Southern, Black and Catholic

A different kind of minority

For many black Catholics, their roots in the Church goes back generations. “The Church for many black people is home. That’s all they know” said Turner. “I live in Louisville, Ky. … The majority of black Catholics here are cradle Catholics.”

In the face of controversies such as the clergy sex abuse scandals, black Catholics, like those of other ethnicities, might stop going to Mass for a while, but they won’t stop being Catholics. “There’s a connectedness that you find at home” said Turner. “Even though you have to endure some challenges,” she said. “You don’t really want to leave home if you can avoid it.”

Black Catholics seek a bigger role in their churches

“You know, we can do more than sing.” That’s one of the statements heard by M. Annette Mandley-Turner from a young person at June’s African American Catholic Evanglization Conference.

“It’s one thing for the Church to recognize that you have cultural gifts to share,” Turner said from her office at the Archdiocese of Louisville, Ky. “It’s another thing to be welcomed to share those gifts in such a way that all will be enriched. …Many young adults are finding it very difficult to find their place as people of African descent in the Roman Catholic Church.”

The evangelization meeting was, for the first time, organized by and for black Catholics age 18 to 37.

“These are the people who will be taking their rightful place in the Church and taking the bouncing ball into another decade,” Turner said.

Many of these were professionals— chemists, engineers, nurses, other professionals—who were “cradle Catholics.”

“Yet, when it comes to working in the church, it’s almost like they’re treaded like they don’t have an intellect,” Turner said. “They say they have less qualified peers from outside the African American community that are instructing them. One said, ‘I have been in the church all my life. I’ve gone to retreats. I’ve gone to Xavier, yet I’m still not good enough for the Church. Why is that?’

“Another said, ‘We are quite capable of giving reflections, quite capable of leading.’”
At St. Augustine Catholic Church, a mostly black church in Memphis, Tenn., the St. Augustine Leadership Team was formed to help address the need for involving young African Americans in the leadership of their parish.

“We are being encouraged to have a voice and to shadow some of those who have more experience,” said SALT president Angela Lee, 39. “We are being asked to take on leadership roles, and have had leadership roles.”

For example, Lee chairs the liturgy committee. “I’m the youngest member on that committee,” she said. “All the others have been on that committee for many years—15, 20 or 30 years. I’m learning so much from them.”

SALT has four “pillars” or categories of activities: spiritual formation, social development, professionalism and voluntarism.

Stephanie Harrell, 42, president of the parish council and SALT member, said she likes how her church reaches out to the community that surrounds St. Augustine Catholic Church in Memphis’ low-income Whitehaven community, “not necessarily trying to make them change denominations, but helping them understand.”


Crystal Shelton admits that her Catholicism is considered unusual among most African Americans—even within her own family. But she is one of 2.3 million black Catholics in the United States, and her demographic group is pushing for a greater role in the Church both at the national and local level. She attended Catholic schools growing up, despite the fact that her mother is Protestant, and her mother’s family is “absolutely opposed to Catholicism.” Shelton now studies English, corporate communications and management with a minor in Spanish at CBU.

One of the challenges black Catholics face is from African Americans who belong to majority black Protestant churches. Memphis is the home city of the Church of God in Christ and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, two majority black churches. It’s a truism in the South that it’s never more segregated than on Sunday morning. “To a lot of people, there’s a big mystery about what Catholicism is about,” said Angela Lee, 39, a black finance manager for a Fortune 500 company in Memphis.

Non-Catholic African Americans often have a confused concept of the Roman Catholic Church, she said. One should note that non-Catholic whites’ concept of Catholicism is also often confused. Of her African American friends, Lee said, “They say things like, ’You worship statues and pray over candles and beads.’ …They say, ’You guys have a lot to memorize.’”

He’s Different

While attending Lane College, Jonathan Feild had a girlfriend who belonged to the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in Jackson, Tennessee, which is affiliated with the CME church. “Her uncle was a Baptist preacher who said to her, ‘Don’t get serious with him. He’s different,’” Feild said. “I said, ‘Whoa! I am just like you. I am Christian.’” Feild’s fellow students, also, would occasionally question his Catholic tradition. “Some of them would say things like, ‘You worship Mary. You’re not really black, because you’re Catholic.’ Some say, ‘How can you be Catholic?’”

Turner, in Louisville, said she has faced the similar questions. “When I am asked why I’m a Catholic, I ask, ‘Why aren’t you in the Catholic Church?’” she said. “Their understanding of the Church in its fullness is limited. Our challenge is to keep educating our brothers and sisters out there. We are always having to prove to our brothers and sisters who are not Catholic and who are of African descent that there is cultural identity in the Roman Catholic Church, and the Roman Catholic Church is not white.”

Indeed, 1,300 parishes in the United States have significant African American populations, of which 75 have African American pastors. The nation has 250 African American priests, 300 African-American sisters and 380 African-American deacons.

High Standards

One of those deacons is the Rev. Bob Atkins at Memphis’ St. Augustine Catholic Church, which is celebrating its 70th year in 2007. “Both my grandfathers were Baptist ministers,” Atkins said, sitting in his church office, which is part of the school wing. “My father converted when he moved to Memphis from Coahoma County, Mississippi. Dr. James W. Hose gave him a job. He was the (black) Catholic evangelist for the day. He helped found this parish.”

Atkins, 66, grew up in Catholic schools, but most of his friends were Baptist or Methodist. “They kind of felt sorry for us because of all the rules that Catholics have,” he said. “I think the biggest advantage was that … because my parents sent us to Catholic schools, they looked at us differently, and in most instances with a sense that ‘those are some good guys.’ …It wasn‘t popular to be Catholic at the time, but they had a certain respect for me.”

Harrell, who sings in the St. Augustine choir, said that when she was growing up, friends would say, “’Y’all don’t get into any trouble. Y’all have such high standards.’”