e-mail us


Black Catholic history:
surviving, against odds, as a people of faith


There is an irony in situating in the shortest month of the year the story of a people whose presence in the United States stretches back to before the Mayflower. Why do we contract a 450-plus-year history of struggle and perseverance into 28 (and occasionally 29) days? At the same time, however, we must realize that this is one of the few times, nationally or in our church, when that history is presented or discussed.

Perhaps we need to be reminded of the Halloween party at Auburn University in Alabama last year where white fraternity and sorority members thought it would be hilarious to dress up in “blackface,” wearing Fubu (a black-owned clothing company favored by urban blacks) shirts and the shirts of the black fraternity, Omega Psi Phi. They took pictures of themselves flashing “gang” signs while putting nooses around their necks and posing with their fraternity brothers who were dressed as Ku Klux Klan members. We also need to recall the memory of black men arrested on our nation’s highways for “driving while black,” the ongoing investigations into racial profiling across this nation, the continuing disparities in employment and the decline of public schools, which most black children attend.

Last week while watching an international news station, I listened in amazement as a European announcer commented on the devastating impact of the recent volcanic eruption near Goma in the Congo. Many of those caught in the eruption were still recovering from the wars, famine, disease and pestilence rampaging through this part of the Congo and its neighboring state, Rwanda. Goma is the crossroads for those fleeing either into or out of Rwanda and the Congo in search of food, safety and a portion of peace.

The announcer noted the number of apparently orphaned children present at the refugee camp he was reporting from and speculated on the reasons for their presence. “Their parents,” he said, “had apparently abandoned the children. We have to realize that these people [emphasis mine] have a large number of children, and sometimes they simply lose track of them.” He said nothing about the devastation and chaos the volcano had caused, the large swaths of land covered in its broad flows of hot lava, or the lack of an organized plan of evacuation or access to routes of escape.

Just as in the 15th century when the Catholic church affirmed the legality of enslaving Africans because they were savages, stereotypes of blacks as irrational, unfeeling and incapable of taking care of themselves still abound. These assertions are a denial of the community spirit that is at the core of the African worldview and that enabled many to survive the horrors of capture, the Middle Passage and centuries of enslavement, colonization and dehumanization.

The events I’ve mentioned may seem quite different and are located in different parts of the world, yet they are connected. These events remind us, or should serve to, of how many, nationally and internationally, continue to be ignorant about the lives of a people who, despite the dehumanization and degradation of slavery, colonization, apartheid, Jim Crow and other instances of humanity’s callousness toward their fellow human beings, have managed to survive as a people of faith.

Nor do we often hear of the successes of Africans or African-Americans with the exception of a few such as Nelson Mandela or Vernon Jordan or Condoleeza Rice. Many would assert that times have changed as these and others take well-earned leadership roles in both the political and corporate world. But we also need to hear about the smaller victories: those who succeed despite the failures of their public schools; those who achieve the small everyday victories of feeding and maintaining their families, of working long hours in often deadening jobs to provide the necessities and maybe a little extra.

What about the average African or African-American whom we won’t ever see on the TV screen or in the newspapers because they are simply living their lives as best they can and hoping and working toward a better future for their children?

Black History Month provides an opportunity for all, regardless of race or ethnicity, to see not just the paradoxical lives of black folk but their ordinary lives as well. In the Catholic church, there is still great ignorance about a people who have been a part of its history since its earliest beginnings.

Did you know that the fastest-growing Catholic church in the world is that of Africa, which is now sending its priests and religious as missionaries to us, where their reception is not always a pleasant one? Were you aware that in the United States, the black Catholic population of approximately 3 million is almost as large as that of all three historically black Methodist churches combined? Are you familiar with the stories of African saints and teachers in the church, of those persons of African descent who helped to found some of our major cities (such as Chicago and Los Angeles), or of those whose inventions paved the way for many of the appliances and other modern conveniences we today take for granted?

These facts, like much of African and African-American history, past and present, are still rarely presented in our schools or adult education programs. Instead, blacks in the United States and throughout the diaspora still tend to be, with few exceptions, simply faces on the TV screen in crime shows, degrading music videos, action movies and ridiculous situation comedies. Many Euro-Americans still attend schools, colleges and churches where they rarely encounter African-Americans or other persons of color. Often the only black persons they know are actors and actresses, rap artists, and athletes.

Black History Month serves to foster greater contact and to explore common ground. Often it is one of a few opportunities for our young people, whether of African descent or not, to learn of the rich history of the African presence in our church, a history that may enable them to hold on to their faith rather than turning to other “blacker” ones.

As Catholics, although we may be different as to cultures and traditions, we are united by our faith in Jesus Christ. We should join in celebrating our differences and our commonalities in programs and liturgies that highlight the gifts of the black culture.

Diana Hayes is assistant professor of theology at Georgetown University in Washington.

National Catholic Reporter, February 15, 2002