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Black Catholic women seek renewal

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Charlotte, N.C.

At the National Gathering for Black Catholic Women, the spirit of sisterhood enveloped Notre Dame de Namur Sr. Patricia Chappell.

Wherever she turned, women stopped her to chat, steal an embrace or snap a photo. Chappell, president of the National Black Sisters’ Conference, joined some 800 women at this first-ever gathering, which was sponsored by the conference.

Bishop William G. Curlin of Charlotte invited the women to hold their July 27-29 event in his diocese. “The spirit is up in here,” Chappell said, declaring the conference a success. “We are on fire.”

Usually members of the National Black Sisters’ Conference meet with the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus, the National Association of African American Catholic Deacons and the National Association of Black Catholic Seminarians. But a decade ago, the Black Sisters’ Conference decided to have a meeting in 2001 that focused solely on black Catholic women.

The meeting was “an opportunity for black women to focus on issues of importance to them,” Chappell said. Those issues -- solidarity, health, spirituality, spiritual and political empowerment, economic development and vocations -- were the themes of workshops sprinkled throughout the three-day gathering.

Participant Patricia Giebel of Detroit marveled at the turnout and the level of activism among the women she met. “I’m overwhelmed with the number of women that made it here this weekend,” Giebel said. “I found that a lot of the women have important roles in the churches.”

Midway in the conference hundreds of those women praised God in spirited song and prayer, then warmly welcomed Diana Hayes, who delivered an address on “The State of Black Women in the Catholic Faith.”

Despite racial, gender, class and religious biases, black Catholic women’s spirituality still exists because of their female ancestors’ commitment to Catholicism, said Hays, associate professor of theology at Georgetown University.

Black women were the keepers of the faith, she said. “We as women have been a part of this church from the very beginning and have influenced it since then. It was the women who passed down the songs, stories and prayers of their people to the children and their children’s children.” Being forced to sit in the back pews of churches, being last in line to receive Communion, even being denied the opportunity to send their children to diocesan schools didn’t dissuade them, Hays said.

“Somehow, our foremothers persisted in their faith. They did not suffer these indignities quietly. They walked out,” she said, and helped raise money to build their own churches and schools.

Though black women’s spirituality has endured, it’s clearly in need of renewal, she told participants. A commitment to faith once grounded in community has been uprooted. Over the years, “too many of us chose to follow alien ways and false gods,” Hays said, seduced by “the siren song of fame, fortune and power.”

“We are losing our people,” she said, noting that blacks are leaving the church to become Muslims, Protestants and Buddhists.

People who do not understand the role blacks have played in the church have called her “a traitor to the black community” for converting to Catholicism, Hays said. “We must address this ignorance” by once again teaching children about blacks’ impact on Catholicism. “If we do not regain these roots that have sustained us, we are doomed.”

To reclaim that spirituality, black women must not waste time blaming God or anyone else for their plight. Still, she said, obstacles exist within the church today, from the closing of black Catholic churches and schools to a mostly white leadership that does not reflect its multicultural parishioners.

“We must no longer allow a Eurocentric, uniform model of religion to exist. We are not all alike,” Hays said. “Today, we must not let our voices be silenced or marginalized.”

Despite having condemned racism and sexism, Hays said, the Catholic church still engages in them.

“The church still has the tendency to play one group against another” -- men against women, blacks against Latinos, clergy against laity. Of particular concern, she said, is the church’s focus on Latinos at the expense of blacks.

“There is too much that needs to be done for us to divide along” such lines, Hays said. “That is why a gathering like this is so important.”

Instead of relying on others, Hays urged the audience to resuscitate the spirit of the early church.

“We must continue to be the voices that speak when others fear to. We are the weavers of our future’s tapestry. Sisters, it is time for us to leave the pity party. To stop calling on others to do for us what we can do for ourselves.”

The gathering concluded with a Mass celebrated by Curlin.

“It turned out to be all we hoped -- energizing, spiritual and emotional,” Carol White, an administrator with the San Antonio archdiocese and an organizer of the meeting, told The Charlotte Observer. Participants called for black women “to continue the liberation of black people by pursuing ministerial roles in the Catholic church.”

“We are hoping now to create an arena for our voices to be heard in the church,” White said.

National Catholic Reporter, August 10, 2001