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Faith of enslaved Africans found truth at Christianity’s core


As a nation and a church, we have both benefited and been held back by the presence of persons of African descent. We have benefited, of course, by their centuries of unpaid and underpaid labor, by their ability to hold on in the midst of strife, to create life from the constant threat of death, by their refusal to accept a God who denied their humanity and sanctioned their enslavement and by their presence as a “subversive memory” of suffering and survival in a land and church that too often denied the existence of their souls.

We have been held back, however, by that same subversive memory of what could have been if black and white men and women as well as those of all races and ethnicities could have come together as a people sharing in love and in their belief in a nation that lived up to its message of equality, community, love and justice for all as well as a church that lived its catholicity in every part of its life.

African-Americans are a paradoxical presence in our nation and its churches. They have refused to abandon a faith in which they have participated for over 400 years in this country and which their ancestors have influenced and participated in since the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch in the Book of Acts. Despite the distorted, dehumanizing Christianity that many attempted to pass on to the African slaves, they were somehow able, by the grace of God, to re-Christianize Christianity by finding the glowing ember of truth embedded at Christianity’s core -- that Jesus the Christ died to set all of humanity free, not just a select few.

They did this by first keeping alive in their memories the words of God that they had read in the Bible when they were allowed to read. They remembered the story of the Hebrew slaves and how God did not forget them. The Exodus story was a story of hope and promise for them. If God never changed, then the same God of justice and righteousness would also set them free from their unjust enslavement. They handed down the stories of a wonder-working God from generation to generation and saw God’s hand in helping them to survive as a people of faith. They rejected the writings of Paul, which were twisted to legitimize their enslavement, as well as the distortions of the curse of Cain and Han, which were bent to fit their black skins.

They, instead, recognized and believed that they too had been created in the image and likeness of a God who despises injustice and promises liberation in this life as well as in the next. They blew on that ember and fed it with their faith and nursed it into a blazing fire of faith, hope and love, which burned away the deceit of their fellow Christians and revealed the burning light of a God of righteousness and unquenchable love for all of God’s creation.

In so doing, they built communities of faith that melded the truths of Christianity with their own ancient understandings of God and enabled them, in the words of the hymn, to “move on up a little higher” with each successive generation. These communities were organized across bloodlines and included anyone who was enslaved or oppressed because of their African descent.

In the Catholic church, they built their own churches and schools rather than submit to the indignities their fellow Catholics imposed upon them. These became locations of grace where they could be themselves and worship God to their souls’ satisfaction in their own way and teach their children of their rich and diverse pasts.

There are true saints in black Catholic history, and they are not well enough known. Mary Elizabeth Lange and Henriette DeLille were both founders of black women’s religious orders in the early 19th century. Black women then were not considered morally acceptable for white orders. Daniel Rudd helped found the first National Black Catholic Congresses in the late 1800s to address issues of concern to black Catholics, issues still seeking to be addressed by the Congresses of the 20th and 21st centuries.

In a truly just and unbiased world, there would be no need for days, weeks or months to call attention to the history of a particular people because that history would be an ongoing part of the history of the nation. Until that time occurs, we black Catholics continue to celebrate the journey of a people of faith who serve as a paradoxical and subversive memory in our midst, reminding us that in death, there is also life, and in seeming defeat, there is also victory.

African-Americans are a constant reminder to all of us of how far we have come but also how much further we still have to go on our pilgrim journey home.

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

National Catholic Reporter, March 22, 2002