Oronde Manson was only three when he felt drawn to Jesus in the Eucharist. Enrolled in Gesu Catholic School in Detroit, he attended Mass every week with his pre-school classmates, and before long, going to Mass had not only found a place in Oronde’s routine, but the Mass found a place in his heart.
“He started coming to me on Sundays and said, ‘Can we go to church?’ And I said, ‘Well, we don’t have a church.’ And he said, ‘Yes we do. Gesu is our church.” When Oronde’s mom, Chantel, told him that they don’t belong to Gesu, he had that pure and innocent look of disappointment, the kind only little ones are capable of displaying. But his disappointment didn’t deter him from being persistent in asking, all the while thinking, “That’s my church.”
Chantel grew up a devoted Baptist, so attending a Sunday service and being a part of a church community wasn’t foreign to her. Every Sunday, she settled into the pew with her grandmother, but when her late grandmother fell ill and was no longer able to attend church every Sunday, Chantel’s faith life began to take a turn. Her grandmother belonged to the same church for decades, over 50 years. She served on various boards and committees, but when she got sick and the community didn’t check in with her, that left Chantel questioning the faithful people around her as well as the thought of religion on a larger scale. The negative experience steered Chantel away from the church for years. “I had my reservations about church in itself and questioned some things that I had experienced. I was questioning some of those things with God.”
But Oronde kept asking.
“Then he came to me and said, ‘God told me that we need to go to church.’ And I was like, okay, hold on, wait a minute. I couldn’t ignore it anymore, he’s serious.” Chantel recalls. “I didn’t want to deny him his spiritual faith, I didn’t want to take that away from him.” Thus began their joint conversion story. Chantel felt it was important for her to convert alongside Oronde, and she inquired how to do so. She was advised by a catechist at Gesu to attend church for one month and “see what happens.” After that month, led by God’s grace and her little boy, Chantel began the formal process of becoming a Catholic with Oronde. For almost an entire year, Chantel attended catechesis lessons while Oronde went through the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd curriculum. And in 2016, they were officially welcomed into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil.
Oronde carried his gentle yet convicted spirit into the halls of Gesu. “Oronde loves God and others with a generous heart. He brought a great sense of peace to the classroom and treated all those he came across with kindness and respect,” his fourth grade teacher says. Beloved by his peers, he was described as having a “generous heart” and was unafraid to have complicated, nuanced discussions. He showed up, and if an academic challenge presented itself he rose to the occasion as his teachers provided extra support and guidance.
At the onset of his last couple of years at Gesu, COVID-19 struck, which altered the stability of families everywhere, and Oronde’s family was no exception. An opportunity presented itself for Oronde to finish out his eighth grade year on the St. Anne Scholars Scholarship, a scholarship from the Catholic Foundation of Michigan made possible through the generosity of the Archbishop, Archdiocese of Detroit and other faithful donors throughout the archdiocese., in which it aims to ensure deserving students are able to pursue a desired Catholic education.
Being awarded the scholarship meant Oronde could complete his time at Gesu without his family needing to worry about any financial strain, but it meant even more to Oronde. “If I wasn’t in the Catholic school community I may not have been able to understand God’s love as I have. The scholarship means the chance for me to be around students that have the love and passion of God,” he said. “This school raised me to become a young man, and as a black man in this world I need all the help I can get from my teachers and friends.”
If you were to ask Chantel why she wanted to send her son to Gesu she would say, “for the education and the safety,” but the time spent in this Catholic school community reached further than an eighth grade graduation. In commenting on Oronde’s initial attraction to the faith Chantel says, “He just had so much spirit in him, and I know that came from school, it came from Gesu.” She continues, “If you’re surrounded by like-minded people it kind of draws you in or it brings it out of you.”
It wasn’t only Oronde who was touched by the community. “As a single mom, you try to expand your village, and Gesu is definitely an extension of my family,” Chantel reflects. And further, their story inspired others in the very community that brought them to conversion. “To see a young son lead his mother into the faith was one of the most beautiful events I have ever witnessed in my life as a Catholic, let alone as a Jesuit,” their parish priest, Fr. Phil Cooke says.
Today, both Oronde and Chantel are flourishing both independently and as a family with their faith as their foundation. Now a freshman at U of D Jesuit in Detroit, Oronde has brought his passion and drive to the soccer field where he’s found a love for the sport. When he’s off the field, you might catch him watching a documentary as his love of history penetrates his hobbies and pastime. Hoping to follow in his older brother’s footsteps, he’s thinking about pursuing higher education at Michigan State University and maybe one day will step into the political scene.
They attend Gesu together on Sundays and the conversations they have regarding the faith are still in Chantel’s words, “mind-blowing.” She’s embraced her faith and has incorporated it into the daily workings of her life. She says, “It has made me bring God into my home — meaning, hanging a crucifix, being more prayerful, creating that time to either just sit in silence or just pray.”
Fr. Cooke recently blessed their house, something Chantel never had even thought of doing before. And to bring it full circle, Chantel now serves as a catechist at Gesu. “[The process] has made me comfortable enough in the things that I have absorbed to go and be a part of it with the kids. I get to share that spiritual side with them and you know just guiding them into their beliefs to be even deeper than it already is.”
At 14, Oronde still has the same on-fire spirit for the faith as he did as a preschooler. On getting back to Mass for the first time after the pandemic calmed down Oronde told his mom, “It felt so good to be back, mom.” Chantel remembers when Oronde came to her as a little boy wanting to go to Mass and initially thinking he was just being a “silly kid.” She goes on, “I looked at it as maybe this is God’s way of leading me back, he purposely gave me Oronde to lead me back to the church.”