Black Catholic leaders say more integration in the Church is possible — if all are willing to do the work

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Chicago Auxiliary Bishop Joseph N. Perry delivers his homily during a Mass of thanksgiving in celebration of Black History Month in 2017. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

When the Church was born at Pentecost, about 3,000 people “from every nation under heaven” were baptized,” St. Luke tells us in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles.

“I tell people all the time that Pentecost Sunday celebrates diversity with a capital D,” said Auxiliary Bishop Joseph N. Perry of Chicago, who told Our Sunday Visitor that St. Luke’s account underscores the truth that Christ was crucified for the salvation of all people.

“The Church was meant to be diverse from the beginning,” Bishop Perry said.

But that diversity unraveled over the centuries as complex and interrelated socioeconomic, political, cultural and historical factors, to name just a few, converged to make Sunday morning worship “the most segregated hour” in America, as Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once observed.

“I think the Church really wants change, and wants to be an instrument of social justice and racial healing, but the Church for so long has been so busy trying to keep a roof over its head and the lights on that one day we wake up and realize there’s a whole world that has passed us by,” said Vickie Figueroa, the head of Black Catholic Ministry for the Archdiocese of Detroit.

‘We have to be on the front lines’

Figueroa and other black Catholic leaders told Our Sunday Visitor that the Church in the United States needs to step up to the challenge of bringing about greater racial reconciliation and confronting the toxic legacy of racism against black- and brown-skinned people that still manifests itself in sinful and unjust social conditions and institutions.

“This is the way people are brought up, and it’s ingrained in this country, whether we believe it or not,” said Auxiliary Bishop Roy E. Campbell Jr., of Washington, D.C., who also serves as president of the National Black Catholic Congress.

Bishop Campbell told Our Sunday Visitor that the Church must respond to the nation’s growing interest in and demand for racial justice — sparked by repeated instances of police brutality against unarmed black men — “by doing what we preach every Sunday in the Gospel.”

“And that doesn’t mean we’re not trying,” Bishop Campbell said. “It means we have work to do.”

That work so far has taken on several forms, such as webinars and virtual symposiums, statements from individual bishops, Rosary processions and special Masses to atone for the sin of racism, to note a few examples. On June 8, Bishop Campbell and other clergy participated in a “prayerful protest” in Washington, D.C., to demonstrate against hatred and institutional discrimination toward people of color.

“We have to be on the front lines, the way the nuns and priests were in the civil rights marches of the 1960s,” Bishop Campbell said. “We gotta start doing that again.”

A lack of representation

To be a credible witness against racism, black Catholic leaders told Our Sunday Visitor that the Church in the United States also needs to tackle uncomfortable truths about how racial dynamics play out in its own internal life.

While about 76 percent of black Catholics are in diverse or shared parishes, according to statistics from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, it is still rare in several parts of the country for white Catholics to worship alongside or socialize with black Catholics.

“The Church itself, our people, are too often divided,” Bishop Perry said. “We have natural boundaries. We have railroad tracks. We have well-to-do people, and we have poor people, but never the twain shall meet. In many places we see these mono-racial communities, and that in itself is a scandal, because that isn’t how the Church began.”

In addition, black men are underrepresented in seminaries, the diocesan priesthood, religious orders and positions of leadership. Out of a little more than 420 active and retired bishops in the United States, only 12 are black, according to the USCCB. None of the 12 are cardinals.

“Is the Church reflective of the people that make it up in their locality when it comes to leading, to governing? Are we reflective of that? I don’t think so,” Bishop Campbell said. “We have to see what we do so we can honestly practice what we preach.”

Percy Marchand, the associate director of the Knights of Peter Claver, the country’s largest black Catholic lay organization, told Our Sunday Visitor that while there are separations between black and white Catholics on Sundays, he sees that more as a result of different worship styles.

“I don’t think it’s a hard line in terms of, ‘I’m black, and I’m not made to feel comfortable in this white church,'” said Marchand, who added that he never experienced discrimination while being brought up in a predominantly white parish. In his black-majority parish today, Marchand said white parishioners are welcomed and are active as lectors, choir members and in other capacities.

“That said, the Church could be more integrated. And that comes with exposure,” said Marchand, who added that representative leadership “makes a difference.”

“If you’re saying that you should love everyone and don’t (mistreat) them based on their race, but then you look at your leadership and out of 400-something bishops there are only a few blacks, and then on your board, there’s only one black person — if even that one — then you’re not living out the example of what you’re preaching,” Marchand said.

‘Being committed to racial equality’

The country’s history is a big factor for the black-and-white divide today in the pews. The Catholic Church came of age in the United States as a 19th-century church of European immigrants. Irish, Italians, Polish, French Canadiens and other white ethnic communities lived in their own neighborhoods and worshipped in their own churches.

“People tend to like to be around people who are like them, who share their experiences, who share their cultures,” said Figueroa, the head of Black Catholic Ministry for the Archdiocese of Detroit.

Meanwhile, the black church became an important institution in the life of the country’s beleaguered black community. For decades, their churches were the only places where African Americans felt safe, affirmed and welcomed as themselves, Figueuroa said.

“The church became this large institution in black America where many things happened, where we worshipped, where we had Sunday dinner, where people were given their full dignity,” Figueroa said. “The black church was so big in the black community that sometimes if we don’t get that in other churches, we gravitate toward our own.”

Darren Davis, a political science professor at the University of Notre Dame, told Our Sunday Visitor that desegregating more parishes “would go a long way toward reducing the kind of inequality we see on Sunday mornings,” but added that initiative would be impossible without good leadership.

“Just placing people together, even on a Sunday morning, does not work. It requires leadership to really endorse the breaking down of these barriers and being committed to racial equality,” said Davis, who co-authored a 2011 report, sponsored by Notre Dame and the National Black Catholic Congress, that offered insights into the spiritual needs of black Catholics.

More than anything, Bishop Campbell added, Church leaders and the lay faithful need to examine how they think and act in the area of race relations, which he said is a difficult but important dialogue.

“It’s always going to be an extremely uncomfortable situation to talk about,” Bishop Campbell said, “But if it’s not talked about, then what occurs now will keep on occurring.”

Brian Fraga is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.

Brian Fraga

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.