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Serving God and his people

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St. A associate pastor still a ‘kid at heart’

By Stephen Lega

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories to commemorate Black History Month.

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When Christopher Rhodes was 7 years old, his uncle took him to a service at Church of God in Christ.

They were late. And everybody noticed. The minister even stopped preaching and followed them with his eyes until they sat down.

“Young man, come here,” the minister called out.

Rhodes assumed the minister was talking to his uncle, until his uncle started to get up.

“Not you, young man, the young man sitting next to you,” the minister said.

Rhodes said he looked for another young person sitting near his uncle. Then an older woman leaned over to him.

“Baby,” she said, “he's talking to you.”

As he walked up the aisle, Rhodes said he looked back at his uncle, thinking he was in trouble. When he reached the front of the church, the minister addressed him again.

“God is calling you to serve God and his people,” the minister said to Rhodes.

While the memory has stuck with him, Rhodes said he didn’t give much thought to entering the ministry as a career.

“I wanted to be a policeman, a firefighter, a lawyer, a doctor. I don't think normally 7-year-old kids think about becoming a minister of any type,” he said.

And yet, last May, Rhodes, now 35, became the first African-American ordained as a priest in the Archdiocese of Louisville in more than 20 years. It’s probably not where the boy from Dallas, Texas, who attended Golden Gate Missionary Baptist Church expected to end up as a man.

Today, Rhodes – or “Father Chris” as his parishioners know him – is the associate pastor of St. Augustine Church in Lebanon and Holy Name of Mary Church in Calvary. He’s also been invited to be a guest speaker throughout the United States, including the National Black Catholic Congress last summer, and at the local Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration in Lebanon.

And depending on the day, you may also find him riding a shopping cart in Wal-mart parking lot or joining the St. Augustine students on the playground.

“I find moments to be a kid, even at the altar … thank God, I look a little bit young,” Rhodes said with a laugh.

In his own youth, Rhodes was active in his Baptist church, attending Bible study, singing in the choir and participating in youth ministry and Sunday school. He even went to church by himself some Sundays.

Yet throughout high school, he envisioned becoming a doctor and having a family. With his family’s encouragement, he enrolled at Morehouse College in Atlanta, even though his first choice was Sherman College, a small Presbyterian school in Austin, Texas.

After enrolling in 1997, Rhodes became a chapel assistant at Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel, where, as he said, he was “flying the Baptist banner.” (King graduated from Morehouse.)

His college roommate was Catholic, and he invited Rhodes to come to the Catholic center on campus. Rhodes found the center was a good place to hang out, a quiet place to study and a nice place to grab a bite to eat because of its stocked refrigerator.

“Plus they had Apple computers, Macintosh computers… I was like, ‘That is cool,’” Rhodes said.

In the spring of 2000, he and other chapel assistants toured seminaries at Harvard, Princeton and Yale, among other places. At the end of a trip, another chapel assistant asked him what seminary he wanted to attend.

“I said, 'You know, I don't think I want to go to seminary,'” Rhodes said.

Later that year, however, an amendment was approved in the chapel assistants’ bylaws that limited the program to individuals who were serious about becoming preachers or pastors.

That meant Rhodes could no longer be a chapel assistant.

“So I dove more into my studies and spent more time at the Catholic center,” Rhodes said.

The more he was there, the more involved he became at the center. He took part in Bible studies and served as a cantor and a lector during Masses.

“I was eventually hired – as a Protestant – to work in the Catholic campus ministry, which eventually led to me becoming Catholic,” Rhodes said.

His decision to become Catholic was confusing to his family at first. He said many people in Texas aren’t familiar with the Catholic Church.

“The initial reaction was not excitement. It was, 'What? Really? I don't know,'” Rhodes said.

Nevertheless, his family attended his baptism and supported his decision. Rhodes was also thinking of changing his major from pre-med to physical therapy, but his college advisor convinced him to switch to economics. Around this same time, Rhodes also joined the ROTC with the intention of going into the Army and pursuing a career as an officer.

“I was quite comfortable with that,” he said.

A few months after his baptism, Rhodes said Fr. Edward Branch, who was the pastor at the Catholic center, and, Mason Harper, his godfather, each asked if he’d considered the priesthood. Rhodes was still resisting the idea, but the idea came up again during a conversation with an advisor at Morehouse. When he left her office that day, he recalled looking to the sky.

“OK, God. This is about three times this has happened. I need to have a one-on-one,” Rhodes said.

He returned to his room and prayed for God to give him a sign.

That sign came while he was in the express lane at a grocery store buying orange juice. A woman started screaming, “Pastor, pastor.”

Rhodes remembers thinking, “Who screams at their pastor in Kroger, of all places?”

She kept getting louder, and then she tapped him on the shoulder. He turned to her.

“You're not the pastor,” she said. “You just look like him.”

Rhodes was also the cantor at that morning’s Mass, and the communion hymn was “’Here I Am, Lord.”

“I could not sing the song because I felt deep in my heart that that was it,” he said. “God was calling me to be a priest.”

When he got in line to receive the Eucharist, Rhodes said tears welled up in his eyes. When Fr. Branch offered him communion by saying, “Body of Christ,” Rhodes responded with “Yes.”

“I know you've only been Catholic for three months, but the password is Amen,” Branch told him. 

After Mass, he told Branch that he felt God was calling him to be a priest.

This led to another conversation with his family. In Baptist churches, ministers are typically allowed to marry and have a family. Catholic priests, on the other hand, take a vow of celibacy. This did not please his mother.

“I said, 'Mom, you've got grandkids,’” Rhodes recalled.

“But not from you,” she responded.

And yet, Rhodes still had another obstacle to overcome before joining the priesthood. He had already filled out paperwork to join the Army after college, but he and the staff at Morehouse tried to get new paperwork together so he could become a chaplain. 

Their efforts appeared to be too little, too late. He learned he would initially be assigned to the infantry and later transferred to finance. A few years later, while stationed in Korea, he revealed during an evaluation with his commanding officer that he wanted to become a priest. 

Shortly thereafter, he met a bishop who was visiting Korea. That bishop told him the four-star general in charge of all United States military in the region was a devout Catholic. A few days later, Rhodes was told to put together his paperwork so he could be discharged, enter the seminary in Louisville and become a chaplain.

Rhodes was familiar with Louisville already. While at Morehouse, he’d visited the city with Fr. Branch, who was himself ordained in Louisville. Also, between the time he graduated from Morehouse in 2002, and enlisted in the Army, he spent a summer in Louisville working in the Office of Multicultural Ministry.

He started taking seminary classes in late 2005. As a seminarian, he spent a summer at St. Augustine five years ago. When he completed his seminary studies last year, he was assigned to return to Marion County.

“It was great. It was like coming back home,” Rhodes said.

He is one of three active African-American priests within the Archdiocese of Louisville. He is also the first African-American chaplain for the Kentucky Army National Guard. Officially, he is the chaplain for the battalion chaplain for the 103rd Chemical in Richmond.

“My responsibilities are really to all the Catholic soldiers across the state,” he said.

But this self-described “kid at heart” hasn’t forgotten his Baptist roots. As a convert to the Catholic Church, he said he feels free to do things that some people might not if they were raised in the church. For example, Rhodes will sometimes conclude his homily, turn to face the altar, and sing a song.

“To me, we're Christian. We're Catholic and there are various ways of expressing one's faith,” Rhodes said. “I have a way of singing that's quite Baptist.”

Today, his favorite part of being a priest is seeing his parishioners at Mass. They strengthen his faith, he said.

“It's not full communion unless they're there,” Rhodes said, “They do inspire me.”

While he may not have imagined the path his life has taken, Rhodes has embraced his role as a priest. 

“I am living a dream,” he said. “Just don't wake me.”