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He’s a bridge-builder with a booming voice and a large laugh

NCR Staff
Alexandria, Va.

Dominican Fr. Brian Walker is halfway down the aisle, beaming, booming, talking about life as it is, particularly in families. “Why can’t we tell each other I love you?” he wants to know.

The African-American priest was gently chiding members of the Queen of Peace congregation here -- about 65 percent white, 35 percent people of color -- for holding back on expressions of love, especially for those in the family and workplace who are hardest to love.

He’s got a large laugh, one heard several weeks later cutting through the conversation at the Joint Conference in Charlotte.

And there was much good-natured ribbing in Charlotte about the Dominican’s white habit from members of the Society of the Divine Word. That’s because Walker, once a Divine Word missioner in Oaxaca, Mexico, and inner-city Los Angeles, subsequently joined the Order of Preachers, the formal name for the Dominicans.

“I decided there was more in the spirituality department that I needed for myself, something more monastic in my life,” he said.

Despite being pastor of St. Basil-Visitation parish in downtown Chicago, a mainly African-American church with a large population of Latinos and a few whites, Walker manages to do parish missions. At his Chicago parish -- he rates himself as “comfortable, not excellent” preaching in Spanish -- “I am trying to be a bridge-builder between the two communities.

“The communities have so many things in common,” he said. “One, they’re all feeling the same, isolated. Two, they’re left out of a lot of things -- not part of the decision-making. Three, our particular culture -- of color -- is left out of the church.

“Not because it hasn’t been endorsed,” he said. “The Holy Father has endorsed African-American and Latino worship in many ways. But because we find ourselves in situations with people who don’t understand.”

The Dominican, whose Catholicism stretches back several generations to New Orleans, said, “I constantly try to get people to see that when somebody is speaking in another language, they’re not always talking about you. That the things you think you don’t have in common, you do -- they’re just as oppressed as you are. That we need to break down those barriers and look at people not as being enemies but as brothers and sisters in solidarity.”

Walker, long active in the Black Catholic Clergy Caucus, sees people’s isolation from each other as not so much a church situation but a “people situation, the assumption of the negative.”

Racism in the church? He finds it in the Dominicans, “though I can honestly say I did not in the [Society of the Divine Word]. As SVDs, for the most part, you’d work with African-Americans and minorities in this country. You took it for granted that anyone who joined knew that.”

“In the Dominicans, there’s a different type, and yes there is racism,” he said. “We are an educated group, and with that education in many ways comes sophistication. And through sophistication comes a way of finding ourselves better than somebody else -- as opposed to being in solidarity with someone else.”

He and other black Dominican priests and sisters belong to the Black Dominican Conference to deal with “what we need to do collectively and what we need to do individually in our provinces. “Is there a difference between preaching to a generally white congregation and one of color?

“It’s not that I don’t like preaching in an all-white setting. I do,” he said. “But there is a lot more response from people of color. There’s a common feeling. I want to say it’s the soul aspect of preaching. I speak directly to people without beating around the bush. I try not to sound elaborate -- in a lot of instances, I’m speaking from my own experience.

“Strange as it may seem,” he said, “the only way to be an effective preacher is in the context of pastoral care. You cannot preach effectively without contact with the world around you.”

Regarding worship Walker said, “We are a church of different people, but we try to make it the same for everybody. Not all African-American worship has to be the same. Not everybody likes drums and electronic organs and clapping.”

What he likes is the noise of family. “When you don’t hear some baby screaming or a child wandering around or people saying ‘shhhsssh!’ then you realize that in a very few years you’ll have a very dead congregation.”

The congregation this day was far from dead.

And at the conclusion of the liturgy, the white celebrant, on behalf of the people, turned to Walker and said -- in tribute to Walker and his homily -- “I love you, man.” The congregation burst into cheers and applause.

National Catholic Reporter, August 14, 1998