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Participants come for energy, community

Those who attended the National Black Catholic Con-gress in Chicago represented a broad cross-section of the church, in economic and educational level, in employment, in geographic distribution, in race (the assembly was about 10 percent white), and in their reasons for being there.

They ranged in age from 15-month-old twins, James and Jared Tolliver from Fort Worth, Texas, to 93-year-old Pauline Jones from Washington. The lively twins came because their mother, Rene Harris Tolliver, who is special-events liturgy coordinator for the Fort Worth diocese, “felt a need to be in sync with other black Cath-olics” and could not bear to leave the kids behind. Mother Jones came, as she always does to Catholic affairs, to spread the word about her historic parish, St. Augustine’s, the oldest black church in the capital.

Cecil Crowell, a 41-year-old parish youth director in Baltimore, came because he had been “energized” at a previous black congress and wanted to repeat the experience.

Corla Mercy, 37, also a youth leader, wanted to get the support of being part of a huge Catholic gathering. As a member of the only black parish in Monroe, La., she said, she often feels “isolated, almost like an alien” in her town. Her friend, Deirdre Rogers, a 38-year-old investment counselor, also came for support. She recently moved to Houston, and doesn’t yet feel comfortable in her new parish, which has a Latin Mass, a Spanish Mass and a gospel Mass. “It’s kind of confusing,” she said.

Therese Britts, a retired Catholic schoolteacher from Minneapolis, attended her first congress this year because she’s on a personal campaign to educate Catholics about their history. What got her started was a report that when a black student in a local Catholic school asked about black saints in history, his teacher, a nun, told her there aren’t any. “We’re not getting across the inclusiveness of the church,” said Britts. “People don’t have any idea that Africa was Catholic long before Europe was.” She is working toward a graduate degree in theology at St. Catherine’s College in Minneapolis, where she earned her undergraduate degree in 1950.

Sidney Scott, 17, said he accepted the invitation to attend from his pastor, Fr. Gerard Marable of St. Bartholomew Parish in Camden, N.J., “in order to get a better feel for Catholicism.” Scott is president of the parish youth group, an accomplished liturgical dancer, and a volunteer at the local soup kitchen. Another St. Bartholomew teen, Levi Combs III, 16, came because, he said, he’s found that black liturgy “really lifts my spirit.” He is a chaplain to the parish adult choir and plans to become a deacon in his adult years.

Sr. Mary Paul Asoegwu, 51, a native of Nigeria and member of the Daughters of Divine Love, attended the congress to become better acquainted with the people she serves as coordinator of ethnic ministries for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Her order, founded 33 years ago in Nigeria, has 750 professed sisters and 50 young women in the novitiate this year. Eight order members, very visible in their white habit with striking blue veil, attended the congress. Asoegwu, the second oldest of 16 children, declined to discuss why black religious vocations are soaring in Africa and virtually non-existent in this country. “The Spirit moves when and where and as it wants,” she said. “Only God knows how these things work.”

Effie Sharp, attending her fourth congress, said blacks are spread so sparsely around her San Bernardino, Calif., diocese that she, along with 15 others, came to “rejuvenate ourselves, to network with others, and to share our spirituality and gifts.” Sharp is a three-time president of the diocesan assembly for black Catholics.

Barbara Spence, a eucharistic minister at her parish in Worcester, Mass., said she came for many reasons but one of them was “to really get a look at this Bishop Gregory we’ve been reading so much about lately,” referring to Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill., president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. He became a familiar figure in the news for guiding the conference in handling the priest sex abuse scandal.

-- Robert McClory

National Catholic Reporter, September 13, 2002