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Rowe's leaving is a way to 'stop colluding'

NCR Staff

Two recent events in the life of former Marist Br. Cyprian Rowe seemed to serve as both prod and invitation to move beyond his Roman Catholic boundaries.

But his decision to leave the Catholic church and to be ordained as priest and bishop in the African American Catholic Congregation, established in 1989 by the former Roman Catholic priest (now Archbishop) George Stallings, has roots that go far deeper than recent months. The decision in many ways is the culmination of a lifetime of struggle within an institution that, he believes, never took black issues seriously.

One of the two recent events to affect Rowe was his mother's death in May 1996. Of her death, the African-American scholar -- one of the first to receive a doctorate in African-American studies from Howard University -- said, "I was confronted with a real freedom that I had not experienced. No one was depending on me any more.

"I had lived outside the Marist community for all these years because there were always concerns -- my parents," said Rowe, whose father died earlier. Rowe was teaching at institutions where African-Americans were involved as students or faculty. He also was helping his parents physically and financially as they aged.

Following his mother's death, he said, "I had to make some really critical decisions -- whether or not I could go back and live in what basically is a white community, for I was the only black brother. I realized I couldn't do that."

The second event that confirmed Rowe in his move occurred in the wider U.S. Catholic church. "I want to make it very clear," he said during an NCR interview, "that one of the things that helped me make the decision was when that Common Ground group, when the list was published, and there was no African-American. There was no African-American! What does that mean?

"If indeed Cardinal Bernardin was the best of the best," Rowe said, "and this is his project, and it is not important enough for us to be there, I decided it was best to stop colluding. It was getting to be a sin not following what the Lord was calling me to."

Rowe's was not a decision made in youth or haste -- and it was as personal as the decision he made as a five-year-old when he told his mother, a Methodist, that he had decided to become a Catholic. His influence was the nuns and children in the church and the school across the road from the home of the person who watched him after school. He was baptized two years later.

Rowe was born 61 years ago in Dalton, Ga. Raised in Chicago and New York City, he joined the Marist Brothers after he had completed his sophomore year at Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx.

After college graduation he taught in New York, received his master's degree in English and comparative literature from Hunter College and then taught at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., until 1968, when he began his Howard University studies. From 1970-72 he lived in Ghana doing research.

He started the black studies program at the University of Rhode Island in 1972, joined Temple University's Pan-African studies program in 1974 and stayed four years.

Though he would give talks and workshops, Rowe was marginal to black Catholic issues in those days, he said. That changed when in 1978 he joined the National Office for Black Catholics, an organization loosely affiliated with but outside the U.S. Catholic Conference, though dependent on diocesan collections for survival.

By 1981 he was executive director of the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus.

"I don't think the issues have changed over the years," he said, "but there is the notion that people grow up. There is a need for people to direct their own lives, that people must not always be a subset of something much larger and more important than they." Black Catholics, he said, are patronized by the church, "always, always."

Rowe met the charismatic Fr. George Stallings in Washington in the 1970s when Br. Mario Hancock, a black Atonement Friar, was at Howard University Newman Center and had them to dinner. Hancock and Stallings had studied in Rome together.

Stallings was an associate pastor in southeast Washington and was teaching in the Western Maryland seminary. When he put on a black Catholic day to acquaint seminarians with the black Catholic community, Rowe was a speaker.

After receiving a master's in social work from the Catholic University of America, Rowe worked at Johns Hopkins, Baltimore, and Loyola University of Chicago before joining the University of Maryland faculty in 1988.

Maryland's Shady Grove campus was close enough to Washington that Rowe would stay some weekends with Stallings, who at that time was wrestling with decisions about his own future. "He would talk about what he really wanted to do," said Rowe, "ministering to black people in a way that was far more embrasive of African-American culture.

"Stallings really had deep feelings for Cardinal Hickey, didn't want to hurt him, but couldn't figure out how to tell him. I said, 'He also cares a lot for you, so go talk to him about the particular agony you're experiencing.' " Stallings was about to do that, said Rowe, when NCR wrote an article about Stallings' plan to possibly establish his own church. "That beat him to the punch before he was able to speak to the cardinal," said Rowe.

Negotiations between Stallings and the cardinal eventually brought no resolution, and Stallings founded Imani Temple. Rowe said Stallings felt that at St. Therese parish in Washington, he had over time developed a way of ministering to black Catholics that was not only congenial in terms of their culture but an evangelistic enterprise happening on a number of levels, creating individual and community growth. He wanted to carry that further. As Rowe tells it, the black Catholic frustration then as now was that the institutional Catholic church "never seems to listen," a deafness that dates back to the black Catholics' late 19th century African-American Congress movement and its successors.

Said Rowe, "America wasn't America in 1789. It becomes aware of itself as it grows in terms of what it has said it wants to be. It changes. [Similarly] there has been tremendous growth on the part of [black Catholics] in understanding themselves and their Catholicism.

"But this must not be understood as somehow primarily a protest against Roman Catholicism," he said, but, rather, black Catholics' "desire to grow in a way that does not ask them to be something they are not," he said.

Meaning what? NCR asked. Rowe replied that black Catholics in Stalling's congregation are "challenged to discover in themselves and our culture all those things that for years they were asked not to look at," Rowe replied, "the prayer style, liturgical style, the various spiritualities that might be available -- we never fully determined those." As in his own life as a black Catholic brother, he explained, "my Roman Catholic directors, by definition, are always going to be people not of my race or culture. They are always going to have the right to say no. I cannot ever assume that they are going to honor me or my cultural norms on anything they decide."

His own decision to leave was made over four to five months of discernment, consultation and discussions with his spiritual director, he said. He had always declined to be ordained in the Roman Catholic church but decided he would become a priest and bishop in his new congregation, though he will not have duties as a pastor.

Imani Temple's major gain is that Rowe the academic will concentrate on consolidation. "Archbishop Stallings is tremendously charismatic," said Rowe, "but it takes people behind the scenes to organize things" in terms of rules of church governance, relationships within the clergy, how the various temples relate to one another, "all those things taken for granted in a Roman Catholic diocese have to be written down."

At the pew level, he will work on incorporating into the liturgies "what we know of African history and culture and African-American history and culture, black liberation theology, and, well, Father Clarence Rivers has been doing liturgy forever. How do we take all of that and live it out?"

In the African American Catholic Congregation with its Imani Temples in seven U.S. cities, said Rowe, "we don't have to go outside anymore and ask, 'May we?'"

Former Marist Br. Cyprian Rowe has been a member of NCR's board since 1988. He has one year left on his current term.

Asked about Rowe's board status, Tom Fox, NCR editor and publisher and president of the board, replied, "Cyprian is a committed Christian who has added much to the boardover the years with his unique and needed perspective. He'salso a friend and colleague. All the board members know our company's mission is to work withing the Catholic church, so I expect a lively and interesting discussion at the [June] board meeting."

National Catholic Reporter, April 25, 1997