Father Steven Bell, CSP, shares his journey of faith as a convert to Catholicism, Paulist priest, and member of the Black Catholic community. He shares his perspective on how we can support our Black brothers and sisters in the Church.
Father Steven first reflects on diversity. “I want to start that by saying that unity does not presume or require uniformity,” he says. “There has to be an understanding that when God made all humans there was a diversity, even in that creation. So the question becomes, how do we begin to appreciate that diversity in such a way that it doesn’t make us just observers of it, but actually adds value to our own experience, our own uniqueness and what we contribute to that cornucopia of God’s creation as we narrowly go along.”
“When I first walked into a Catholic Church, this was following a two-year pilgrimage of trying to find the altar that I could bring my whole self to. I had kind of taken a break from the Church of Christ which is my denomination of origin, and needed to find a place where I felt God was calling more … It wasn’t until I got to the Catholic Church that I actually saw the arms of the Lord reach out and the voice of the Lord call me to the Church … This was the way that I could really bring what the Lord had given to me in a very unique and authentic way. It was a way that I could teach others more about the diversity of what God has created, and also learn from that diversity.”
Father Steven shares the ways in which his community at an African-American parish made him feel like family, “I walk in the door, and the ministry of hospitality with uniforms and their gloves reached out and gave me a hug. They sat me down in a chair that was just for visitors so that we experience the Mass in a way that would connote home … I remember holding hands during the Our Father and the sign of peace lasting for literally 15 to 20 minutes, because we were not going to go to the altar of God to receive the prime preeminent sign of unity and goodness of God until we had made peace with everybody in that place.”
“The very sign that we use as a challenge, as well as our identifier and affirmation is the cross. I often go and talk about the fact that the cross is not just a symbol of our faith, but it’s also a directive. There’s a vertical bar that talks about our relationship with God who needed to be unhindered so that we’d bring our whole selves as the Scripture say, to love God with everything we are … We bring it to the Lord sacrificially, unadulterated, real and authentic. But then there’s also a horizontal bar which represents the love that we are to offer to one another. I think love is another word that needs to be unpacked and taught and familiarized with a lot of people, but we have to offer that same kind of sacrificial, unhindered, unconditional, and authentic love to everyone. To our brothers and sisters.”
Father Steven reflects on the current racial tensions in our country. “Unless a grain of wheat falls on the ground and dies it stays a grain of wheat, but if it dies becomes a life giving bread. What we’ve seen now is the breaking. I think we’re seeing the voices that have not been heard crying out … And that’s what’s happening now with the occasions happening over and over and over again of such injustice and such degradation and desecration of our being, of our meaning, and of our purpose as Black people in this country. We just can’t take it anymore. There is, as there has always been, an eruption to bring that message out, but this time the eruption is fueled by so many other things that have been part of the struggle that we’ve had as of late. That’s why I think it’s taken on a greater intensity, and this calling folks to be aware that the normal that we have been living in is unacceptable.”
“We shall overcome, yes, the time is coming. We see so much, particularly with the prophets of the Old Testament that are preaching to a people who are literally enslaved and taken out of their homeland. And those prophetic words are giving hope that someday we’ll be relieved of all this.”
“The reason we have Black Catholic ministries is because when we looked at the way that integration had happened, it was actually more like assimilation. There was a great desire to have the social, political, and material advantages that we were denied for so long as Black people. But the problem is, it became that we had to attain those things by sacrificing our culture and sacrificing parts of us that really enriched the value and the beauty of our blackness. And so it now becomes part of a mission of these ministries, both local and national, to bring that back and to show that the spirituality that we have within our Catholic faith is very much in concert with the spirituality that we have as Black people. And to show that that diversity is not a threat to any kind of cultural standing that we’re trying to make the norm, but it’s an enhancement. They are being authentically Catholic and authentically Black and that’s very much parallel, kind of like what I say to be American and to be Catholic, there are parallels, there are good parallels.”
Originally published on June 9, 2020.