Black Catholics celebrate heritage at convocation
ROCHESTER — Twenty-five years ago on Oct. 15, Kim Harris entered the Catholic Church. On the evening of Oct. 15, 2004, she entered Immaculate Conception Church to share her faith through song, accompanied by her husband Reggie’s guitar-playing and voice. The couple are storytellers and songwriters who use music to teach about such subjects as the Underground Railroad and black history.
"I’m so glad Jesus lifted me!" she sang, encouraging about 130 people in the church to join her and her husband in the lively spiritual. "Singing Glory, Hallelujah! Jesus lifted me."
The congregation included Catholics from the dioceses of Rochester, Buffalo and Syracuse, who were all in Rochester to attend the 2004 Black Catholic Convocation. The convocation was cosponsored by all three dioceses, according to Father Michael Upson. Father Upson is pastor at Immaculate and director of the Office of Black Ministry in the Rochester Diocese’s Parish Support Ministries.
An Albany-area Catholic, Kim Harris gave a presentation on the life of abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who helped African-Americans escape slavery. Both Tubman and fellow abolitionist Sojourner Truth had religious visions that inspired them to fight slavery, she said, noting that the religious connection is not always taught in schools.
"We have to ask ourselves, we — who are people of faith — what is our vision?" Harris told her listeners.
If you asked some of the young liturgical dancers who performed at Immaculate that night, their vision included sharing their talents with the church. Nikko Fenderson, 11; his brother, Kenneth, 13; Julian Bell, 18; Marianna Scott, 15; and Ashley Brass, 17, all noted that they dance at Masses and other events as a form of ministry.
"I love dancing, and this is just another way of praying," Julian said.
Kenneth Fenderson added that liturgical dancing was his way of "making God happy." And God is a forgiving audience, added Ashley.
"You’re doing this for God," she said. "It doesn’t matter if you mess up or not."
Fellowship and celebration were among the factors that drew Ron Thomas, an Immaculate parish council member, to the convocation.
"I think it’s important that we celebrate the African-American heritage within this church," he said.
Joanne Gordon, an active Immaculate volunteer who works with the young dancers, also said the convocation was a way to bring the black Catholic community together, as well as the larger Catholic community. Indeed, a number of white, Hispanic and Asian Catholics were present at Immaculate that night, and also attended the convocation’s second day of events at St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Pittsford Oct. 16.
Jackie Campbell, youth minister and choir coordinator at St. Bridget’s Church in Rochester, said she thought it was important to attend the convocation to reinforce her sense of identity as a Catholic. Although African-Americans may think of the Catholic Church as a "white church," she said, 120 million people in Africa alone are Catholic. And, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the United States is home to 2 million black Catholics.
"When I talk about who I am, I’m part of a larger universal church where black Catholics are a significant part of it," Campbell said.
History of struggle
During a presentation at St. Bernard’s Oct. 16, Father Bryan Massingale, associate professor of moral theology at St. Francis Seminary in Milwaukee, noted that black and white Catholics belong to the same church, but have had different cultural experiences in America.
For example, many white Americans don’t think of their racial identity all that often, he said, whereas for many African-Americans, it’s an ever-present issue. A struggle for freedom in and acceptance by the larger society is a common experience for blacks, he noted, and informs black Catholics’ desire for a church that celebrates their heritage and supports their struggle. Celebrating that heritage means that the wider church needs to encourage African-American Catholics to participate in church life, from its liturgy to its leadership, he noted.
At the same time, black Catholics also must respond to the challenge of diversifying the church by becoming "culturally competent," Father Massingale said. African-American Catholics need to become well-versed in black Catholic history and build cooperation among black Catholic leaders.
In a follow-up interview, Father Massingale made a number of practical suggestions for parishes to become more accepting of cultural diversity. Every parish should learn hymns that come from different ethnic groups, he noted, and incorporate into liturgies different aspects of all of the church’s cultures. He added that parishes that are becoming multiethnic — for example, a parish moving from a mainly Polish congregation to a Puerto Rican congregation — should hold open dialogues about how such a transition is going and how it can be seen as a gain, not a loss.
"The goal is not to make the transition painless; it’s to make it graceful," he said.
When asked how people of different colors can discuss racial issues without devolving into quarreling over racism, Father Massingale urged Catholics to be honest, but polite.
"Be up front about it," he said. "Say, ‘This may not come out right’ or ‘I feel uncomfortable — don’t take offense.’ The one thing we have in common in our society is that we’re not very skilled at talking about race in a multicultural setting. We’re still trying to learn the skills, so there still may be some awkwardness."
Another topic of the convocation centered on defining who is an African-American. Is it someone whose African ancestors came over to America on a slave ship? A black Haitian who has immigrated to America? Someone whose family immigrated from Kenya 30 years ago? Or someone whose family just fled war-torn Sudan? These questions were among many addressed during an Oct. 16 presentation by Daughter of Divine Love Sister MaryPaul Asoegwu, coordinator of ethnic ministries for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and a native of Nigeria.
Africa has produced three popes, many saints and millions of Catholics, the woman religious noted. Yet, despite the fact that black Americans, black Caribbean natives and African immigrants share common roots in a continent that has decisively influenced the church, all three groups have vastly different experiences of America. Catholics seeking to work with any or all such communities need to realize that they have different histories and needs, she noted.
Sister Asoegwu said the U.S. church is continually taking steps to address the needs of black Catholics from Africa and the Caribbean. For example, she said, Washington, D.C., will host the first national convention of Caribbean Catholics from Aug. 26-28, 2005.
One of the discussion participants, Nevin Byrd, a 16-year-old parishioner of St. Martin de Porres Church in Buffalo, said part of her reason for traveling to Rochester was to learn how to better relate to the small group of Sudanese who attend her predominantly African-American parish. She spoke words that could be taken as a recurring message of the convocation itself.
"Everybody has good intentions," she said. "But without trying to understand (another person’s) culture and where they came from, it’s not inclusive."