Oxymoron No Longer

On being Black and Catholic in America

The Archdiocese of Chicago has seen a slight decline in the number of Black Catholics over the years. Dr. Shelia Adams, Director of the Office for Black Catholics in the Archdiocese, blames the dip on jobs leaving the area, parish and school closures, the sex abuse scandal and an increase in the number of both senior and youth deaths.

Kathleen Merritt, Director of Ethnic Ministries in the Diocese of Charleston, South Carolina, claims the problematic perception of Catholicism as a “non-black” religion may be less about the actual number of Black Catholics and more about the way African Americans are portrayed in the media. She says many of the civil rights leaders and other political leaders in national organizations like the NAACP are associated with the Baptist Church. And with Rev. Jesse Jackson from South Carolina, she admits, her home state is no exception.

Decline in Black Catholics

Merritt, however, still recognizes the significance of the overall size of the Black Catholic population. She cites some of the same factors as the ones found in Chicago that are leading to a decline in Black Catholics in her diocese of Charleston. “The closing of many of our traditional African American Parishes and schools has had a direct effect on the number of Black Catholics in parishes today,” she wrote in an email interview. “When these institutions close in the African American community, these Catholics are less likely to continue practicing their faith in another Catholic Church. The state of African American Catholics can be seen as a crisis in some dioceses.”

But you’d never guess it in churches like St. Augustine where some 1300 families of predominantly African American descent come to worship every Sunday. St. Augustine Church is labeled “The Mother Church for Black Catholics” because, as its pastor, Fr. Patrick Smith, explains, it is the oldest Black Catholic parish in the Diocese of Washington DC.

A group of emancipated Black Catholics founded it in 1858, first as a school, educating their black children while it was still illegal in the area and throughout the South. Then, in 1876, it became a full-fledged parish complete with a new church building in the heart of Washington DC. It now serves a congregation that is 80% to 90% black with a predominantly black population of children in its school.

Education and Faith

“Some people say that to get authentic Black culture, you have to look to Protestantism,” said Fr. Pat. “They don’t know a lot about the history of Blacks and Catholicism.”

“The school plays a significant role in preserving Black Catholic heritage,” Fr. Pat explains. “The path to freedom as black people in America has been through education and faith. So, in many ways, the school and the church go together.”

My own experience with Catholic education didn’t occur until college. I went to University of San Diego, a small Catholic school, but even there I was one of just a small group of African Americans (bi-racial or otherwise). Despite the feeling of being a racial outsider in the church that I had come to call my own, much like Dr. Phelps, I was not about to leave. I refused to believe that the bread and wine given for communion were not actually the body and blood of Christ. And I genuinely had a great time at my home parish, getting involved as an altar server, and then a lector, and then, in college, in the church choir.

In the few years since graduating, my Catholic background has led me into what I consider to be some of the best experiences of my life. I joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps where I served as a youth minister in a wonderful, faith-filled Manhattan parish and then began working for Busted Halo® where I get to engage people on issues of faith. But apart from a brief parish experience in Brooklyn, New York, I never knew what it was like to be in a Catholic Church surrounded by African Americans and immersed in black culture…until I came to DC.

Authentic Black Culture

“Some people say that to get authentic Black culture, you have to look to Protestantism,” said Fr. Pat. “They don’t know a lot about the history of Blacks and Catholicism. Our church is St. Augustine, [named after] an African saint.”

Seeing the diversity in the different masses of the St. Augustine parish—from the subdued atmosphere of the 10am mass that was so reminiscent of my mom’s parish to the electric atmosphere of the 12:30pm mass, an experience that I had linked to my dad’s church—I began to recognize my own flawed stereotypes of black faith as a monolithic set of beliefs and practices.

“One of the unique things about St. Augustine is that you have Black Catholics who are perfectly comfortable singing [latin songs] and praying the rosary daily and then you have others who don’t feel they have been to mass if they haven’t had a gospel choir to inspire them,” said Fr. Pat. “I feel like I can minister to everybody, those who love the gospel choir and those who sing the Kyrie in Latin.”

Just like many others of the parish community, the Gospel choir pulled me in. The power and inspiration it poured out onto the congregation was incredible. “For some, the gospel choir is the face of St. Augustine,” said Fr. Pat. “People come and visit here from other countries because of the gospel choir.”

Life-Changing Encounters

Last year, the choir celebrated 30 years of bringing inspirational song to the masses. And it is this song, that Fr. Pat says has helped his parish become a safety net for Black Catholics on their way out of the Church.
“Gospel music which is shared by Blacks and Whites underscores God’s fidelity and love,” Dr. Phelps wrote. “African American Catholics who claim their ancestors struggles through slavery, emancipation, segregation, lynching, integration etc, have a rich history of stories and experiences that reveal God’s fidelity and love. Spirituals were born in the context of slaves who trusted God.”

Fr. Pat is well aware of the significance of the church’s gospel choir, but he is quick to add that it is in service to the same mission held by every Catholic parish throughout the world: “to lead people to a personal, life-changing encounter with God in Christ.”

Still, it is hard to overestimate the impact that the music has had for a place like St. Augustine’s. According to Fr. Pat, the gospel choir “has made something like Black and Catholic no longer an oxymoron for some.”