Father Kizito Thompson returned to his old neighborhood yesterday to celebrate a joyous, heartfelt Mass of Thanksgiving at the East Baltimore church where his spiritual journey began four decades ago.
A Trappist monk of the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance, Father Kizito is observing the 25th anniversary of his ordination as a priest. The third of nine children, he grew up in a tiny, back-street rowhouse at 1503 Dallas St. in East Baltimore, just across from St. Francis Xavier Church. He was baptized there 41 years ago.
In his sermon at St. Francis yesterday, he recounted the paradox of the monastic, contemplative life of a Trappist that has taken him halfway around the world.
"I am today back at my beginnings, thanking you for helping me," he said. "Encourage one another as you encouraged me."
He stood at the altar in the green vestments of the Catholic church's summer season of Ordinary Time. Behind him a banner bore congratulations in white and silver. Before him the congregation listened intently, applauded often, and laughed when he ventured a joke.
Those to whom he served communion were mostly family and friends, old schoolmates and one-time neighbors. They clapped hands in time with the gospel choir and sang "God Lifted Me" along with Sylvia Hardison as her big, big voice lifted the congregation.
And at the end of the 90-minute service, Father Kizito shook most everybody's hand and signed their Mass cards like a local kid autographing programs after an All-Star game. The refrain from his well-wishers was, "Welcome Home."
"It's been a lovely day," he said, at a reception afterward where once again "Welcome Home Father Kizito" was outlined in silver sugar beads on a Trappist white cake.
During his three dozen years as a monk or priest, Father Kizito has been to South America, the Caribbean, the Philippines, Africa and even the South Bronx. Since 1978, wherever he is dispatched, he lives the rigorous life of a Trappist monk.
Trappists trace their origins back 900 years to the founding of the Cistercian Order. They stick closely to St. Benedict's Rule for monastic life -- work, prayer and divine reading -- formulated another five centuries earlier.
At 54, Father Kizito looks remarkably fit, lean and athletic, even in the white robe and black apron-like scapular of the Trappist monk. His hair and full mustache are touched with just enough gray to give his easy smile an aura of mature wisdom.
He's warm, out-going and self- deprecating, occasionally ironic, deeply reverent, easy-going and animated, but hardly the quiet youth his family remembers. He's often been delegated by his order to the "formation" of young monks, teaching them how to be monks.
Easy to pronounce
When he returned to the contemplative life in 1978 at St. Joseph's Abbey of Spencer, Mass., he took the name "Kizito" -- the youngest of the African Catholic Martyrs of Uganda burned alive for their faith in 1886.
"It was one of the easiest names to pronounce," quips Father Kizito, one of only a handful of African-American Trappists in the United States.
He's just back from a Trappist monastery in Onitsha, Nigeria, and will return to Africa at the end of the month. This time, he'll be working with young monks at Our Lady of Victory, near Nairobi, Kenya. He'll stay three years, before moving on to his next assignment -- in Venezuela.
"Our community gets many requests for help from other monasteries," he says. "I just happen to be one who never says no. That's how I find myself in strange and wonderful places.
"In Africa itself," he says, "we have 17 communities. They're all doing very well. The church is very alive and vibrant in Africa."
The Trappists are a viable, growing order worldwide. In the United States, there are 12 monasteries and six convents. And, in contrast with the priesthood in general, they have no trouble finding interested young people. They offer a contemplative, prayerful alternative to youths dissatisfied with a materialistic society.
Father Kizito says. "The vow of poverty we as Trappists give make us incapable of possessing material goods. It's all held in common."
He doesn't even own the robe he wears.
"It's very simple," he says. "When this habit gets dirty, it gets put in the common wash. You go find another one, hoping it's your size. It's a very simple life. I don't see how it can get more simple."
In Africa especially, Father Kizito says, you must teach by the way you live your life as a monk.
"You can't just teach the value of poverty," he says. "In Africa, you live the value. You must be poor yourself.
"This is one of the things the African church can teach us," he says. "That we really must practice what we preach."
A modest boyhood
His life was modest enough when he was growing up and his name was Earl Anthony Michael Thompson and he wasn't yet a Catholic.
He'd never had a room of his own until he went off to seminary when was 17. He slept three-abed with his brothers. The house RTC they lived in is boarded-up now, forlorn and abandoned like most houses in the block.
His parents -- Harvey Lee and Edna Virginia Thompson, a truck driver and a homemaker -- raised a nominally Baptist family.
"We went to where we felt like going," Father Kizito says. "We really went to all churches. But we had not been baptized in any one of them."
He doesn't even remember being particularly religious.
"I was a quiet, bookish type," he says. "I liked to party when there was a party."
That's how his brother, Keith Thompson, 48, a burly ex-Marine, and his sister, Louise Brown, a warm, bright woman nearing 60, recall him.
"Quiet," Mr. Thompson says.
"A quiet, easy-going kid," says his sister. "He loved to read."
They still call him Earl, sometimes Kizito, rarely Father Kizito.
"I expected him to be an achiever in anything he did because of the type of person he was," Mr. Thompson says.
Baltimore remained a stiffly segregated city in 1954 when he was 14, but the young Earl Thompson became one of the first blacks to be admitted to the A-Course at Polytechnic Institute. He left early to go to Epiphany Apostolic College, a Josephite seminary in Newburgh, N.Y., where he finished high school.
But Mrs. Brown started the family on the way to becoming Catholic.
"I went to a retreat at St. Francis," she says. "I was in high school and I came back and told my brothers and my sister all about the retreat and said I liked that. I said I might convert to the Catholic religion and we started going down to the Catholic church. And )) that was the start."
Founded by Jesuits in 1793, St. Francis was the first church established for blacks in the United States. It's now staffed by priests of the Josephite Order, who profess a special mission to minister to African-Americans.
Father Kizito remembers his sister started taking instructions in the Roman Catholic catechism first.
"I used to go along with her," he says, "because my father wouldn't allow her to be out by herself. I went with her and listened to everything that was going on. But when it came time to be baptized, she wasn't prepared."
"I swayed a bit," Mrs. Brown says. But not much since then, she's a Eucharistic minister at St. Ann's Church on Greenmount Avenue, where she helps at communion.
"I said to the parish priest why can't I be baptized in my sister's place," Father Kizito recalls. "He said, 'OK let me see if you indeed know your catechism.' And I did. So I was the first baptized. And the rest of the family came in." It was June 7, 1954, and he wasn't quite 14 years old. Eventually eight of the nine Thompson children were baptized, as well as their mother. Harvey Lee, their father, never became Catholic.
"There was never any antagonism," Father Kizito says. "I think he was baptized as Baptist, and I think he was comfortable being Baptist. He never presented any obstacles to us being baptized."
The Thompsons remember their father as a big, strong man who kept the family proud, secure, intact and doing the right thing.
"He was one of the most important individuals in my life," says Father Kizito. "He taught me to be strong."
Father Kizito recalls Jesse Jackson's rallying cry of black consciousness in the 1970s: "I am somebody."
"That was my father," he says. "He said: 'You are somebody!' I never forget that. I think I have this boldness and brashness even to this day.
"I give expression to it [in the monastery] simply by letting people know I am proud to be black. And they know it. I have no problems with racial identity."
And even as he celebrates his 25 years as a priest, 36 years of religious life, he says: "I didn't intend to be a priest.
"But the Lord has a way of hounding us into doing his will," he says. "The Lord knows whom he wants and we generally cooperate."