By DARYL GRIGSBY
For the last three years, I have been part of a group of African-American Catholic men who meet for a monthly breakfast. Our gatherings are punctuated with lively discussions on faith, politics and justice. Often we grapple with why a black man would stay faithful to the Catholic church. These men are both cradle Catholics and converts, and we all ponder whether the church can nurture a black man.
We struggle with the same issues that afflict many of today’s Catholics: the stunning revelations of the scope of clerical pedophilia, the irresponsible transferring of perpetrators by bishops, the subsequent bankruptcies and closures, the exclusion of women and married men from the priesthood.
Like many, we are left confused and searching. Yet for black men, the issue is magnified, for it is harder to find mentors, friends and fellowship in our church. The absence of other black men leaves us without comrades in the faith. Many of the unique challenges of being a black man go unaddressed by a church that is overwhelmingly Anglo. Further, as local parishes correctly strengthen their Vietnamese, Filipino and Hispanic ministries, black issues seem forgotten. Black women have serious issues as well, but to some extent have more sisters for fellowship and conversation.
What are these unique challenges of being a black man? First, to be a black man is to be part of a race-gender composite resting on the bottom of the misery index in countless categories. Our brothers rank high in the rates for unemployment, incarceration, dropouts, illiteracy, infant mortality and early death, and low in home ownership, matriculation and corporate presence. Even if you have “succeeded” in America’s scale of values, you can’t help but remember Martin Luther King’s nervousness, expressed in 1965, that we might be “integrating into a burning house.”
Your job, house and security are appreciated, but not completely, for you are saddened by the number of illiterate, jobless and incarcerated brothers. You feel, in fact, a smoldering “black rage” that whites often misunderstand. They cite your personal accomplishments, knowing little that your celebration is muted when so many brothers are denied what you possess. Black men often need a place a share the hurt, anger and joy of being black and male in America. The great black scholar W.E.B. Du Bois said it best in The Souls of Black Folk: “One ever feels his two-ness; an American, a Negro, two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” In this context, the best thing the Catholic church can do is be a place where black men may gather without judgment or whispers.
So where does this leave the black male Catholic? One of our breakfast members said a local black Baptist minister told him any black man who remains Catholic has lost his mind. This minister sees Anglo paintings of the Virgin Mary, the preponderance of European saints and white priests and wonders aloud why a black man would remain in a place so devoid of color. While black Baptist and Pentecostal churches abound with male leaders, social sermons and community roots, a black Catholic man is often alone.
Yet like many Catholics, we find our hearts longing for our church. The beautiful liturgy has a seasonal rhythm that changes each year into a spiritual odyssey. The Blessed Virgin Mary models courage and faith in the midst of hardship. The saints live among us, and St. Augustine, St. Francis, St. Thérèse and others pray for us and guide us along the way.
We are also inspired by the vast untapped treasure of black saints. Daniel Rudd of Kentucky told his fellow African-Americans, “The Holy Roman Catholic church offers to the oppressed Negro a material as well as spiritual refuge. … We need the church, the church wants us. Investigate. … See, comprehend for yourselves.” In the 1880s he published a national black Catholic newspaper, the American Catholic Tribune, and founded the still-active National Black Catholic Congress movement. I am particularly moved by the life of Daniel Rudd, for he believed his race had a home in the church when there was little physical evidence that was so. For Daniel Rudd, faith was truly “the substance of things hoped for” (Heb 11:1). It is an interesting historical note that Daniel Rudd died in Bardstown, Ky., the town where Thomas Merton later lived in the monastery at Gethsemani.
Sr. Elizabeth Lange was superior of the first group of black religious, the Oblate Sisters of Providence. Founded in Baltimore in 1829, the sisters nursed the sick and taught the poor in the name of Jesus Christ. The Venerable Pierre Toussaint sheltered homeless black children, fed the hungry and nursed those dying of cholera. When he died in New York in 1853, thousands attended his funeral. In 1578, Benedict was a cook in the monastery in Palermo, Italy. His wisdom and devotion to God were such that hundreds visited his kitchen for counseling, healing and prayer. Benedict became known as “il moro santo,” “the Black Saint.” These are but a few of our black Catholic pioneers.
My graduate theological school project was to interview African-Americans who had been Catholic for more than 60 years. I asked, “Why did you remain faithful to a church which often disrespected black parishioners?” For each of them, the answer was simple. They met God in the sacraments, prayers and teachings of the church, and nothing could turn them away. Some priests refused to bury their parents, and at times they had to stand in the back, yet they persisted. Though this segregation was prevalent in the South, the North was not immune. When the interviews were complete, I realized their perseverance made the church Catholic.
Despite all that is awry in the church, I must stay. I must stay because black pioneers built a church where African-Americans are welcomed in a universal gathering. I must stay because Daniel Rudd, Elizabeth Lange, Pierre Toussaint, St. Benedict and others comprise a black communion. I stay, for Christ meets me in the Eucharist and teaches me that forgiveness and mercy are to be shared with all. The defining moment of my week comes when we hear, “This is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. Happy are those who are called to his supper.” We respond, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word, and I shall be healed.” At that holy moment, I and my church are healed yet again to face another week of work, service, sadness, joy, difficulty and triumph.
Daryl Grigsby has a master’s degree in pastoral studies from Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry. He is a lay presider at St. Therese Parish in Seattle and is working on a book of black saints.