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Despite Persistent Racism, Black Catholics ‘Keep Hand on Plow’

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BY Dennis Poust

January 5, 1997 Issue | Posted 1/5/97 at 2:00 PM

 

AFTER MORE than 30 years, the incident remains etched in his memory. En route by bus from his hometown of Mallet, La., to the Society of the Divine Word seminary in Techny, Ill., the young man was ready for a meal by the time the travelers stopped around midnight at a station along the way.

He doesn't remember what state it was, though it really doesn't matter. It could have happened anywhere. “We were all hungry, and we went in to get some food,” he recalled. “We were told we couldn't eat there, to get back on the bus.”

With no other restaurant at the station, the young man was forced to go hungry. He continued on to the seminary undeterred and was eventually ordained a priest. Today Auxiliary Bishop Curtis Guillory of Galveston-Houston is one of the few blacks in the American hierarchy. Racism may be less blatant today than it was that night in the 60s for Bishop Guillory, but it is still a day-to-day reality, as the recent Texaco controversy and the burning of black churches in the South have so vividly shown.

The Church, both in America and universally, has long condemned racism as evil and a sin, while at the same time acknowledging that it still exists within its walls. In its most recent attempt to heal the wounds, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops' (NCCB) Committee on African-American Catholics and the United States Catholic Conference's (USCC) Office of Research have released Keep Your Hand on the Plow: The African-American Presence in the Catholic Church, a 124-page book that Bishop Guillory said is meant to serve as an inspiration to those working in ministry to African-Americans; to sensitize people to the problem of racism in society and the Church; and to provide models of ministries that work.

In an introduction, Bishop Guillory called the book “a poignant reminder that African-American Catholics expect a future in this Church, even though much of their history bespeaks a time when the Church overlooked this mission, their efforts and their unique gifts.”

He calls the Church to examine seriously racism, urging Catholic universities and colleges to expand their research on African-American culture, and Catholic schools and parish adult education courses to enlarge their curricula with African-American studies.

In an interview with the Register, Bishop Guillory, chairman of the bishops' Committee on African-American Catholics, said cultural education begins in the family, but that it must also come from schools.

“I get a little disappointed when we only do the cultural thing during Black History Month or Cinco de Mayo,” he said. “It has to be ongoing. If you have understanding, then you can build trust. If you have trust, you can build community and have respect for people's dignity.”

Bishop Guillory pointed to a sense of hope, love of family and a spirit of joy as gifts that blacks bring to the Church and from which other ethnic groups can benefit. “The African-American community, because of racism and poverty, has suffered a great deal, so there has been that experience of the Cross,” he said. “But through the cross comes joy, and that is manifested in celebration.”

Often, because many parishes are homogeneous in terms of ethnicity, European Americans “are not aware of the everyday struggle” of black Catholics, he said. “What's essential is that person-to-person contact, that dialogue,” according to Bishop Guillory.

Without that, and with the preponderance of television news reports on crime in the inner city, “one can easily conclude, and I think many do, that all crimes are committed by African-Americans, and all African-Americans have a criminal instinct.”

Bishop Guillory said the Texaco scandal—in which the oil giant agreed to pay more than $115 million in damages to settle a class-action suit charging the corporation with racial bias—proves that racism is alive and well. The company agreed to settle after tapes that caught top company officials using racial slurs became public.

Despite the Texaco scandal and similar charges at other companies, Bishop Guillory sees hope. “I want to stress that we've made a lot of progress,” he said. “This is the moment of the Church, not just the Catholic Church but the Church in general. With the burning of the black churches, part of the aftermath of that is that a lot of other churches from different ethnic groups have come together to rebuild them. At other times, they have let those whose churches were burned use their church. To me, that is a symbol of progress, but we have to sustain the effort, not just when there's a crisis.”

Hilbert Stanley, executive director of the National Black Catholic Congress (NBCC) in Baltimore, said a lack of black leadership in the Church is a key reason for continuing problems of racism.

“If our leaders don't understand and appreciate the history and culture of people, they can't be truly effective. That's evident in the Catholic Church and in society,” Stanley said. “In our country there are more than 300 bishops and, right now, only 11 of them are African-Americans. And while we are a minority in the Catholic Church, if we're serious about evangelization in the African-American community we need more African-American bishops, priests and Sisters.”

Ironically, while Stanley and Bishop Guillory call for dialogue and leadership, two African-American bishops (both ordinaries of their dioceses) declined requests to be interviewed for this story. Athird black bishop did not return repeated phone calls.

That's not to say that there is no leadership among African-American Catholics. One place it can be found is at St. Charles Borromeo parish in Harlem. Featured in Keep Your Hand on the Plow as “A New York Success Story,” the church and school at St. Charles have been a haven for the area's poor African-American population for decades.

St. Charles' pastor, Msgr. Wallace Harris, told the Register that racism in the Church is “subtle and unconscious.”

“I don't think it's any worse than the general society, but we have people who inadvertently judge racially,” he said.

He said people automatically expect the parish's Masses to be “lively” and to feature Gospel music. Visitors to the school, which regularly sends graduates into high school honors programs, “make remarks that they can't get over how clean the kids are and how clean the school is,” Msgr. Harris said.

St. Charles School has long included African-American culture in its curriculum, especially in religious education. “We make it known to them that there are saints of color…” he said. “It's not that, in dealing with saints, you have to laud it over other saints. But we have to make it very clear that the universality, the catholicity, of the Church has always included people of color.”

Father Federico Britto, pastor of St. Ignatius of Loyola parish in Philadelphia, also believes in stressing the gifts African-Americans bring to the Church. “Everything we do is Afrocentric,” he said. “We implement Afrocentricity in education, religious liturgies, school assemblies, plays.”

The American Church, he said, needs to be more “sensitive culturally.”

“Not that blacks are asking for a different Church, but just to allow blacks to be more expressive with their culture in church. Blacks have many gifts to offer the Church and all we ask is that the Church listen to the gifts that we have, and not be afraid. I think the Church is still cautious.”

Dennis Poust is based in Austin, Texas.