SCOTTSDALE, Arizona – “Flashes of optimism” might be the best characterization of how some black Catholics in the U.S. feel about their place, both in the Church and the country, at the end of a month set aside to highlight their achievements with Black Catholic History Month.
Most non-black Catholics may not be aware that in 1990, the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus in the U.S. chose November to be what Bishop Terry Steib, emeritus of Memphis, calls “a time to recall and celebrate the history, growth, and influence of Black Catholics in the Catholic Church.”
Steib says it’s “providential” that November was chosen, since it also marks the birthday of St. Augustine and the feast of St. Martin de Porres, both titanic figures in African Catholicism.
However, retired Father Bruce Wilkinson says that while it’s “all well and good” to celebrate such icons, “history is a continuum from past to present into the future. It’s about honoring not only the past, but also the future.”
Wilkinson lives in Atlanta, where there are some predominantly black parishes, and he said it troubles him that the archdiocesan newspaper rarely has any articles on real-time news in the black community.
Wilkinson said he and others are working to change that. There’s an agreement with the archdiocese starting in January to devote one page of the paper every two weeks to “intercultural ministry,” highlighting people and events in Catholic communities of color, including Native Americans, Asian Americans and Hispanics as well as African Americans.
It’s a way to celebrate “people in the here and now,” according to Wilkinson, which he hopes gives a boost to people who are not often seen by the wider Church.
Bishop Shelton T. Fabre of Houma-Thibodaux, Louisiana, chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism raised another here-and-now concern during the U.S. bishops’ meeting earlier this month, saying he’s been told “the laity never seem to hear homilies on racism.”
He challenged bishops to help him change that perception. The bishops’ new pastoral letter “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love – A Pastoral Letter Against Racism,” being used as a basis for several listening sessions around the country this year, is an attempt to do that.
Wilkinson said he visits different parishes around the city in his retirement, observing that in primarily white parishes there is no mention of things affecting Catholics of color and no mention of racism. He can see no evidence that many people are talking about the pastoral letter.
This “exclusion by neglect,” he said, is something he hopes will change.
Gloria Purvis, who hosts “Morning Glory” on EWTN, said that while she applauds the few listening sessions that have happened, “I don’t think people grasp what racism is” and don’t understand that “we talk about racism because it’s a sin.”
She implores white listeners of her radio program to “take an active part in dealing with racism,” since, she said, white supremacy is being sold to them.
Purvis said that in her experience, “people are surprised there are Black Catholics. People don’t even consider that I might be Catholic!”
She said she uses her program to highlight one fact about black Catholics, not just in the U.S. but around the world, every day of November. She says she gets a lot of positive response from people who weren’t aware of those she speaks of or their accomplishments and problems.
“People aren’t aware there are orders for black Catholic women, and the struggles they had starting their communities,” she said.
When people ask why November is singled out for black Catholics, or suggest it’s racist to have a Black Catholic Congress, “I have to remind people it’s because of how people were treated by the institutional Church in America,” Purvis said.
American society, she said, is guilty of “a failure to grapple with racism,” adding the “only thing that’s going to clean it up is the light of the Gospel, but it requires real work and not just from blacks but from white people.”
Purvis described herself as “a cautious optimist,” believing that it’s “within our grasp to learn what is happening with good will.” There may be lots of “uncomfortable conversations,” she said, but “Jesus is the lens through which we should see things.”
Wilkinson said he, too, sees “flashes of optimism” as some people become engaged on the issue of race. But he also sees frustration with the lack of progress, and said the road ahead is a long one.
“There’s a lot of people who want something different. There’s an atmosphere of people wanting change, but we need leadership to tell people how do we get there,” he said.
Steib says November “is a time to take pride in what has been accomplished in the past Black Catholic Congresses and to delve deeper into what is yet to be done, so that we can all proclaim the Good News within the framework of our history.”
“It’s a time to sing with pride that we have come a mighty long way, and that we still have a way to go with God’s help!”
Christopher White contributed to this story.