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Allow African-Americans to influence the church

Expression -- language, music, art -- is culture's DNA. The ultimate cultural expression is religious worship. Consider then the circumstances of Cyprian Rowe, formerly a Marist brother, leaving the Roman Catholic church to become a bishop in the African American Catholic church. That congregation was founded in 1989 by a former Roman Catholic priest, Fr. (now Archbishop) George Stallings.

Being African-American and Catholic in a church that says it pays more than lip service to the premise of inculturation should mean the opportunity, the right to practice, probe, play out, expand, re-create its culture within the entirety of that church. Not to dominate the church, but to enjoy a freedom freely given in order to develop this burgeoning identity -- whether the final product is bits that blend in or bits that stick out or much of both.

Though some black U.S. Catholic bishops may argue otherwise, African-American Catholics find it difficult to develop their burgeoning spirituality in the Catholic church.

Racism to one side (easier said than done), the reason African-American Catholics are not allowed to both blend in and stick out is "political" as much as it is theological or liturgical. It is political in precisely the same way that "bilingualism" is political in the broader society. You've joined us, the one-culture forces say, now be enough like us to suit us.

The church institution, like society, wants the final say. In one sense, that's easy enough both to understand and to nod one's head to. But if we nod too quickly, what then are we culturally if we're not in/of the dominant group? The English poet and literary critic Matthew Arnold (in Culture and Anarchy, 1869) quoted a bishop to the effect that culture has no better motto "than to make reason and the will of God prevail." But Arnold added that culture has "a great passion: the passion for sweetness and light." And "a greater passion: the passion for making them prevail."

Now back to Rowe and African-American Catholics. "African" connotes a diversity of cultures. There is a unity to those cultures that stems from a continental homeland, a spiritual legacy, a set of hues and shared colonial history.

"African-American" is probably a distinct culture. A new people in a new place, like the Scots in Cape Breton, a blending from the past into the present but as a fresh cultural presence.

The hyphen that comes before American, as in Irish-American, German-American and Mexican-American, means in the U.S. context a culture transposed, then repositioned, reborn, in the U.S. setting.

If some African Americans choose to drop the hyphen, the space between the words serves the same purpose.

When two cultures meet, it's like waves on rocks. As Rosemary Haughton would say, with each slap of the wave an infinitesimal amount of rock is worn away and is now part of the wave. Similarly, the shape of the rock is microscopically changed.

The African-American Catholic DNA is a wave crashing against the institutional rock. But the institution has coated itself with a Teflon mix called authority, out of fear of losing control if freedom is freely granted to African-Americans for their own rite within Catholicism, a rite for which they would have full responsibility.

Authority is prepared to change the composition of African-American Catholic culture, but unprepared to risk being changed by it. This is a crucial internal Catholic church issue (one as crucial for Hispanics as it is for blacks).

Matthew Arnold was no secularist. He wrote extensively on religion, dogma, God, the Bible. And Cyprian Rowe is no quick-to-bolt apostate. Yet as an African-American Catholic he had a great passion: the passion to bring black sweetness and light into the Catholic church. He long had an even greater passion -- the passion for making them prevail. He gave it a half-century, until he wearied from the travail and took his sweetness and light elsewhere.

With that departure, has reason and the will of God prevailed? Rather, the U.S. Catholic church has lost yet another loyal member of a black community that still stays despite the rebuffs and racism.

Maybe the church ought to ask itself what its problem is. Maybe that's God's will.

National Catholic Reporter, April 25, 1997