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Aiming to let their light shine

NCR Staff
Greenville, Miss.

It was Southern hospitality with that extra serving of African-American all-embracing cordiality. The Jackson, Miss., diocese Black Catholic Ministries subcommittee was meeting in the Sacred Heart Church hall here. The hovering question, not yet posed, was how could Jackson diocese’s black Catholics better take ownership of their parish lives.

It’s not an easy question to answer. First the distances. Jackson is the largest Catholic diocese in the east. Thirty-eight thousand square miles, with 45,000 Catholics (2.2 percent of the population) and only 10 percent of those, 4,500, black Catholics.

There are 17 majority black parishes, five of them large, with 400 or more families. Next, there’s what Catholic leaders such as Josephine Calloway call the “cultural history.” She means not only past racial divisions but the downside of being a mission church: people from elsewhere often in charge.

Joyce Hart, executive director of the Office of Black Ministry, was guiding this local gathering and kept the conversation going and flowing. The air was festive. In the kitchen, volunteers prepared lunch. Around the table, the dozen-and-a-half attendees told little stories about themselves by way of introduction. The only two-generation family present was the Humes from St. Mary’s, Vicksburg, Willie and Mary and their daughter Sharon.

Many were converts. Convert and Sacred Heart parishioner Birta Jones described how, when she was a young teacher in Hattiesburg, each day as she walked to her first school she’d encounter a priest clearing junk out of his yard. One day she asked what he was doing. He said he was going to start a parish. “Come over and talk to me sometime,” he invited, and when she did, he asked her if she’d teach the first catechism class. She taught the first class at Holy Rosary, and when that class was baptized, she was baptized with it.

To much laughter, one grandmother told her story of how some of the local Catholic women felt her grandson had a vocation. So when the girls called him, she always asked them to call back. (Even so, he never entered the seminary.)

The vastness of the diocese surfaced in conversation. For a meeting like this, half of the attendees had driven more than 200 miles, and much of that on fairly narrow Mississippi Delta roads. Muesetta Wise, who moved to Greenville in 1987 from St. Paul, Minn., said she misses no longer being an active member of the Ladies Auxiliary of the Knights of St. Peter Claver, as she was in St. Paul. But, as she remarked, “it’s quite a distance to go to Jackson [two-and-a-half hours away] for a meeting.”

Any gathering of African-American Catholics in this Mississippi diocese implicitly has an unseen visitor: the region’s most famous black daughter, the late Franciscan Sr. Thea Bowman of Canton, Miss. Much that was implied at this gathering, and the intent behind the Office of Black Ministry, traces back to Bowman’s determination to organize a diocesan Black Catholic Congress (see box).

Donna Williams, interviewed later by phone, was a powerhouse in the diocesan Black Catholic Congress that Bowman organized, and the region’s Knights of St. Peter Claver auxiliary. The efforts of people like Williams resulted, in 1997, in Jackson’s Bishop William Houck establishing the Office of Black Ministry.

Williams wants a more embracing diocese. “When we move into other churches in the diocese, we don’t hear our music, don’t hear words encouraging to us. That, too, is part of what we’re trying to get.”

Bowman’s witnesses were present: Mary Cameron of Christ the King in Jackson, who “started out with Sr. Thea when she wanted to acknowledge famous black people, not necessarily Catholic, but those that have history;” Sarah Bradford of Jackson’s Holy Ghost Parish, who acted as Bowman’s secretary for the last few years of Bowman’s life; and Vicksburg High School vice-principal Calloway of St. Mary’s Parish there. After Bowman’s death, and of their own volition, Bradford and Calloway spent years traveling to traditional black parishes like this one, trying to stimulate interest and action in black Catholic initiatives.

Hart’s aim, too, in these meetings is to determine how local black Catholic communities can gain more knowledge of the church, “of Catholicism itself, so they can carry on the tradition on their own. That’s the office of Black Catholic Ministry’s main push. The second is to work with youth to develop leadership.” A key component of that is giving the young black leaders the nurturing programs necessary so that when they are part of larger, predominantly white diocesan gatherings, they won’t feel isolated.

There’s a major youth gathering planned for August. Already Hart has developed a team of 17 adults and 17 young people from across the state who will work with the children and youth attending the three-day event. The topics come straight out of the Thea Bowman goals: giving the youth an understanding of the history and traditions of Catholics of African-American descent and, as Hart says, “showing what this history means to black youth now and in their future as leaders. We really need black leadership in the church,” she said. And she didn’t mean just the black church.

It’s a theme that resonates with Calloway. “We have black doctors, lawyers, professors, law enforcement officers, every profession you can name as part of the black Catholic faith community. And they don’t see themselves as leaders of that faith community,” said Calloway.

“That’s cultural and historical. Many parishes were mission parishes,” she continued, “so there was always somebody from outside, from Wisconsin or Illinois, making decisions for them. That fostered a mentality of, ‘I’m not capable of doing it because somebody better is doing it,’ ” said Calloway. “These are the things that have never been emphasized. What cultural barriers are there to asking the right questions? It’s a whole cultural block. And we need a large conference to define and set some goals.”

Calloway and Bradford believe the church needs more black presence in the chancery. Indirectly, through Joyce Hart, the bishop knows some of this, they said, but he needs black people as inner-circle decision-makers, and as key department heads. “Not only to be part of the decision-making,” said Calloway, “but part of the visibility. Joyce [Hart] is part-time. It should be a full-time position,” Calloway said. “The Hispanic ministry has been [full-time] for years.”

Bradford and Calloway agree that black Catholics need to define the issues, to set goals -- and begin implementing goals that can be met immediately.

In the interim, at the Sacred Heart meeting, new friendships were made and the network further expanded.

National Catholic Reporter, January 19, 2001