Black Catholic Voices: Church in the Black Catholic Tradition

January 18, 2013

Speech delivered by Rev. Edward Branch on Jan. 15, 2013, at Saint Mary's College of California


You have called me here to the left coast on the occasion of the concurrence of three singular events this January: The celebration of the 88th birthday celebration of Martin Luther King Jr., 150th anniversary of Emancipation, and of course, the 150 anniversary of the founding of this great Christian Brothers’ institution. No doubt the prophetic voice Dr. King proclaiming that the ark of time bends inexorably toward justice, and your coming into existence at the same time as the Emancipation Proclamation was signed have led to someone here asking the question, what were black people expecting of us and our Church then; and what are they expecting now? While notwithstanding the contribution of  $10,000 in today’s money from the celebrated Mary Ellen Pleasant, the answer might have been nothing, Church in the Black Catholic Tradition, however, has higher expectations.

There is an African proverb, which states, “When the Lion writes the story, the deer was very happy to be his dinner.” You come tonight to hear the deer’s side of the story. Dr. Sean Copeland, one of the stellar lights among black Catholic theologians names the phenomenon differently She speaks of the Black Catholic Subject or creator of tradition.  To be a black Catholic subject is to be the navigator as we sail one of the many streams of the Black Religious experience. The Black Catholic subject calls upon black voices that precede, focus, and modify African American experience. Black Catholic Religious experience is born of the vision and experience of those Black Catholics (half of whom where free people of color with families) who arrived at the American east coast with the Spanish explorers by way of the South Atlantic armed with a Christianity that is an African Traditional Religion- a tradition that not only is in the narrative but in many ways has created the narrative of our experience.

Let me not get ahead of myself. First let me outline this evening’s endeavor so that our limited time together may be more coherent. I want first to define what we mean by Black Experience and Black Church. Second I want to outline Black Catholic Experience within those parameters. What has God delivered into the treasure chest of African American Catholics that is uniquely theirs but given for the sake of the whole Church and the whole world? What voice was being heard and spoken across this landscape of history? Thirdly, what are our Black Catholic deer showing and telling in the absence of the lion. What are the newest challenges through which we are discerning the voice of God for a path through this next 150 years?

Reflection on Black Catholic experience must be situated in the context of what one means by Black. Black is a culture, not a color. Here I call upon the definition penned by Gayroud Wilmore in his book, Black Religion and Black Radicalism, written in 1972. Black is an experience undergone and lived through due solely to the fact that one is of African American origin. Bryan Massingale in his book, Racial Justice and the Catholic Church, published by Orbis in 2010 describes it as “ a culture of expectation of struggle in a society one believes to be more foe than friend”. This expectation of struggle is a common denominator of African American life out of which evolves a response called Black Church, a psychic/spiritual phenomenon, says Rev. Dr. Olin Moyd that keeps people gathered together because of their Black experience.

Black experience/struggle – against what?  Against being a non-person, being seen as an object, property, a throw away, an inconvenience, and a liability.  The struggle is to say, “I am somebody because God made me.  I am because I belong to somebody. I am because I am sent.  These gathered communities have produced music, poetry, art, architecture, politics, economics, and pedagogies, theologies, and worship experiences to support the struggle and defend against the foe. There are many evolved responses within this culture of struggle. Black Catholic voices arise as subjects, creators, of a particular tradition of response to God from within this oldest Christian tradition.  Black Catholic is a worldview and a response to God in light of experiences in time.

The Black Religious Experience has too often been popularly represented as a specifically Black Baptist choral or preaching experience usually taking place on Sunday morning or at least in a church building context. This is only one expression of a larger reality. The larger reality is the good and bad resulting from one's African origins. Black Church, both primitive and institutional, is most often seated in and related to protestant traditions. Some would want to limit it to those traditions. I want to engage you to listen to Black Catholic voices, people, signs, and symbols, which will expand our appreciation of Black Church. Its origins are expressed musically not only in gospel mode but religious rhythm and blues composers, spirituals, contemporary jazz musicians, and anthems. Black Catholic musicians, as subjects of the tradition, are creating settings for the missals, and breviary, and devotionals.  They have been creating material for the Black Catholic pantheon, which includes but is different from historically African American protestant traditions all of which are American in origin. Black Catholics are not Protestants who fell off the turnip truck. Black Catholic theologians, and social scientists, political scientists, architects, environmentalists, receive wisdom and express this world view in their work from very rich and ancient black sources. This tradition contributes a very different stream to the Black Religious experience.  Black Catholics sing and dance and pray to be sure but they also do their work in response to the redemptive call of God. For the Black Catholic, the work place and one’s work in the world is a worship site and an occasion to carry forth the struggle for freedom and religion and somebody-ness for all.

Fr. Cyprian Davis, OSB has provided us with a seminal work entitled, The History of Black Catholics. He outlines for us the four Black Catholic Congresses begun in 1889 just 26 years after this institution was founded and the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. In 1893 The delegates at the Fourth Congress made a declaration of what had not ever been done before: they would look at the future and plot their direction toward it from roots deep in their religious past. The seminal sources and subjects of Black Christianity beginning with African persons of color. The Ethiopian of the Acts of the Apostles says I am because God called and I am responding.  The suffering servant Psalm of Isaiah captured him and and he needed to be attached to Christ. Baptism would be his way to somebody-ness.  He had wealth.  He needed the heart of Jesus.

           Like a sheep led to the sheerer
           Like a lamb let to slaughter, he was silent and he opened not his mouth
           In humiliation justice was taken from him
           Who can describe his posterity?
           For his life was taken away from the earth

The Ethiopian’s baptism is the starting point for the Black Catholic experience. We need to be attached to the concerns, and the values of Jesus, We need to proclaim justice in the Jewish sense, i.e. Fidelity to the responsibilities of relationship.  We must not lay aside the other Black giants of our tradition: The African Desert Fathers, Anthony of Egypt, Pachomius and Moses the Black who originate what we now celebrate as the monastic tradition, and  Augustine and Monica, and Turtulian, and Origin, Cyprian, Felicity and Perpetua. Martin de Porres. These Black Voices within Roman Catholic Tradition enrich our appreciation of what we mean by having and, more importantly, being Church. At the time of the first Black Catholic Congress, there was in the country only one black priest, three orders of black sisters still evolving, and 200,000 Black Catholics. From among the last came Daniel Rudd, a layperson, and publisher of the American Catholic Tribune. This layman was responsible for calling these delegates together. The 200 delegates reflect in the closing declaration a full understanding of the theology of the person, social justice tradition, the priesthood of the faithful. On the strength of these long standing traditions of the faith these delegates call the Church and its magisterium to a living conversation about what was and was not the gospel and what was and was not authentic Catholic Faith. These Black Catholics had gathered to share not only what was wrong with the Church but also what from a Black perspective, what was right with it. They gathered not only for themselves but also for the health of the relationship that is the Church.

What these delegates where calling for was not just the matter of words at a meeting. They articulated what was emerging early in emancipation life among black people in general and black Catholics in particular. The issues of care of the poor, justice in the affairs of the institutional church, education and evangelization of the young, equal treatment at the altar, provision of Catholic education in the south, desegregation of seminaries. It wasn’t just talk, or political chatter. While the institutional Black Protestant was developing in the person of Absalom Jones, Richard Allen and Henry Wyatt Turner, and the political, financial, and spiritual elements of black life were evolving among those protestant traditions, the emerging Oblate Sisters of Providence founded by Mother Lange in Baltimore, and Henriette Delille’s Sisters of the Holy Family were clear and constant in stating their purpose of care of the poor and the helpless and education of freed slaves as their work in response to the gospel and the long standing tradition of the Church beginning in antiquity. They were not meeting delegates but they were carrying out in the street what the delegates were proclaiming at the Congress: children had to be provided Catholic Education; they had to be accorded admission to Catholic hospitals. Provision had to be made for fair treatment and equal work opportunity for southern emigrants and northern ex-slaves seeking employment.   

Dr. Copeland could not have said it better:

“These Black Catholic lay people demonstrated a critical understanding and appropriation of the faith that created not only conditions for the transmission of Catholic tradition but of traditioning.”

In other words they not only understood the Catholic tradition but interpreted it from the point of view of Black struggle. Like the Ethiopian they were answering the call to be grafted to the Sacred Heart of Justice. They were calling all to be faithful to baptismal relationship.

It is fair to say, in my view, that beginning with the slavery experience, Black protestant tradition interprets the scriptures through the filter of Black suffering and the action of God in behalf of justice and ongoing emancipation – Man cries and God hears. Black Catholic tradition interprets suffering and discerns the call and the action of God in behalf of justice through the filter of the scriptures and its tradition.  God speaks and man hears. We see, then, in the Congress Movement what is uniquely Black and Catholic and how in the absence of indigenous black clergy, gifted lay people who had read and studied and lived their faith became a movement of the Spirit for the good of all.

That was then. What of today as we gather in recognition Dr. King, and Emancipation  and St Mary’s Mission and ministry?  What about now? What is the Black Catholic Experience and call in this the 20th/21st century? Today we are a post Civil Rights, Post Black Power, post Afri-centric, Black Catholic Church. Today we are a community of Afro-American, African, Afro Caribbean, totaling more than 4 million, There are about 250 African American priests, about 400 priests from the continent of Africa, the Caribbean, Central and South America, and Afro Mexico, and 400 permanent deacons, forty seminarians of multiple origins. The Oblate Sisters of Divine Providence and the Sisters of the Holy Family together with the Franciscan Handmaids of Mary, while aging are still flying the flag of their original mission of caring for the widows, the orphans, and educating the black and poor children. They have been joined in this work by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, St. Katherine Drexel’s foundation. They have created the only Black Catholic University in the United States, Xavier University of New Orleans. There are eleven African American Bishops (three retired) and one of Haitian origin. African American Catholics find themselves in conversation with many other brothers and sisters of African origin and challenged by the rapid advance of multi-culture at home and global Church influences and opportunities as well.

Not to be forgotten would be those Black men who have followed the path of the early communities of hermits and monks as have the sisters congregations to carry that spirituality into modern public service in education, hospitals, social work and support in foreign missions. These lay men with vows of poverty chastity, and obedience (some would call them male nuns) are represented still today among congregations of brothers such as the iconic Brothers of the Christian Schools, the Marist Brothers of the Schools, Irish Christian Brothers, Xaverian Brothers to name a few. Unsung and often unnoticed, these men of color bring the Catholic Black Church experience to bear on that critical expression of lay spirituality we call religious life. Racism and segregation in these organizations meant a late arrival of these men of color into these congregations. A cadre of “first Black Brothers” presented beginning in the early sixties. This is yet another incidence in the effect of the Civil Rights Movement.

 Because of the developments of the late sixties and the decade of the seventies, the multiplication of schools during the fifties and early sixties as well as urbanization of the Black Catholic population, the African American Catholic community is more affluent but the challenges of poverty, racism, health care, education, and preparation for church leadership by the laity remain critical. The issues of the first four Black Catholic Congresses have changed but are still accompanied by the chronic presence of racism. As long as black is a symbol of struggle and white is an emblem of privilege in both church and world the work of the Congress movement has to continue. Needless to say, it takes some real organizing to hear our voices in the 21st century. In 1987 the Black Catholic Congress Movement was given rebirth. It takes advantage of these larger numbers and higher education and experience of African American Black Catholics. The last Congress welcomed 5000 delegates and continues a process by which local church reflection on the call of the gospel in the present moment can take place.

The Civil Rights Movement was as much a catalyst in Catholic Church life as in the broader black community. Nuns and Priests and laity alike though not usually in leadership, were everywhere present in the movement. The 1950”s and 60’s witnessed a huge influx of converts to Catholicism These new Catholics brought their musical and artistic talents, and spiritualities with them. Black Catholic worship experience took a giant leap forward in 1967 when Fr. Clarence Rivers, responding to the call of the Second Vatican Council used these black artistic resources to create music and liturgical arts rooted in Black experience. His American Mass Program was the first mass written in English for worship in the United States. It was followed by his Mass for the Brotherhood of Man written in jazz idiom. He was prolific in his writing of music and commentary. He had his hand in the mix until he died but not before he had created and inspired National Liturgy and music workshops, the Black Catholic Hymnal pulled together by Archbishop Lyke and Sr. Thea Bowman. This galvanized the creative spirits and work of Leon Roberts, Ron Harbour whom you will experience today, and now many others like Kenneth Lewis, Kevin Johnson and others coming along, Aaron Matthews, Stephen Lee.  But not enough musicians conscious not only of the depth of our musical heritage but also the context and the apostolic tradition in which they are called.  They too must be Black Catholic Subjects looking forward in conversation with the tradition and traditioning.

The last thirty years have reaped the fruit of the multiplication of schools and parishes in black communities, development of the organizations for clergy, sisters, and laity, organization of scholars through both the Institute of Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University, and the Black Catholic Theological Symposium.  The symposium meets annually and serves as a support for researchers in theology and related disciplines. What Daniel Rudd and the organizers of the first Congress did to give voice to Black Catholics in 1886, the continuing Congresses, the Institute, and the Symposium give voice to Black Catholic tradition in 2013 and beyond.

Dr’s Don Pope Davis, and Darren Davis researchers at Notre Dame University, have conducted the first comprehensive survey of Black Catholics in the United States. Using state of the art survey techniques and resources they have taken a snapshot of the health of Black Catholic Religious experience in the USA. They concluded several things:

Most Black Catholics surveyed are very satisfied being Catholic but:

We need to develop black Catholic Church professionals who are conversant with the tradition, which has brought us this far by faith through educational programs in parishes, schools, and university.

We need to focus on educational and social service programs in black communities

We need to focus on religious literacy among Black Catholics

We need to focus on preaching and music development

So what does this mean for you who celebrate this sesquicentennial near the 88th birthday of Martin Luther King Jr?  I propose that Archbishop Gregory of Atlanta has already written an Emancipation Proclamation for both you and me to sign. His mandate includes several issues:

  1. Know the past and learn from it. Study the sources of Daniel Rudd and the first congress leadership
  2. Improve the leadership and faith focus in our schools
  3. Cultivate the great gifts women bring to the Church more creatively
  4. Develop more aggressive vocation programs
  5. Work more intentionally at racial reconciliation programs in the broad Catholic Community

What might this mean for a community such as St. Mary during these next ten years?

It will mean making demands of African American students to take responsibility for their communities. For example:

  • Intentionally prepare Black Students with Scholarships who are Business and accounting majors to manage parishes in poor communities.
  • Create Scholarships for Education majors to become well versed in the Catholic Intellectual tradition and teach for a time in Catholic schools
  • Help Social work majors with scholarships to understand and implement Catholic Social      teaching in urban and rural communities.
  • Prepare language majors must be and engaged to teach English as a second language to immigrants in our parishes
  • Require Music majors with scholarships need to develop music programs in parishes that
  • Reflect the multicultural nature of the church around the world. Music programs at Catholic
  • Institutions must value Black Music forms as being as classical as European ones.
  • Require that all students before they can graduate and all faculty and staff in order to get their raises must have read and understood Fr. Massingale’s book, Racism and the Catholic Church.

In five years all of California will recognize a graduate or faculty person from this institution.

Some will say, “How can we pay for that?" It appears that Mary Ellen Pleasant gave you the equivalent of $8000 to get this institution underway for no clear reason. I am told she was Catholic. The aforementioned concern for the Catholic mission shown by the first Congresses may explain her largess. There is a bunch more Mary Ellen Pleasants around these days. Call them forth and trust God to inspire them.

This is the issue and with this I will end. Dr. Diane Batts Morrow wrote a history of Black Catholic Religious women. She said this about Henriette DeLille

           “In a world where life was cheap and success was material advancement,
           She chose the gospel values of charity and justice

Isn’t that what Catholic education is suppose to do? Is that not what a St. Mary’s education should inspire?

Right now in our colleges and universities that are Catholic across the country we are turning our people who can recite the lion’s side of the story. I have come to ask you to liberate people to raise up real Christ bearers whose lives tell the deer’s tale.