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Black Catholics: life in a ‘chilly church’

NCR Staff
Charlotte, N.C.

During her frequent appearances as keynote speaker at Catholic workshops, Sr. Anita Baird always asks a series of questions.

First, the member of the Daughters of the Heart of Mary asks “ ‘How many have heard of the U.S. bishops’ [1983] peace pastoral?’

“Everybody, everybody,” she says, “puts up their hands.”

Then she asks how many have heard of the document “Brothers and Sisters to Us,” the bishops’ 1979 pastoral on racism (http://skutt.creighton.edu/academics/senior_studies/racism.htm). “It’s one hand here, one hand there,” she said.

Concludes Baird, “The bishops did a phenomenal job in marketing the peace pastoral. They did not do it on the racism pastoral.”

Baird was one of more than 220 attendees here at the annual Joint Conference of the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus, the National Black Sisters’ Conference, the National Black Seminarians’ Association and the National Association of African-American Catholic Deacons.

Implicitly, racism and the extent to which black Catholics are still absent from the table were joint conference themes under the more optimistic title, “The Storm is Passing Over.”

Dominican Fr. Tom Jackson, homilist at the opening liturgy, alluded to the conference title: “Some storms come and seem to pitch tent and hover over our lives, not moving at all.” One such storm is racism. Yet Jackson added, “The storms are not the issue for God’s people, but how we respond to them.”

Dominican Sr. Jamie Phelps spoke of that response when she told a conference session, “God gave us power, and it takes power to suffer and be disciplined, power to suffer through the wilderness of injustice, which is still here.” She did not need to spell out the injustice.

The audience responded with “Amen” and “Right on” when Phelps, theology professor at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, continued, “The God we must proclaim to the young and disaffected, the unchurched and the underchurched, is the God of Jesus Christ but -- as the God revealed to us that helped us survive slavery, lynchings, segregation, desegregation, false integration.”

And when, after a prolonged pause, she added, “We still here,” everyone hooted with laughter. Rollicking laughter, high seriousness and endorsements from audience or congregation were hallmarks of all the joint conference sessions and services.

Jackson, preaching in an air-conditioned tent the hotel had erected in its parking lot, brought laughter to the liturgy when he quipped, “Too often those who are supposed to be pointing the way are too docile. And when I was young I was told, ‘If you want to be a bishop, don’t you be hanging around that [black priests’] organization.’ ”

Jackson is an associate pastor in Chicago.

Fr. Bryan Massingale, professor at St. Francis Seminary in Milwaukee and the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University, using the topic, “How to Survive in a Chilly Church,” described how “Holy Mother Church, if truth be told, was less than a mother to many of us.

“We don’t like to speak of these things,” said Massingale, “the pain and grief, the hurt and the disappointment of belonging to a church in which we sometimes feel orphaned and abandoned.”

He said, “The relief that is on our faces and the joy in our spirits when we come to bodies like this is itself a silent testimony of the ordeal we have endured.”

He outlined the ordeal: “To be black and Catholic is often to be discounted and devalued, usually deemed irrelevant and insignificant, repeatedly trivialized and patronized, habitually overlooked and ignored, infrequently endorsed and celebrated, sometimes supported and embraced, but seldom fully appreciated, valued and welcomed at the table.”

Speaking of that table, Chicagoan Baird, who is Cardinal Francis George’s executive assistant, described how, when she took the job last year, everyone black in the chancery building “came to look at me because there had never been a black person in the level of position I had. And we’re almost in the year 2000.”

“And in our own archdiocese,” Baird said, “you look at the decision-makers, you look at the people gathered around the table, there’s no Hispanic, no African-American, no one of color. It’s all white, all middle and upper middle-class, predominantly Irish, so how do you have a world view?”

On the black Catholic absence from the table, Massingale said, “The church is comfortable with, if not comforted by, our exclusion.”

To be black and Catholic “is to be absent,” Massingale said, and the fact that the church does not even know whether there are 2.5 million or 4 million black Catholics “is itself significant.”

Fr. Timothy Reker of the bishops’ Secretariat for Vocations and Priestly Formation was at the conference to describe the bishops’ forthcoming study on multicultural vocations. Fr. Victor Cohea told Reker, the U.S. bishops “still have not addressed the fundamental problems” of attracting minorities to priestly and religious vocations, “and this is not a new issue for us.”

“Most vocations directors themselves know nothing about the cultures of the minorities they are supposed to welcome,” said New Orleans-based Cohea. When he added, “In 15 years of vocations work, I’ve seen half the students leave because of the inflexibility and insensitivity that greets the [minority] candidates,” the audience responded with thunderous applause.

Continued Cohea, those in charge should at least take part “in programs like the Mexican-American Cultural Center and the Institute of Black Catholic Studies.”

Added Cohea, “I said the same things in meetings with the bishops 10 years ago.” The bishops, he said, “have still not addressed the fundamental question. That is, you are looking for a passive person.”

The bishops will not accept strong leaders --“either male or female -- into roles of religious leadership,” nor deal with “how we can support the [minority vocations] process where our communities insist on being involved in formation of the persons for ministry,” he said.

Franciscan friar Fr. Martin Carter said, “Our gifts, these seminarians, must be able to see themselves in the educational process and come back to their people intact rather than being transculturalized.”

Said Carter, “You’re talking multiculturalism. What kind of curriculum do we have in our seminaries? What do our faculties look like? We should not bring in a multicultural student body and give them a Eurocentric faculty.”

Massingale, in his address, also tackled the multiculturalism issue. “Multiculturalism,” he said, “means, more and more Hispanic or even Asian and less and less us. Multiculturalism is a subtle refuge for dodging racism.”

Again to tumultuous support, Cohea told Reker another question not addressed “is why we are bringing in our brothers and sisters from Africa to staff our formation programs and parishes without [their] being grounded in our African-American culture.”

A contributing factor to all these issues, said Sr. Mary Ann Henogan, is that “African-Americans need to be present in numbers on the decision-making boards. Part of the problem,” said the member of the Missionary Servants of the Most Blessed Trinity, “is we’re not being heard.”

It goes back, in Carter’s words, to something else not heard often enough or widely enough: “We have to recognize the institutional racism of our church historically. We have never truly addressed that adequately.”

That past, said Massingale, “explains the neglect and indifference of the present.”

National Catholic Reporter, August 14, 1998