ROCHESTER — Courtney Davis said when she first started taking classes for her master’s degree in divinity at St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry, some of her peers there didn’t realize she is Catholic because she is black.
Davis cited the incident as one example of some people’s lack of knowledge about the black Catholic Church.
"There is a need for understanding of the history of black Catholics," she observed.
Davis conveyed this need for understanding during a listening session with representatives of the diocesan Office of Black Ministry Nov. 5 at St. Mary Church. The session was one of two the diocese hosted to identify ways the office and parishes can better serve black Catholics and minister to multicultural communities, said Bernard Grizard, diocesan director of Parish Support Ministries, which includes the Office of Black Ministry.
"Hopefully we can incorporate what people said and provide a plan for the office so that African-Americans are included in the life of the diocese, and we can make sure their needs are met," Grizard said.
One major priority that has developed from the listening sessions is the need to conduct a census to determine who the black Catholics are in the 12-county diocese, Grizard said.
"That would also help us focus different ministries and programs to reach people where they are at," he said.
He noted that in addition to African-Americans, the diocese’s Office of Black Ministry also helps such groups as African Catholics and such black Caribbean Catholics as Haitians.
Another aim of the listening sessions was to help parishes throughout the diocese better minister to those who are culturally different.
"We will identify ways to be more attentive to and more culturally aware of people’s needs," Grizard said.
In addition to meeting needs, Grizard said he hopes parishes and individuals will be enriched by the unique cultural gifts of diverse people. Much of the Nov. 5 listening-session discussion focused on the need for parishes to be hospitable and welcoming in order to benefit from those gifts.
Davis said hospitality can make a big difference. As a preteen, she frequently attended a suburban church with white friends, but no one at the church ever welcomed her or asked her if she was interested in joining the church.
"Nobody asked me who I was," Davis said. "That was a missed opportunity for evangelization."
To be more hospitable, Grizard suggested that parishioners search for common ground other than race. For example, parents can relate to other parents, and people can bond over their birth order.
Gaynelle Wethers, who facilitated the Nov. 5 discussion, suggested that people learn more about the history of black Catholics. She cited the example of Rochester native Father Charles Hall, a Josephite priest who was a noted teacher at St. Augustine School in New Orleans. Father Hall, who has a Josephite school in Baltimore named in his honor, encountered racism throughout his life, Wethers said.
Wethers, too, said she has had to deal with racism in her life, even growing up in Louisiana where there are many black Catholics. Now a parishioner of Immaculate Conception Church and the director of multicultural affairs for Nazareth College, Wethers recalled having to sit in the back of a segregated church in New Orleans. She said as a child she wanted to become a nun like her teachers, the Sisters of the Holy Family.
"I wanted to be a missionary, but at the time, they were not accepting black women," Wethers said.
In recent years, fighting racism has been a priority of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The group in 1979 issued the pastoral letter "Brothers and Sisters to Us," which called on the church to confront racism and work toward including racial and ethnic minorities in the life of the church.
Wethers suggested one way to confront racism is to create more opportunities for people of different cultures to come together. Charlie Randisi of Rochester agreed. He was attending the Nov. 5 listening session with members of his JustFaith class, a program that examines social-justice issues.
Randisi said he is now interested in attending a black Catholic parish, after hearing one participant talk about black spirituality.
"I’d like to go and experience the same thing my black Catholic brethren are experiencing," said Randisi, a parishioner of Blessed Sacrament Church.
Also during the Nov. 5 listening session discussions turned to presidential politics, since the talk took place the day after Barack Obama became the first black man to be elected president.
"We have made progress, yes, because we elected a black man as president, but we have an awful long way to go because we don’t understand each other," Wethers said. "I think the church can play a role in that."
EDITOR’S NOTE: For details about the Office of Black Ministry, visit www.dor.org/psm/OfficeBlackMinistry.htm.