Sr. Thea Bowman once wrote, “What does it mean to be black and Catholic? It means that I come to my church fully functioning. That doesn’t frighten you, does it? I come to my church fully functioning. I bring myself, my black self, 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 a gift to the church.” Sr. Thea, a Mississippi-born convert and a member of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, and several other theologians were trying to define their role as Catholics through the lens of being a black (African/African-American) Catholic at a time when the church did not have too much regard for the African-American experience or worship style in respect to the liturgy.
I grew up black and Catholic in a multicultural parish that had only a few black families. And, like many other young people, I would go to church simply because my family made me or because I wanted to hang with my friends who were there. I wasn’t interested in a personal relationship with Jesus. Even while attending a Jesuit university, my faith life remained somewhat superficial, revolving around regular Mass attendance. But it wasn’t until I found my present parish, St. Peter Claver Church, that I discovered how powerful the liturgy could be.
It is at parishes like St. Peter Claver, and others that approach liturgy from their distinct cultural perspectives, that people truly feel connected to the body of Christ. Black people often don’t have a parish or diocese that attends to their liturgical needs and that is why some feel compelled to leave the Church. At St. Peter Claver, I found a parish that listens to the black community and develops programs, ministries, and liturgies based on the needs of the people–not on what we as ministers think the people need. Isn’t that what Jesus did? I love the Catholic Church. I love the rich tradition, and all the social justice needs that we address. I also love my culture and when I found out that both faith and culture could work hand-in-hand, I knew that God was truly a part of my whole being.
In the wake of the changes of Vatican II, the church allowed cultural integration into the liturgy and the worship life of parishes. This meant that the gifts of black people (even though they were already there) were allowed to be brought into the life of the church. These gifts included dance (liturgical and African), song (gospel and African rhythms), environment (Kente cloth and images of saints other than those normally depicted), and effective preaching that would touch the people in the pews. But most importantly black people took this opportunity to define their faith for themselves. These ancestors defined Jesus as their liberator, not just as their comforter. They connected to Jesus by relating His struggle to theirs. He was not depicted as the Jesus on mainstream church walls, but one that looked and lived like the people that he came to save. Bishop Henry T. McNeil Turner summarizes this best in his book, GOD IS A NEGRO, “We do not believe that there is any hope for any race of people who do not believe they look like God.”
God is one of us and shares and understands what we are going through. This is what it means to be black and Catholic. All too frequently, the experience for a black Catholic in a white Catholic church is the feeling of not belonging. This is best seen at the sign of peace. Many black people, myself included, can recall fellow churchgoers shaking hands with everybody except the brother or sister who might be sitting next to, behind, or in front of them. Sadly, this is not an isolated incident, but one that occurs far too many times in churches around the country.
Despite such attitudes among some people in the pews, black Catholics still remain faithful. There are approximately 2.3 million black Catholics in the United States. Many of them understand that their faith is not necessarily dependent on the actions of others in this world, but they hold onto their faith for the peace that is waiting for them in eternal life.
As black people, worship is an enormous part of our lives. It does not just occur on Sunday morning, but throughout the week in black Catholic parishes where true African/African-American cultural expression is infused into the liturgy. This can include dancing, preaching, music, and the various reactions of the congregation. It is a giving of our whole self to the Lord, including our joys and pains. It is being told at the bank that you have an overdrawn account and knowing that the Lord will still help you to pay your bills. It is trying to make it through a tough course in college in which the material doesn’t make sense, and still knowing that somehow the Lord will still pull all the loose ends together. It is a faith that lets you know that God would not give you the day without giving you the strength to face it. This is what it means to be Black and Catholic, to know that despite what others might say or do, this is my faith, this is my God, this is the faith of my ancestors, this is the God of my ancestors, and He will make a way for me despite what others may say or do. This is what makes Jesus my liberator.