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Black men ponder their place in the church

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

An unusual day of reflection held recently here has triggered ongoing efforts to involve black Catholic men in parish and archdiocesan leadership and has attracted the interest of dioceses around the country.

The event, held in mid-September at St. James Church on the city’s near South Side, was directed at black male Catholics and drew more than 200, many of whom made it clear to Cardinal Francis George that they feel ignored and taken for granted by church decision-makers.

George, who attended most of the day, acknowledged that “a lot of things have to change” and told listeners, “I hope you’ll help me as we go along.”

The day of reflection was organized by Ralph Shaw, a permanent deacon, and Sheila Bourelly, a student at Loyola University’s Institute for Pastoral Ministry. This report is written from extensive videotapes and printed materials from the event. Shaw said the African-American deacons have been seriously concerned about the sparse involvement of black men in their parishes and have noted recent recruiting efforts in the black community by the Promise Keepers.

He and Bourelly had been discussing these problems as they relate to black spirituality in the Deliverance newsletter they edit, and “it seemed to us the Spirit wasn’t coming alive for our men, wasn’t getting integrated into our parish life.”

The day featured a Mass, singing and a talk by Fr. George Clements and one (via video recording) by retired Fr. Rollins Lambert, the first black priest ordained in Chicago. But perhaps the most remarkable moments occurred during the candid oral reports from the 28 small discussion groups that met to consider the “image and role” of black Catholic men.

“The church views us as not bringing that much to the table or as not having much to offer -- and so [doesn’t value] our participation ... as it values other groups,” said Jonathan McClure of Holy Angels Parish. He added, “Even though we find a lot of fault with the church as it’s presently administered, we all still love the church -- it is our church -- and though it may not treat us well, we ain’t going nowhere.”

Money is welcome

“Our money is welcome, but not our leadership, not our input,” said Opal-Easter Smith of Holy Name of Mary Parish. “Our black men are not recruited for ministerial roles.” It was noted by Smith and several others that there are presently no blacks in the archdiocesan seminary system.

Robert Miller of Holy Angels reported that among a variety of church images presented to the discussion groups for their consideration, “faithful servant” seemed the most apt. “The powers that be want us to continue to fit into the servant role,” he said, “not questioning, not telling the truth, to be of service to them and not to God.”

Dexter Watson, also of Holy Angels, said, “This is just ludicrous.” That there is not “a black man in any position in the church in the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1998 is terrible. And I want the archbishop to know there have to be some changes. There are qualified black men to lead in this church.”

In a diocese in North Carolina, said Watson, the chancellor, the assistant chancellor and the vicar for priests are all African-Americans. (In fact, Chicago Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Perry is black, as are two women who hold positions at the archdiocesan level in Chicago: Sr. Anita Baird is George’s executive assistant, and Sheila Adams represents African-Americans in the Office for Ethnic Ministries.)

“Alleluia for Sister Baird,” said Miller, “but, man, where are the brothers?”

There is a consensus that the church “is not sensitive to the black man,” said Richard Boyd, a permanent deacon from Holy Name of Mary church. “There is no leadership from downtown, no respect. And we want it to stop!” As far as male participation in church structures is concerned, said Boyd, the image “Silent Night” seemed very appropriate to his discussion group.

A written survey conducted during the event revealed that 66 percent of those responding think the church as a whole does not “convey the message that it is truly a multiracial, multicultural church”; 79 percent think that black men are “overlooked or systematically excluded from positions in the Catholic church”; and 96 percent said the church does not involve black men in “administration and planning that affects the black community.”

Three resolutions were passed unanimously by the assembly:

  • That under the leadership of the black deacons, a commission be formed to establish a “black men’s ministry in local parishes.”
  • That the archdiocese establish a commission to examine its policies on race, to investigate complaints of racial discrimination and to make recommendations to the cardinal.
  • That the archdiocese develop “sensitivity” concerning the images employed in churches and other areas to ensure they reflect the church as multiracial, that it remove “the preponderance of white images of God, angels and saints still found in many of these areas,” and cease perpetuating the notion of Catholicism as “a white-man’s religion.”

Unexpected animosity

George said he welcomed the resolutions, though they “will have to be honed a little bit.” He told the group he was “somewhat taken aback by the animosity toward downtown.” It is “not a transparent organization ... so we have to revise the structure so that it is more transparent, so people know where decisions are made.”

“Not that much policy is made down there,” he said, explaining that many important decisions are made at the parish level.

George then challenged the black deacons to form a corps “to come with me into the white parishes [for confirmation and other visits]. ... I find it peculiar that I celebrate the Eucharist without a deacon as an assistant ... so I would welcome the assistance of the black deacons when I go anywhere in this archdiocese.” George said he intends to publish a letter, probably after Easter, “with a rather detailed program ... to try to change racist attitudes in order to change a racist society.”

In remarks earlier in the day, Fr. Clements said, “The role of the black man in the Catholic church is to keep the church honest, to speak the truth about the church. I beg you to never allow yourselves to be silenced. Tell the truth! Tell it like it is!”

In that truth-telling spirit, Clements confided there had never been a Chicago bishop “that I have ever liked. ... Never, never! I have had those I respect. I’ve had those I obey. I’ve had those I guess you could say I kind of love.” But “I like Francis George. I believe Francis George identifies with us. ... I believe he’s a man you can tell the truth to.”

In the two months since the day of reflection, two meetings have been held to implement the resolutions, Bourelly said. Bishop Perry is expected to serve as liaison with George.

Despite minimal news coverage of the event, Shaw said, dioceses in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Louisiana and elsewhere have indicated interest in replicating the day in their area. In 1999 the diocese of Jacksonville, Fla., Shaw said, is planning a large scale gathering of black men from the entire gulf area.

National Catholic Reporter, December 18, 1998