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A church without room for all is empty

The number of blacks who make up the Roman Catholic population in the United States is abysmally small, and an alarming number of those who do feel isolated and unwanted.

Some say the church is not noticing a significant drain of blacks because they are being replaced by immigrants from other countries. Others argue that the defections to other denominations and independent churches are not nearly as serious as some depict.

But, as Robert McClory’s special report (Black and Catholic) and Bishop Edward Braxton’s commentary show, any lack of clarity in recent reports is insignificant in the face of what is known: Blacks feel increasingly marginalized and isolated in the church despite some noteworthy initiatives by the American hierarchy in recent years.

The temptation to recoil from any further discussion of an intractable social malady is understandable. What more could be said or written that might make any difference? Yet one gets the impression that we keep fussing at it -- allowing ourselves to be bothered -- because it is deeply important to us. Racism is a grave and unsettling sin, a compounding of the fundamental isolation we strive to overcome in groping toward union with God.

Knowing the sin is one thing. It is infinitely more disturbing to confront the reality that our places of worship are complicit in perpetuating the evil.

That may sound overly harsh. Certainly Catholics do not head to church to fulfill some racist agenda. Quite the contrary. But as Braxton points out, the church of today is, in significant ways, a product of racist presumptions. From our art and iconography to the cultural presumptions whites make about worship styles, the pressure builds behind Braxton’s haunting question: “Who would want to join a faith in which all the spiritual ‘personalities’ are visualized to look like the very people who enslaved and oppressed them?”

In fact, through the example of his life, Braxton answers his own question: those who, while not blind to certain realities, see the deeper hope and possibilities for redemption in the Catholic community. Of course, the matter cannot be left there, with the black community continuing in isolation while hoping for the best in some vague future.

If our sacramental theology means anything, then knowing the sin means also taking action to put things right. And a reasonable first step might be to simply listen to those whose experiences of life in this church go far in illuminating the path to a less segregated and disjointed future.

Prophetic voices like those of Bishop Braxton, Fr. Michael Pfleger and the late Sr. Thea Bowman might jangle white sensibilities at the outset. But prophets, by definition, disturb the social order and infringe on life’s comfort zones.

To some in both the white and black communities, Pfleger, no doubt, is viewed as a kind of renegade. Certainly that was the case when he first started his ministry amid a segment of Chicago’s black community. But time and fidelity, not to mention ample measures of success, have given him a certain credibility. Since he is white, he might also serve as a kind of cultural bridge over the division described by Braxton. Pfleger has made a journey that not many nonblacks in the church have attempted. His suggestions make sense and could be taken up by any interested group in any parish anywhere in the country.

So, too, with Braxton, whose suggestions include eliminating the use of the word minorities when referring to ethnic groups; backing up the church’s stated commitment to diversity by making sure that blacks and companies that employ a diverse work force are hired to do work for the church; giving financial support to trained evangelists to work in black neighborhoods; experimenting with alternative church structures in black neighborhoods and altering initiation programs to be attractive to poorer people; enacting more of the ideas already contained in statements by the American hierarchy about blacks in the church; and, finally, praying.

“I do not speak of occasional, vague, general prayers. I speak of regular, specific prayers focused on conversion,” Braxton wrote. “We should pray that the Holy Spirit help us announce the gospel in ways that speak to black people who really are brothers and sisters to us.”

It is easier, of course, to work, pray and hope for something that we can at least imagine and, in that respect, Thea Bowman left behind for the church a vivid moment bursting with promise for the future. In that stunningly powerful talk before the bishops’ spring meeting in 1989, alluded to by McClory in his report, Sr. Thea began with a simple question: What does it mean to be black and Catholic? Her answer was a piercing rendition of the song, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.”

But sometimes, as she made clear, she also knew that she was an adult who had confronted the pain of abandonment and moved on to new confidence and empowerment in this community of believers. And so, she told that room full of bishops, if you’re really serious about what you’ve said in your documents, then you accept me as a “fully functioning” member of your church, with all of her African heritage in tow.

She spoke of how the church had hurt her and how it had healed her.

On and on she went, even though she was three ways marginalized: She was black, she was a woman and she was dying of bone cancer. This nun, prohibited by church law from preaching in church, preached up an earthy, elegant storm. This motherless child poured out on this auditorium of prelates a mother’s deepest and best instincts. And this daughter of the slave tradition freed them, at least momentarily, from the shackles of propriety, of churchy pecking orders and of fussy respectability.

Being multicultural, she told them, “means that sometimes we do things your way and sometimes we do things my way.”

In compliance, the bishops, archbishops and cardinals all stood, crossed their arms and swayed as they sang the civil rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome.” Many openly wept, and at the end they presented her with a big spray of roses. She accepted them, in the name of all of the mothers and sisters and aunts, all the women who had helped them on their journey toward the episcopacy.

Sr. Thea Bowman, exhausted, aching, yet exhilarated, then sat back down in her wheel chair and began making her way out of the auditorium at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J. But before she got very far along the back wall, the bishops began to move toward her, and a long line formed. And the bishops waited for this woman, who would be dead in less than a year, to come toward them. Some leaned over to talk to her and some knelt at the side of her wheel chair. No one cared what was next on the meeting agenda. No one cared that business was getting behind schedule. No one questioned that a woman, a black woman at that, would hold such sway or speak such powerful truths to the leaders of the Catholic church.

Perhaps God gives us occasional glimpses of how things can be. Our black brothers and sisters have much to teach us. Maybe our best first step would be to simply listen, as the bishops did that day, with an open heart to the stories of those who too often feel they are on the margins of the community.

National Catholic Reporter, March 13, 1998