltimore. Announced Nov. 11, the award recognizes a young adult between ages 18 and 40 “who demonstrates leadership in fighting poverty and injustice in the United States through community-based solutions.”
Akalegbere, 33, has been an advocate for justice for more than a decade. While her day job finds her working as Christian service coordinator at Connelly School of the Holy Child in Potomac, Maryland, she has the energy and drive to do the hard work of community organizing in her off hours.
She also leads training on equity for parishes with Catholics United for Black Lives.
Akalegbere said she takes her inspiration from the Gospels and Catholic social teaching. She holds a strong belief that people of faith are called to uphold the dignity of those on society’s margins: the elderly, the young, the poor, the struggling, the immigrant.
Pope Francis also has galvanized Akalegbere’s efforts. She particularly cited his encyclical “Fratelli Tutti, on Fraternity and Social Friendship,” in which he emphasizes the connectedness of the human family, for deepening her commitment to justice.
She also points to the parable of the good Samaritan as an example of how people can care for one another. Serving with Action in Montgomery allows Akalegbere to continue meeting the needs of others on issues such as affordable housing, public transportation, keeping immigrant families together and education for school-aged kids.
“I just have always been multi-passionate,” she told CNS. “It sounds cliché, but I’ve always liked service. It was the only way my parents allowed us to get out of the house, doing something for the church.”
Genevieve Mougey, director of the Office of Social Concerns in the Archdiocese of Washington, nominated Akalegbere for the award. She described Akalegbere as “a woman who integrates the Gospel into every facet of her being.”
“Yes, she goes to Mass and she prays, but it’s more than that. She is weaving in the very thread of the application of justice and kindness and compassion and solidarity and all the things of the church’s social teaching into her life,” Mougey said.
Akalegbere came to the United States from Nigeria with her parents when she was a year old. The family settled in New Jersey and then moved to Gaithersburg when Akalegbere was in first grade. She has maintained a deep connection with St. Rose of Lima Church since.
In high school, Akalegbere learned about Action in Montgomery and when she returned to Maryland after graduating from the University of Pittsburgh, she reconnected with the organization.
She recalled asking questions about the issues facing the community that arose from her understanding of Catholic social teaching.
“I like to know the whys and what’s being the scenes. I like to ask a lot of question and come to know where choices and decisions are made,” Akalegbere said.
The questions struck a chord among leaders in the organization. They invited Akalegbere to become involved, training her to become an organizer and encourage others to think about the questions they had regarding public policies. From the questions, individual stories emerge.
“Organizing has made me feel OK with discomfort and tension because there’s power in tension. That tension is the opportunity for the Holy Spirit to move the soul of people,” Akalegbere explained.
“When people are on the margins, they are always in a state of discomfort … and that discomfort can move us. It’s like how Christ is always creating awkward moments and out of that came the enlightenment of the way of our faith,” she said.
As a catechist at St. Rose of Lima, Akalegbere ministers with young people to using examples from daily life of the Holy Spirit at work.
It’s much the same in community organizing, family life and anywhere one goes, she said.
“The Holy Spirit is our guide. In organizing and advocating for the people, that’s how the Spirit comes out. I hope when it’s needed, I can be bold.”