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'Opening the Doors': Black Catholics in the U.S.

Photo by Chris Duffy
Dr. Toinette Eugene (right) invited Andrea Wingate from St. Elizabeth High School, Oakland, to participate in a weekend retreat to forge bonds around heritage and faith.

Black Catholics offer a much-needed gift to the Church. Diocesan Black Catholic Offices have nourished that gift and opened new horizons.

By Mandy Erickson

Send a St. Martin de Porres e-Greeting!

Hanging Out a Welcome Sign

From the Beginning

Inclusion or Dilution?

Cultivating Young Leaders

Six high school girls, all African-American, are seated on couches at a diocesan youth retreat. It’s Friday evening, just the beginning of the weekend retreat held in the oak-studded hills of Lafayette, a half hour east of Oakland, California. The girls are already sharing secrets: The conversation flows from media images of black women to hairstyles to bulimia to sports to college.

The retreat is a rare chance for some of these high school students to talk with other black girls. In fact, meeting other African-American girls and women—the mentors who run the retreat—was the single greatest reason the girls gave for wanting to attend. Most of them hail from Catholic schools with few other African-American students.

“There’s a certain kind of isolation that they feel,” says Toinette Eugene, director of the African American Catholic Pastoral Center for the Oakland Diocese. “They want to be able to network.”

Eugene’s center sponsored the retreat: It invited African-American girls who are juniors and seniors at Catholic high schools in the diocese, accepted the first 35 who responded, and paid for meals and lodging. Two years ago, the center sponsored a similar retreat for African-American boys.

Coordinating these retreats isn’t all Toinette Eugene does, but her work as director follows a similar theme: to ease the isolation that many black Catholics feel in the Church—and to help ease racial relations throughout the diocese. “The center isn’t simply a vehicle to address the needs of black Catholics,” Eugene says. “It’s also a resource and presence for the entire diocese.”

Dioceses and archdioceses all over the nation have centers like Eugene’s, from Oakland to Santa Fe, Chicago, South Dakota, central New Jersey and rural Louisiana. Called by many names, such as the Office of Black Catholics, Diocesan Council for Black Catholics, African American Pastoral Center, the offices all share the goal of making African-Americans feel welcome in the Church.

Now, 30 years after the first office opened and nearly 100 offices later, these centers have played a crucial role in making the Church truly catholic. St. Anthony Messenger polled black Catholic Church leaders by phone for an informal sampling on the situation in the U.S. Church.

“The work of the offices [for black Catholics] has contributed greatly to opening the doors of the Church to minorities,” says Hilbert Stanley, executive director of the National Black Catholic Congress. He added that the number of African-American Catholics is increasing partly because of the work of these offices.

Hanging Out a Welcome Sign

“I do a lot of Sensitivity 101,” says George Findley, director of the Office of African American Catholic Ministries of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. “I just met someone the other day who said, ‘Oh, I didn’t know there were black Catholics.’”

African-American Catholics are still very much the minority, not only among African-Americans in general, most of whom are Protestant, but also within the Church. While as many as three million African-Americans are Catholic, they make up only about three percent of all U.S. Catholics, according to the CARA Catholic Poll 2000. And while there are more than 1,000 parishes that are predominantly African-American, most of the other 18,000 U.S. Catholic parishes are predominantly white.

“Many parishioners are still struggling with this issue of inclusion, to understand that we have some people who look a little different from us,” says Joseph Powell, chairman of the Commission for African-American Catholic Ministry in Piscataway, New Jersey, and president of the National Association of Black Catholic Administrators.

In some churches, agrees Stanley, “I have seen a reluctance to shake the hand of a black person.” Probably the most important role of the offices for black Catholics is to educate. The directors hold workshops on racism at parishes; they make presentations at schools on racial prejudices; they make sure an African-American perspective is included in liturgy and textbooks.

Several years ago Findley’s office started In One Body, a program of workshops on racism. He visited a number of parishes to talk about racism and held meetings on the topic. “The program has not been in effect for the last three or four years, but there are still parishes that are holding meetings,” he says. One church in Kentucky has an ongoing group of all-white parishioners who meet to gain a better understanding of what racism is and how to eliminate it.

But the education isn’t just for white parishioners: The directors also educate African-Americans about their history in the Church. Father James Moran, chairman of the black affairs committee in the Diocese of Alexandria, Louisiana, organized a celebration for the African-American community during Black History Month a few years ago. At the event, one speaker discussed the biblical tradition of Africans, including the black popes in the Church’s early years and the history of Christianity in Ethiopia.

“It’s easy to think we were converted on the plantation,” the Rev. Moran says. “But black Catholics have been a part of the Church a lot longer than we think.”

He added that the children, especially, were surprised to learn this. “They don’t get that history in school. They were very wide-eyed.”

Ministers receive an education as well: Father Jayson Landeza, the Asian pastor of an African-American parish in Oakland, attended a workshop for pastoring African-Americans on the advice of office director Eugene. The workshop, at Xavier University in New Orleans, opened his eyes to the history of racism in the Church—the fact that black parishioners had to sit in the back of the church and take Communion after white parishioners, for example, or that nuns sometimes used to bring along their slaves when they joined a convent.

Xavier University in New Orleans, established by St. Katharine Drexel, is the only black Catholic institution of higher learning in the United States. It is the institution most responsible for the education not only of Father Landeza but also of Catholics of all ethnic origins who want to learn more about black Catholics in the United States.

“That’s not part of the seminary curriculum,” he adds. Considering the racism experienced by black Catholics, “It’s a real miracle that there’s still a vibrant African-American Catholic community.” Besides educating the community, the directors of these offices also ensure that the African-Americans in their diocese have a voice and a presence in the Church. They promote hiring in Church positions and encourage blacks to participate in various functions.

Findley says that whenever his diocese forms a new commission—for youth, worship or religious education, for example—he lobbies for an African-American member. “Every opportunity I get, I try to make sure there is at least one voice, if not more, on that commission.”

Finally, the directors help bridge the culture gap for black Catholics. They say that many African-Americans feel the Church is culturally white in its speech, its celebration and its music. By introducing some black culture, such as gospel music and revival traditions, they can help African-Americans feel more welcome.

“We have grown up in a European-centered Church,” adds Congress leader Stanley. “In some places, if you say ‘Amen’ out loud, people see you as a freak.” A Church that welcomes and celebrates African-American culture, he says, “helps black people realize, ‘I don’t need to check my blackness [at the door] when I walk into the church. I can be black and be Catholic.’”

The directors help celebrate black culture by creating fraternal organizations for African-Americans in their dioceses and by holding revivals and gospel Masses. “We like a little different music and a little different celebration,” says Joseph Powell of New Jersey. A parish in his diocese holds a gospel Mass twice a month, and he helped establish a Martin de Porres Society, named for the 17th-century Peruvian black saint, a Dominican friar who founded an orphanage and a hospital for children.

Just having the offices for black Catholics, which are always staffed by African-Americans, helps send the message to any wary black Catholics that the diocese not only has other black Catholics, but also welcomes African-Americans to its churches. “It’s important for others to see that there are black Catholics,” Powell says.

From the Beginning

The offices may be only 30 years old, but the history of black Africans in the Catholic Church goes back to the beginning. The first black African Christian was the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40), whom the disciple Philip met on the road and baptized. Black Catholic historian Cyprian Davis, O.S.B., notes that, in ancient times, “Ethiopian” did not so much indicate a place of origin as it described skin color.

The first black African to be canonized was St. Moses the Black, an outlaw and leader of a band of bandits who had fled into the desert of Egypt to avoid taxes. There he converted to Christianity and became the spiritual leader of a group of monks. He was martyred in 410 A.D.

Three popes in the early Church—Victor I, Miltiades (or Melchiades) and Gelasius I—were African, although it’s not clear whether any of them was black African. But one of the early Christian nations was Ethiopia, a black African nation that was Christian by the end of the fifth century. The Ethiopians, then as now, celebrated with liturgy, rites, dance and music unique to their culture.

Another African nation, the Congo, was briefly Catholic after its king, Alfonso the Good, allied with Portuguese traders and converted. Alfonso’s son became bishop of the Congo in 1521. But the Portuguese slave trade, and Alfonso’s participation in it, eventually drove many Congolese from the Church, and after the deaths of Alfonso and his son, the Congo was no longer a Christian nation.

Africans and the Catholic Church met up again in slave-owning states that were Catholic strongholds—Maryland and Louisiana. There many slaves converted to Catholicism. Some religious men and women held slaves. The Jesuits in Baltimore, for instance, owned slaves who worked their land, and Ursuline nuns in New Orleans brought slaves with them to the convent.

While many African-Americans, free and slave, were Catholic in these areas, they were often barred from joining white religious organizations. So they found their own way. Two women founded orders for African-Americans: Elizabeth Lange formed the Oblate Sisters of Providence in Baltimore in 1829, and Henriette Delille founded the Sisters of the Holy Family in New Orleans in 1842.

Three sons of Michael Healy, a Georgia plantation owner, and Mary Eliza, a slave woman, became the first three black priests in the United States. James and Alexander were priests of the Archdiocese of Boston. James became the first black Catholic bishop in the United States, becoming bishop of Portland, Maine, in 1875. Patrick was ordained as a Jesuit in 1854 and became president of Georgetown University in 1874. Historian Cyprian Davis says that Patrick concealed his African ancestry, though the other two were more generally regarded as black.

The first U.S. priest to be known as black by all was Augustus Tolton, ordained in Rome in 1886, having been championed by Franciscan Michael Richardt, one of his college professors.

During the 20th century, the Church gradually became more and more attentive to black concerns, admitting more African-Americans to religious orders or the priesthood and discussing the immorality of racism. Many African-Americans converted to Catholicism because of the work of missionary orders such as the Josephites (an offshoot of the Mill Hill Missionaries), the Society of the Divine Word and, more recently, the Society of St. Edmund.

Others converted because they had attended Catholic schools, often taught by women religious. At the same time, however, many African-American Catholics also left the Church because of racism.

The civil-rights movement led to radical changes for African-American Catholics. Some of these were unfortunate: in the South, the Church made the mistake of closing black churches, saying the parishioners were now welcome to attend the “regular church.” In parishes once exclusively white, many African-Americans felt no sense of belonging.

Other changes had better consequences: The Black Sisters Conference was founded, the National Office for Black Catholics opened and the National Black Clergy Caucus formed. All these helped to expose racism in the Church and opened it to more African-Americans. In 1970, the Archdiocese of Detroit opened the country’s first office for black Catholics.

Inclusion or Dilution?

As the United States has grown more racially diverse, dioceses and archdioceses have opened offices and centers for other minority groups. There are offices for Latinos, Filipinos, Native Americans, Chinese and others. As a result, some dioceses have started to group the offices under a multicultural umbrella, with one director reporting to the bishop.

“There’s a concern that bishops are reorganizing the offices as multicultural centers rather than a stand-alone office directly under the bishop,” says Powell. Some members of his organization, the National Association for Black Catholic Administrators, are worried that their influence will be diluted because they are one step further away from the bishop or archbishop.

But others feel that as long as there is an office or a center with an African-American director, black Catholics still have a voice in the diocese. And, some feel, African-American Catholics have come far enough that they don’t have to worry about these offices losing their clout.

“Today, perhaps, the leadership has come forward and we don’t have to be close to the bishops,” says Jackie Wilson, director of the Office of Black Catholics in the Archdiocese of Washington. “Perhaps we don’t need that protection. Thirty years ago, there was a need.”

Cultivating Young Leaders

The girls on the weekend retreat are unaware of diocesan offices and of Church structures in general. They’re just glad to have mentors, African-American Catholic women, to help guide them into adulthood.

“These media images, they end up filling our minds,” Janet Stickmon, one of the mentors, is telling the girls. “It’s important to set our own standards of beauty because the other standards work too well. We must examine those elements of us and our appearance that are fake and bring out those things that are beautiful.”

Stickmon then asks each of the girls to write down what is fake about herself on a slip of paper. She places a bowl in the center of the room and tells them to put the paper in the bowl.

“We hope that by putting what is fake about you in this bowl you will leave it here,” she says. The mentors then proclaim Proverbs 31:25-26: “She is clothed in dignity and power and can afford to laugh at tomorrow. When she opens her mouth, it is to speak wisely, and loyalty is the theme of her teaching.”

Older counterparts of these young black Catholics are aware that the Catholic Church in the United States is increasingly diverse. Of its 62 million members, an Encuentro 2000 survey counted 26.5 percent as Hispanic/Latino, 0.5 percent as Native American and 3.5 percent as Asian. Sometimes black Catholics feel other Catholics are less conscious of this diversity.

Toinette Eugene and her counterparts in Church posts across the United States work to ensure that black Catholics of all ages experience their dignity and their power and see their wisdom respected in the Church they have chosen.

Mandy Erickson, a freelance writer and editor, lives in San Francisco with her husband and son.

"We believe that the Holy Father has laid a challenge before us to share the gift of our Blackness with the Church in the United States."

'What We Have Seen and Heard': A Pastoral Letter on Evangelization From the Black Bishops of the United States 




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