Posted by: Joe of St. Thérèse | February 24, 2009

What it means to be black and Catholic

article from the Catholic Spirit

my comments in RED

By Sister Thea Bowman, FSPA From Origins documentary service, 1989

Monday, 23 February 2009
What does it mean to be black in the church and society? (Now, my first problem is this: For myself my CATHOLIC IDENTITY comes FIRST BEFORE ANYTHING ELSE, I don’t necessarily agree with the way that this is stated, as I’ve talked about at this blog the difference between authentic in-culturalization and false inculturalization)” asked Sister Thea Bowman in a speech to the U.S. bishops June 17, 1989. The Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration spoke during the bishops’ meeting at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J., as part of a two-hour study session devoted to the evangelization of African-Americans.

The black sister sang the spiritual (Are spirituals all that African Americans are known for? I mean dead seriously, I find it rather insulting that whether=2 0it be in Church hymnals, that all the African songs are spirituals, It’s kind of like saying all Mexicans can do is sing mariachi music, c’mon now. I can’t sing a spiritual for my life, but I can work my way around the Roman Graduale pretty darn well)“Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” as she opened her presentation. She called for a church that is truly catholic (Well, last I checked, a Church with a presence in all continents is pretty darn catholic to me), in which the gifts of all are welcomed (All gifts are welcomed, but as with anything, time and a place for these gifts to be utilized). However, she said “to be black and Catholic still . . . often feels like being a second- or third-class citizen of the holy city (I can not say that I feel the same way. I don’t think anyone’s really noticed my race in Church. Then again, what did I say at the beginning? Me being Catholic comes before anything else, so what color I am is irrelevant to me and how I’m supposed to be),” Bowman said.

She pointed out that the majority of priests, religious and lay ministers who serve the black community in the United States “are not from the black community (Well, yeah, the Northern See of Alexandria fell into heresy, and many fell for the Muslim Faith (which by the way the word for black person in Arabic is translated as slave, just fyi), so yes many will not be from among the community), and many of those people who attempt to serve among us . . . do not feel an obligation to learn or understand black history or spirituality. (This is a problem, I’ve always felt, but I’ve never really sat and explained. There exists only one history. it can be told from different perspectives, but nonetheless one history. I kind of feel “black history” is demeaning to African Americans in a way, because the fought for the right to be considered equal, yet there’s a specialized history month for them. (Even though I know that it’s for everyone, I tend to believe in the goodness of people. Another thing, what exactly is “black spirituality?” I can not tell you such a thing. First and foremost as mentioned, I’m Catholic. If I was to say that my spirituality had a particular style, it tends to be very aggressive and to the point, very much like a teacher. A combination of traditional, carmelite, Augustinian, Thomistic, and very Theresian. Again, often times we’re stereotyped, as shouting Amen, and the preaching being very loud to say the least, yet, the ones I know are very soft spoken. You wouldn’t catch me dead doing such a thing.)” But, she said, “we have come a long way in faith. . . . We as black people find ourselves at the threshold of a new age.” Bowman, suffering from bone cancer, spoke from a wheelchair.

At the conclusion of her speech — received by the bishops as a warm and moving message — she asked the bishops to join her in singing “We Shall Overcome,” with their arms crossed one over the other to bring them closer together.

Bowman spoke from notes. An Origins transcription of her taped address follows. What does it mean to be black in the church and society? I want to tell you about the church:

“Sometimes I feel like a motherless child

“Sometimes I feel like a motherless child

“Sometimes I feel like a motherless child

“A long way from home

“A long way from my home.

“Sometimes I feel like an eagle in the air

“Sometimes I feel like an eagle in the air

“Sometimes I feel like an eagle in the air

“Still I’m a long way, I’m a long way, I’m a long way . . . “

Can you hear me church, will you help me church?

0A” . . . I’m a long way from home, a long way from my home.”

(Here’s another problem, last time I checked, we’re supposed to conform to Christ, not the other way around. correct? Of course the Church should always be looking for ways to communicate the message, but the substance can not change, we must change to conform our lives. The Church has been my home. Even though I’ve been un-welcomed for my uncompromising orthodoxy in some places, It’s never been because I’m black why I haven’t been welcomed. When I conformed my life more to the will of God, the doors were opened for many opportunities (Thanks to my parish St. Thérèse)

I’m a pilgrim in the journey looking for home, and Jesus told me the church is my home, and Jesus told me that heaven is my home and I have here no lasting city. Cardinals, archbishops, bishops: My brothers . . . please help me to get home (Some bishops are doing a better job of this than others, teaching the Truth, us obeying the Truth gets us to that heavenly home, but notice how church was lowercased, let’s capitalize it “Church” (much better). We’re all constantly on this journey to get to heaven. This journey can not be done alone).

What does it mean to be black in these United S tates? What does it mean to be African-American?

Our history includes the services of Simon of Cyrene, the search of the Ethiopian eunuch, the contributions of black Egypt in art and mathematics and monasticism and politics, the art and architecture of Zimbabwe, the scholarship of Timbuktu, the dignity and serenity of textile and gold and religion in Ghana, the pervasive spirituality and vitality of Nigeria, the political and social systems of Zaire.

Our history includes enslavements, oppression and exploitation. As Malcolm X said, “My folks, most of them, didn’t come over here on the Mayflower; they came over here on slave ships, in chains. (Wasn’t he apart of that “Religion of Peace?” that calls black people slaves in Arabic? ::nods head:: yep yeps::)

Proud, strong men and women, artists, teachers, healers, warriors and dream-makers, inventors and builders, administrators like yourselves, politicians, priests: They came to these shores in the slave trade (Conveniently started by the Muslims, participated in by the Americans, freed by some Franciscans). Those who survived the indignity of the middle passage came to the American continents bringing treasures of African heritage, African spiritual and cultural gifts, wisdom, faith and faithfulness, art and drama.

=0 AHere in an alien land African people clung to African ways of thinking, of perceiving, of understanding values, of celebrating life, of walking and talking and healing and learning and singing and praying. You saw it on the film. African ways of laughing and being together and loving: That’s culture.

To the Americas, our people brought the secret memory of Africa, the celebration of life values in an African way and style: in song and instrumentation, in story and drum, in verse and anecdote, the memory of the survival mechanisms of Africa, the memory of color and texture, of culinary arts that translated even when we ate chitlins and other folks’ leftovers.

African people here became African-Americans. Expressing faith in the God who loves and saves, they embodied and celebrated their own lives and their own values, their goals, their dreams, their relationships. Our history includes the island experience — the Virgin Islands, Haiti, Cuba; our Hispanic experience in Central and South America; our native experience, where African blood commingled with Choctaw and Chickasaw and Cherokee, with people of Asian and Asian-Pacific origin, with Europeans from France and Germany.

You want to know how come some of us look like we do? African people of the diaspora, we are here in this land, and this is our land. That’s part of our history too.

Our people, black people, helped to build this nation in cotton and grain and beans and vegetables, in brick and mortar. They cleared the land and cooked the food that they grew. They cleaned houses and built churches, some of them Catholic churches. They built railroads and bridges and national monuments.

Black people defended this country as soldiers and sailors. Black people taught and molded and raised the children — and I’m not just talking about the black children. If you don’t believe me, ask that cardinal sitting over there. Some more of you — all, too, I imagine. You know what I’m talking about, church? I mean, are you walking with me, church?

Surviving our history, physically, mentally, emotionally, morally, spiritually, faithfully and joyfully, our people developed a culture that was African and American, that was formed and enriched by all that we experienced. And despite all this, despite the civil rights movement of the ’60s and the socio-educational gains of the ’70s, blacks in the ’80s are still struggling, still scratching and clawing as the old folks said, still trying to find home in the homeland and home in the church, still struggling to gain access to equal opportunity.

A disproportionate number of black people are poor. Poverty, deprivation, discrimination, stunted physical, intellectual and spiritual growth — I don’t need to tell you this, but I want to remind you, more than a third of the black people that live in the United States live in poverty, the kind of poverty that lack s basic necessity.

I’m talking about old people who have worked hard all their lives and don’t have money for adequate food or shelter or medical care.

I’m talking about children who can never have equal access and equal opportunity because poverty doomed them to low birth weight and retardation and unequal opportunity for education (Now let’s make sure to get equal opportunity differentiated from equal results).

More than 55 percent of black babies are born to single mothers. About 41 percent of black families are single-parent families headed by women. The divorce rate for blacks is twice as high as for whites.

Black children are twice as likely as white children to be born prematurely, to suffer from low birth weight, to live in substandard housing, to have no parent employed.

Unemployment and underemployment among us are endemic. And many of us don’t have the social and political contacts that put us where the jobs are when jobs are being passed out (Working hard puts you in situations where you get to know person x). One of every 21 black males is murdered (And much of this is by our own self doing through gang violence and other stupid actions). A disproportionate number of our men are dying of suicide and AIDS and drug abuse and low self-esteem (self-inflicted problems for the most part) .
What does it mean to be black and Catholic? For many of us it means having been evangelized, having been educated, having been given a chance through the work of the Catholic Church, through the Josephites or the Divine Word Fathers or the Holy Ghost Fathers or the Franciscans or the Edmundites or the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament (And I know none of them).

I’m from Mississippi. The first schools in Mississippi were started in the cathedral basement by diocesan priests and a group of lay women. For so many of us, being black and Catholic means having come into the church because education opened the door to evangelization. It means, in an age when black men and black women were systematically kept out of the priesthood and out of most religious communities, there were those who cared and who came and who worked with and for us and among us and helped us to help ourselves.

And now our black American bishops, in the name of the church universal, have publicly declared that we as a people of faith, as a Catholic people of God, have come of age. And it is time for us to be evangelizers of ourselves (We should be constantly evangelizing).

What does it mean to be black and Catholic? It means that I come to my church fully functioning (Well, I’m functioning fully). That doesn’t frighten you, does it? I come to my church fully functioning. I bring myself, my black self (as I mentioned, that’s 2nd), all that I am, all that I have, all that I hope to become, I bring my whole history, my traditions, my experience, my culture, my African-American song and dance and gesture and movement and teaching and preaching and healing and responsibility as gift to the church (And none of that’s condemned, but all things in its proper context).

I bring a spirituality that our black American bishops told us — they just told us what everybody who knew, knew: that spirituality is contemplative and biblical and holistic, bringing to religion a totality of minds and imagination, of memory, of feeling and passion and emotion and intensity (Ironically, there’s not much emotion in my personal spirituality, but that’s just me), of faith that is embodied, incarnate praise, a spirituality that knows how to find joy even in the time of sorrow, that steps out on faith, that leans on the Lord, a spirituality that is communal, that tries to walk and talk and work and pray and play together — even with the bi shops.

You know, when our bishop is around, we want him to be where we can find him, where we can reach out and touch him, where we can talk to him. Don’t be too busy, you-all (Now a Bishop should be close to his diocese, but not too close).

A spirituality that in the middle of your Mass or in the middle of your sermon just might have to shout out and say Amen, hallelujah, thank you Jesus (but these things do NOT fit the context of a Catholic Mass, works well in a protestant service, but not in a Catholic Mass because of what happens at Mass, Calvary made ananmesis). A faith that attempts to be Spirit-filled (and Traditional Spirituality is not?). The old ladies say that if you love the Lord your God with your whole heart, then your whole soul and your whole mind and all your strength, then you praise the Lord with your whole heart and soul and mind and strength and you don’t bring him any feeble service.

If you get enough fully functioning black Catholics in your diocese, they are going to hold up the priest and they are going to hold up the bishop. We love our bishops, you-all. We love you-all, too. But see, these bishops are our own, ordained for the church universal, ordained for the service of God’s people, but they are ours; we raised them, they came from our community20and in a unique way they can speak for us and to us.

And that’s what the church is talking about. Indigenous leadership. The leaders are supposed to look like their folks, ain’t that what the church says? (Actually, that’s NOT what the Church says…The Bishop is not elected based on looking like the people he governs)

To be black and Catholic means to realize that the work of the ordained ministers is not a threat to me and I’m no threat to that. The work of the ordained minister (Now let’s get this right minister (diakanos) and priest (sacradorte or presbyter) are NOT the same thing. One offers Sacrifice to God through the Mass, the other does not, just don’t make that mistake again), of the professional (secular terminology, being a priest is NOT a profession, but rather a vocation) minister, is to enable the people of God to do the work of the church (that’s right, but this work is a participation in the work of the One Priest, Jesus). To feed us sacramentally, to enable us to preach and to teach, and I ain’t necessarily talking about preaching in the pulpit.

You know as well as I do that some of the best preaching does not go on in the pulpit, but as a Catholic Christian I have a responsibility to preach and to teach, to worship and to pray. Black folk can’t just come into church and depend on the preacher and say, “Let Father do it.” And if Father doesn’t do it right, then they walk out and they complain, you know, “That liturgy didn’t do anything for me. (This is a problem, when Liturgy comes down to emotional expereinces, that means the Mass has failed, the Mass is about transcendence, encounter with Mystery)

The question that we raise is, What did you do for the liturgy? And the church is calling us to be participatory and to be involved (Yes, participatio actuosa, which doesn’t always mean saying something, but rather the authentic balance of interior and exterior participation). The church is calling us to feed and to clothe and to shelter and to teach (absolutely). Your job is to enable me, to enable God’s people, black people, white people, brown people, all the people, to do the work of the church in the modern world. Teaching, preaching, witnessing, worshiping, serving, healing and reconciling (don’t know about the last one, I’m not a priest and can’t forgive sins, (well, I can, but it’s not the same as absolution from a priest)) in black, because wedded to the lived experience, to the history and the heritage of black people.

Getting in touch. To be black and Catholic means to get in touch with the world church, with my brothers and sisters in Rome, with my brothers and sisters in China, with my brothers and sisters in Europe and Asia and Latin America, with the church of Africa (Kyrieeee eeeeeeeeeelieson (Orbis Factor Kyrie), in otherwords, chant can bring the Church of all cultures together). Do your folk realize that there are more Catholic Christians in Africa than in North America (that may or may not be true), and then they run around talking about the minority? In Africa right now 300 people become Christian every day, and 75 percent of them are becoming Roman Catholics (that’s because the priests are doing their job, teaching the Truth).

The Vatican central office reports that in Africa the number of students for the priesthood increased by 88 percent between 1970 and 1988, while in North America the number dropped by 43 percent (must be something in the water ;)).

To be black and Catholic means to be intensely aware of the changing complexion of the College of Cardinals. I picked up your Catholic newspaper and I saw the picture church, world church, and a lot of folk look like me (I’m not worried about what people look like, but rather, are they teaching the Truth).

We’ve got to get the word out. To be black and Catholic still, though, often feels like being a second- or third-class citizen of the holy city.

You know, Bishop Jim Lyke said a long time ago that black Catholic Christians will be second-class citizens of the church until they take their places in leadership beside their brothers and sisters of whatever race or national origin (My personal experience again is that I’m not second class or anything like that). Realizing that the documents Bishop Marino was talking about, “Brothers and Sisters to Us,” that you wrote, “What We Have Seen and Heard,” have not been uniformly studied or implemented, integrated into life. Bishop Houck said one time the church has excellent documents but nobody reads them (He’s right, unforutunately). I mean Bishop Howze. They’re both from Mississippi. Sometimes I mix up their names.

The majority of priests, religious and lay ministers who serve the black community in the United States still are not from the black community, and many of those people who attempt to serve among us, some of them perhaps in your diocese, do not feel an obligation to learn or understand black history or spirituality or culture or life, black tradition or ritual (Isn’t this a repeat from above?…All things in their context once again). They work for the people, but they have not learned to share life and love and laughter with the people (Not all have that ability, cut some slack, for example, myself I chose not to hold much side conversation during my classes). They somehow insulate themselves from the real lives of the people because they don’t feel comfortable with black people (That may or may not be the case, reality is every person has different personality type, some are more people persons, others aren’t).

I travel all over the country, and I see it: black people within the church, black priests, sometimes even black bishops, who are invisible. And when I say that, I mean they are not consulted. They are not included. Sometimes decisions are made that affect the black community for generations, and they are made in rooms by white people behind closed doors (The Church is not a democracy, that’s something that you have to remember. That being said, if there are legitamate concerns to be made, make them, you have to speak).

Some of us are poor. Some of us have not had the advantages of education. But how can people still have a voice and a role in the work of the church? (Humble simpicity, take the time to learn, and if self incitive isn’t enough, I’ll teach, i’ll move from my position and teach) Isn’t that what the church is calling us all to?

I see people who are well-educated and experi enced and willing to work. Sometimes they’re religious; sometimes they’re lay. They are not included in the initial stages of planning. They are not included in the decision-making. Now, I know you are bishops and I’m not talking about somebody coming into your diocese and trying to tell you what to do. I’m talking about the normal, church-authorized consultative processes (actually, there is no consultaive process technically, rather for pastoral reasons there are advisory boards and such) that attempt to enable the people of God to be about the work of the Catholic Church. If you know what I’m talking about, say Amen.

See, you-all talk about what you have to do if you want to be a multicultural church: Sometimes I do things your way; sometimes you do things mine. Is that it, Bishop Ramirez? (Again, time and a place for culturalization to take place)

Black people who are still victims within the church of paternalism, of a patronizing attitude, black people who within the church have developed a mission mentality — they don’t feel called, they don’t feel responsible, they don’t do anything (I’m not one of them). Let Father do it, let the sisters do it, let the friends and benefactors from outside do it. That’s the mission mentality. And it kills us and it kills our churches. And so, within the church, how can we work together so that all of us have equal a ccess to input, equal access to opportunity, equal access to participation? (Let me explain this: if you want to help, you volunteer for such, opportunity begins with inicitative)

Go into a room and look around and see who’s missing and send some of your folks out to call them in so that the church can be what she claims to be, truly catholic.

They still talk about black folk in the church. You hear it, you know, you hear it over on the sidelines (I don’t). They say we’re lazy. They say we’re loud (Only on my blog). They say we’re irresponsible. They say we lower the standards (No, unfortunately standards are lowered for us, which I think is beyond stupid, but that’s another rant for another day). So often we’ve been denied the opportunities to learn and to practice. You learned by trial and error; ain’t that how you learned? And to grow.

Some black people don’t approve of black religious expression in Catholic liturgy. They’ve been told that it’s not properly Catholic (Simply because it’s not, they’re right. There’s a context for all expressions of faith. It would not be proper for someone to pray a Rosary during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the Mass is not time for private devotionals…Now is this to say that a certain expres sion is bad? Of course not, there are various expressions, but all in their context). They’ve been told that it’s not appropriately serious or dignified or solemn or controlled, that the European way is necessarily the better way.

How can we teach all the people what it means to be black and Catholic? The National Catechetical Directory says that all catechesis is supposed to be multicultural, but how little of it is. When we attempt to bring our black gifts to the church, people who do not know us say we’re being non-Catholic or separatists or just plain uncouth. (And the other problem, is that many of this comes from protestant backgrounds, and the Catholic understanding of the Mass does not fit in with the protestant understanding of mere fellowship)

I’ve got to say one more thing. You-all ain’t going to like this but that’s all right. Catholic schools have been a primary instrument of evangelization within the black community. The church has repeatedly asked black folk, what do you want, what can the church do for you? And black folk all over the country are saying, Help us to education. We need education. The way out of poverty is through education.

We can’t be church without education, because ignorance cripples us and kills us. Black people are still asking the Catholic Church for education (That’s what the schools are there for).

Now, sometimes we don’t have the money. Are we=2 0finding alternative ways to speak to the black community in a language that they understand? Bishop Brunini said a lot of Catholics spend time ministering to the saved and go out there and work with the church folks. A lot of black people out there are unchurched. (It’s called we assent to the Church’s language)

We have come a long way in faith. Just look where we have come from. We as black people find ourselves at the threshold of a new age. And as I look about the room I know that many of you have walked and talked and worked and prayed and stood with us in society and in the church. And in the name of all black folk, I thank you.

Today we’re called to walk together in a new way toward that land of promise and to celebrate who we are and whose we are. If we as church walk together, don’t let nobody separate you. That’s one thing black folk can teach you. Don’t let folk divide you or put the lay folk over here and the clergy over here, put the bishops in one room and the clergy in the other room, put the women over here and the men over here.

The church teaches us that the church is a family. It is a family of families and the family got to stay together. We know that if we do stay together, if we walk and talk and work and play and stand together in Jesus’ name, we’ll be who we say we are, truly Catholic; and we shall overcome — overcome the poverty, overcome the loneliness, overcome the alienation and build together a holy city, a new Jerusalem, a city set apart where they’ll know we are his because we love one another.

“We shall overcome” (You all get up!)

“We shall overcome

“We shall overcome

“We shall overcome someday

“Oh, deep in my heart,

“Deep in my heart I know,

“I do believe we shall overcome someday.”

Now, bishops I’m going to ask you-all to do something. Cross your right hand over your left hand. You’ve got to move together to do that. You’ve got to move together to do that. All right now, walk with me.

See, in the old days, you had to tighten up so that when the bullets would come, so that when the tear gas would come, so that when the dogs would come, so that when the horses would come, so that when the tanks would come, brothers and sisters would not be separated from one another.

And you remember what they did with the clergy and the bishops in those old days, where they’d put them? Right up in front, to lead the people in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the church who suffer in South Africa, who suffer in Poland, who suffer in Ireland, who suffer in Nicaragua, in Guatemala, in Northern Ireland, all over this world. We shall live in love.

“We shall live in love

“We shall live in love

“We shall live in love today

“Deep in my heart,

“Deep in my heart I know I do believe,

“We shall20live in love.”

That’s all we’ve got to do: love the Lord, to love our neighbor. Amen. Amen.

Amen. Amen.

Again, my experiences are a bit different from the sister who wrote this article. But what I must say is we have to get our idenity straight first. Catholic first, then everything else flows from that. I am not Black and Catholic…I am Catholic, then black, with God as our reference point, many of these challenges can be overcome, when we point to ourselves, we’re ultimately going to fail.

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