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Cover story

Black Catholics share pride, renew roots

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

The only decoration in the massive Baltimore Convention Center was the colorful array of African cloth of the robes worn by black clergy and laity.

An altar under a great white canopy was the central attraction. On each side, closer to the crowd, kente-draped lecterns faced each other.

The joyful buzz of reunions among Catholics, some of whom see few like themselves in their own dioceses, could be heard before the drums beckoned the clerical procession.

Led by the drums, a long line of staid, white-robed bishops walked in, followed by clergy of every level. The drummers, a mother and her young daughter, returned to escort the shorter line of black bishops, resplendent head-to-toe in kente cloth vestments. There were about a dozen of them. They swayed to the beat of the drums. Those attending cheered, undulated and waved hands high above their heads in a spirit of profound joy, overt pride and visionary faith.

This was what several African-American Catholics said they had come for -- to witness among leaders who share our spiritual heritage and life experiences, to see the church living what she articulates, and to fellowship among Catholics who are proud to be like us.

"I came," said Charles Williams, sixtyish, from St. Peter Claver Parish in St. Paul, Minn., "to get renewed enthusiasm to carry on this struggle in the hinterland where we don't have many black faces."

Zipporah Dawkins from St. Simon of Cyrene Church, St. Louis, said, "I was interested in what is going on regarding concerns of African-Americans. I have a hard time separating Catholics, but being African-American, I know there are things we must address that don't concern European Americans."

African-American Catholics did, indeed, share their pride, renew their roots and fortify their spiritual wings during the recent National Black Catholic Congress VIII. Williams celebrated joyously among the throng of black Catholics and stood smiling, applauding and singing "Marching to Zion" as the black bishops entered.

Bright and beautiful in braids and yellow-orange-green African dress and head wrap, Aisha Morgan-Lee of Pittsburgh's Oakwood Catholic High School and St. Benedict the Moor Church, said, "I came in '92 and I loved it. It's good to see a whole bunch of African-American Catholics here. Everybody's alike. And now that I am 14 years old, I feel that I should come so I can see how I can be an evangelist in my church, my community and my school."

Aisha, a youth delegate, said, "A lot of people think you can't help when you're 14, but you can."

Her mother, Dr. Veronica Morgan-Lee, has been attending congresses since 1987. "This is where we African-American Catholics come to be renewed in our faith to go back and do the work of the Lord."

The elders had their say. Black churches often refer to such women in the faith community as mothers. Ninety-seven year-old Marguerite Wilson, "mother" of St. Peter Claver Church, St. Paul, Minn., asserted her pride. She flitted front to back taking photos. She said, "I am proud of the fact that I am a black Catholic." Eighty-eight-year-old "Mother" Pauline Jones, an activist who was baptized as an infant in Washington's St. Augustine Parish, said, "I've made all of the congresses since 1987. It's a grand reunion and a wonderful tribute to our own heritage. We have lived through much but we are survivors. And we are proud of our African-American bishops."

Those sentiments seemed pretty universal despite the painfully slow disappearance of racial disparities in parishes and in the hierarchy.

Congress organizers, expecting a maximum of 1,500 preregistrations, got 3,500. Among the final estimate of 5,000 people from 49 states, Africa and several Caribbean islands, racial and cultural differences did not detract from the air of warmth and jubilation or the unyielding vision of our church finally becoming catholic in every way.

Rightful delight

My white sister-parishioner and chorale member Helen McConnell, an adult convert, was somewhat disappointed with the tone of the congress. "I was looking for a spirit of change," she said, "issues of racial injustice exposed more openly." Her comments reminded me of my late husband. His humility and prayerfulness resulted in profound peace and bold strength but seldom confrontation. A friend once said of him, "Oh, he's assertive all right. People just don't identify his style as assertive."

My sense is that the issues were bared here in the light of what we can do ourselves to keep the church true to its meaning and purpose. One bishop said privately, "I feel rightful delight in being black and Catholic. I can't explain it in light of the racism and exclusion I've witnessed over the years, but I have plenty of company."

The convention center served as main conference site. Registrants also visited the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington for dedication of Our Mother of Africa Chapel, the shrine's newest and final chapel. Then they picnicked a few blocks away at the Josephite Seminary. From the very first moments, the weekend vibrated with rhythms, sounds and sights reminiscent of the long, rich and proud merged history of black people and the church.

"In fact, Africans have always been part of the church and have greatly influenced her development in history," said the congress' commemorative booklet, issued for the dedication. "Paul VI, in his homily on the occasion of the canonization of the martyrs of Uganda in 1964, observed that Africa has provided the church three popes ... Sts. Victor I, Militades and Gelasias. His Holiness went on to say that the continent was the birthplace of St. Augustine, St. Cyril and Origen, all recognized as great fathers of the early church."

And like descendants of African heritage found in all areas of the earth, the booklet said, "African-Americans can also be proud of their long history and many contributions to the church. ... African-Americans have kept their faith and have persevered despite years of bondage and slavery and being the object of racial hatred and discriminatory practices."

The theme of coming this far by faith was evident throughout the conference. Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze, president of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and head of the Joint Liaison Committee between the Holy See and certain Islamic organizations, focused on that idea. He charged those attending not to forget James Patterson Lyke, the late archbishop of Atlanta, and the late "dear, dear Sr. Thea Bowman," a preacher and teacher who, the cardinal said, changed the church.

Arinze said we must share our gifts even with those who are not friendly. "Practical, complementary, enriching elements of evangelization go beyond theorizing and preaching. The liturgy is the summit. Everybody is a player. This includes communion with the leaders of the church. Let not lay persons imagine that their pastors are expert. Let them determine their own distinct roles. The Second Vatican Council exhorts mutual respect. Lay persons should be at the forefront," he said. "Where values are in contrast with the word of God, they must be upset and changed. Help the world to change according to the Word. To be called to evangelize is a great honor, an awesome responsibility."

Timing is everything

The inferred theme emerged in keynote addresses, readings and homilies. "The real moral is that timing is everything," Bishop George V. Murry, auxiliary of Chicago, preached during the convening Mass. "There was a time in our ancestral homeland when we believed in a God who was all-present, all-knowing, omnipotent and eternal ... when we worshiped this God to the beat of drums in fields and forests, on bended knee and with shouts of praise ... when we were ripped untimely from the land of our roots and brought to these shores ... when we tried to sing our song in an alien land ... There was a time, in spite of those times, when we maintained our faith in a God who woke us up in the morning, clothed us in our right minds and made a way for us through slavery, a way out of no way. There was a time when the doors of the church were opened to us but a crack. There were no religious, no priests, no bishops of our color and hue. And evangelization, though isolated, was not aggressive. Timing is everything. That was a time past, an opportunity missed. That was then. This is now. And timing is everything."

Murry continued by parable. He depicted Monica, an African woman immersed not in the raging currents of life and dissension, but in the saving waters of baptism. Her son Augustine immersed himself instead in decadence and drank deeply, all but drowning. Her choice gave him a treasure. She gave him Jesus, who turned him around to a life of love.

The bishop also recognized as lenses of Christ's eyes the mothers, fathers, religious; the Irish, Germans, Polish, Italians; the pillars of the church and the desperate who have shared the indignities we have suffered, demonstrated love for us, or showed us the way. The crowd responded with warm applause.

He said this last National Black Catholic Congress of this millennium is the time for each to pass on the good news and put aside fear, to witness and evaluate our efforts of reaching out -- of finding new strategies, new methodologies, new ways of being on the battlefield with the Lord.

Welcoming table

"So that we might be mighty and wise," Murry said, "we gather together at this welcoming table to give God all the glory, to dine on rich fare, and to drink once more from the fountain. And being so nourished, so refreshed, so graced, our souls anchored in the Lord, go forth from this place, to tell the world about Jesus. Tell it about his love."

Bishop Curtis Guillory, auxiliary of Houston, said, "There are many people looking at the church but [who] do not come in the church, because those who are in the church are not true witnesses of the church.

"Teachers," Guillory said, "you must practice what you preach. ... If you find it easy, you are probably not evangelizing."

At first some, apparently unfamiliar with African-American worship style, were hesitant to join in spirited faith expressions: clapping with the music, hugging one another warmly, standing spontaneously or raising hands high in affirmation to homilies or hymns, shouting amen, yes, alleluia! It seemed that among the bishops, the music energized only the black ones.

By the Saturday afternoon dedication, however, the trombones and drums, spirituals, gospel songs and anthems sung by Washington's Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian/St. Augustine Church choirs and the Baltimore Mass Choir wove everybody wonderfully into the fabric of the celebration. Africans, Americans and every combination rejoiced with little reservation.

Young folks provided entertainment for the Saturday evening gala as well as the Sunday picnic social. In 20 Word Events, concurrent small group activities held Friday and Saturday, high school students confronted, in dance, drama and discussion, the place of God in everyday circumstances.

Challenged to evangelize, first and especially among Catholics who are not living the creed, those attending answered yes. Specific groups -- bishops, parish priests, religious, catechists, lay leaders, elders, youth and teachers of any kind (classroom, media, role models) -- rose in turn to accept the challenge issued by Bishop J. Terry Steib of Memphis, Tenn.

In the end, every person in the auditorium stood to take the vow to evangelize, to begin among their own and then go tell the world. Each was commissioned by Steib. Each received an evangelist pin and manual.

"I don't know what we accomplished here," a woman from Missouri said. "What I heard were repeats. But when this puzzle is put together, it'll work out."

The congress had its roots in the vision of 19th century journalist Daniel Rudd, son of slaves who were Catholic. Rudd called the first national black congress at St. Augustine Church in Washington. He used the name Black Lay Catholic Congress and orchestrated five between 1889 and 1894. Several had varying degrees of support from U.S. presidents. During Congress V, its president, Dr. William Lofton, told the delegates, "We hope to hail the day ... when the American people, the hierarchy of the Catholic church and the laity shall rise up in their might and stamp out the prejudice which is destroying the life's blood of this country."

After that first congress, a small delegation left Baltimore and traveled to Philadelphia "to lay before the archbishops ... the complaints that were received by the grievance committee."

Nearly a century passed before Congress VI came about in 1987. That congress developed the National Black Catholic Pastoral Plan and a schedule, timing meetings to continue at five-year intervals. Bishop John Ricard of Pensacola-Tallahassee wrote that the plan was developed "so that our dreams may be translated into action." Twentieth century action has included our bishops' pastoral letters -- "What We Have Seen and Heard," "Brothers and Sisters to Us," and "Go and Make Disciples." They have continued to address concerns of Daniel Rudd's times that remain with us.

National Catholic Reporter, September 19, 1997