Oxymoron No Longer

On being Black and Catholic in America

It was as if I was a kid again. The gospel choir numbering at least 30 strong lifted their voices to the rooftop. The pulse of the music, aided by drums, a saxophone, a bass, and a huge sound system, shook the rafters and rushed through my veins. My hands almost instinctively came together to clap as I joined in song. Praise and worship showered over the largely African American congregation with the joy-filled “Alleluia” and “Amen” bursting from every corner of the church. All the great memories of going to church with my dad came rushing back to me. The only difference was, instead of this being a Southern Baptist congregation like that of my father’s, the stations of the cross along the side walls indicated it was in fact a Catholic church. All of the sudden, the separate worlds that I had balanced as a kid fused together in powerful Godly praise and the stereotypes that I realized I possessed washed away like sins after confession. I knew I had found my new church home.

St. Augustine Church, located in the heart of our nation’s capitol, is one of the many predominantly Black Catholic parishes in the United States. While the number of Black Catholics has declined in some cities, it still remains an important and vibrant part of the larger American Catholic Church. The experiences of black Catholicism vary from one person to the next. Sometimes, members of this racial and religious minority must fight the general perception of Catholicism as a non-black religion. But their shared cultural identity, just as with so many of the other diverse cultures of the Church, offers certain distinct gifts to the general community of faith that help to break down stereotypes and bring others closer to God.

Black Catholic Studies

Dr. Jamie Phelps is acutely aware of the many gifts the Black Catholic community provides to the general church. Dr. Phelps is the director of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University in New Orleans and has been a member of the Adrian Dominican Congregation since 1959. She stresses the importance of the historical suffering of African Americans (both in the Church and society at large) in fostering a faith that overcomes adversity. “Our greatest gift [as Black Catholics] is our deep faith, hope, and commitment to God in the midst of struggle,” she wrote in an email interview.

“African American Catholics can witness to God’s being a source of hope when everything would suggest that one should despair” she adds. “God has enabled us to ‘keep on keeping on’ with an uncommon faithfulness even when we have been rejected, marginalized, and devalued in our church and in society.”

My parents, who have been “keeping on” for 32 years, always held faith to be the foundation of our family and race to be a largely insignificant detail. This no doubt brought our family together as nothing else could despite my parents’ different race and religion. My mom, who is Caucasian, has always been Catholic, raising my brother and I in the same tradition, while my dad, who is African American, has never strayed from his Southern Baptist upbringing. Every Christmas and Easter we would go to both a Catholic mass and a Baptist service in what we came to call our “church marathon.” However, while growing up within this biracial and bi-religious setting, I began to separate the two worlds looking for an identity of my own.

Black Enough?

When I encountered Blacks who thought I should not be Catholic because Catholicism is a ‘white church’, I knew that they simply did not understand the richness of our tradition.

As much as I have always believed race shouldn’t play a role in religion, I was forced to experience how it did. I began to link religion with race and my ongoing religious experiences, fostered by the racial imbalance of my Orange County California hometown, simply confirmed what I had come to believe—that Catholicism was a non-black religion and that to be African American and a person of faith, one had to be Protestant (particularly Southern Baptist). It really puts a bi-racial person in a bind.

My experience was not unique. Many of the members of the Black Catholic community (including those who were not bi-racial) found themselves thrown into the same contrived boxes. “We’re between two worlds being Black and Catholic,” Dr. Phelps said. “Catholics don’t think you’re Catholic enough and Protestants don’t think you’re black enough.”

Dr. Phelps, a self-described “Cradle Catholic” who became the first African American in her order of sisters at a time when many parishes were still segregated, was determined to not let the stereotypes of others phase her.

“When I encountered Blacks who thought I should not be Catholic because Catholicism is a ‘white church’, I knew that they simply did not understand the richness of our tradition,” she wrote. “Despite the imperfection of Catholics, I experience the presence of God’s spirit and have grown in ‘wisdom, age, and grace’ as a member of the Catholic Church and I see no reason to abandon it because of the racism, sexism, or classism of some of its members and institutions. All human institutions are flawed and so is the Church. But that doesn’t prohibit God from using this flawed instrument to lead me to a deeper communion with God.”

Sore Thumbs

I learned by experience early on in life how different faiths commune with the Almighty. The contrast between my mom’s and dad’s churches couldn’t be more stark. I became very accustomed to being one of the only people of African American descent at the English mass of my home parish. Sure, there were countless Mexican and Vietnamese families who belonged to the parish, but African Americans were hard to come by. I knew my brother and I, both dark skinned, stood out like a sore thumb sitting in the pews at the English mass next to my white mother.

However, when I went to my dad’s church, I didn’t feel black enough within the sea of African American worshipers. Everyone would rise to their feet and clap with the music of the mainly black gospel choir, generating an improvisational flow that would sometimes cause certain people to explode in violent shaking with tears streaming down their face. It looked to my young eyes more like a seizure than what my dad described as being “touched by the spirit.” Juxtaposed to my Catholic Church experience of stoic reverence and strict adherence to ritual, I started to believe that my dad’s church was the one that offered an unrivaled glimpse into the underpinnings of black culture…something I felt lacking in my life.

My father’s Southern Baptist faith reflected true black culture in my mind and my mom’s Catholic church was completely different (both in racial make-up and cultural practice). This perception started to infect the way I saw the entire Catholic faith.

The actual numbers of Black Catholics don’t help the cause. According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops there are approximately 225 African American priests in the United States while the general African American Catholic population makes up a mere 3.8% of all Catholics in the US.