Saturday, July 29, 2006

This Far By Faith

Yet another of the far-too-unsung treasures of the church here in the States is its rich and varied ethnic ministries.

Then again, when the state of things is such that they don't so much reflect the values of genuine Catholicity as those of gas-guzzling white suburbia, should we be surprised?

Sure, there's been a lot of attention about the impending milestone when Latinos overtake Anglos as US Catholicism's dominant ancestral group (the bishop of Tulsa got an earful 'bout that a few weeks back), and a recent story termed Vietnamese-American Catholics the "new Irish" in terms of the high number of vocations (12% of seminary students) from a community which makes up 1% of the almost 70 million-member American Catholic fold.

Relatively ignored in the midst of it all, however, are African-American Catholics, who number 2.5 million. The black Catholic hubs in the inner cities of places like New York, Detroit, Newark, Chicago, Philadelphia, Brooklyn, Memphis, Richmond, Washington and so many others keep working, and joyfully so, against daunting odds, often facing the specter of the chancery axe. And, more than just sometimes, such is the clout of the traditional "Black Church" that many black Catholics have been misunderstood and persecuted in their communities -- something which is especially true in the case of converts.

When we say we're a catholic church, that means that that we can never stop learning from and sharing with every element within this rich communion of ours. In an age when, with all its battles and hang-ups, much of the wider church has lost its intrinsic sense of soul and verve, our black Catholic communities can teach us so much about how to get it back and keep it alive.

Moral of the story: under the theme "Let Us Gather At the Table," the National Black Catholic Joint Conference met earlier this week in Louisville.

Women and men stepped rhythmically down the church aisle, clapping and swaying as the choir sang an upbeat gospel song to the accompaniment of electronic piano, bass and tambourine:

"The power of the Lord is here.

I feel it in the atmosphere."

It could have been a midweek service at any black Baptist or Pentecostal church, except the procession at St. Martin de Porres Church was made up mainly of nuns and priests, the choir was made up of singers from local African-American Catholic churches, and it was a prelude to a 2 1/2-hour Mass....

"With apologies to the liturgist, I've got to tell you I came to praise the Lord," said Sister Antona Ebo of St. Louis, a veteran of civil-rights marches who yesterday was celebrating the 60th anniversary of her first night in a convent.

"What you hear will set you on fire," she said before reading a Bible passage about the growth of the early church, which she punctuated with several exclamations of "Have mercy."...

The annual conferences have taken place since 1968 "to learn who we were as black Catholics in the Roman Catholic Church, and to encourage each other," said Sister Donna Banfield of Memphis, Tenn.

Top concerns include efforts to recruit more African-American priests and nuns and the closing of inner-city parishes and schools as Catholic populations shift to suburbs.

Banfield said schools and parishes can be an investment in the future.

"We've always been evangelizers," she said of her religious order, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, which traditionally teaches African-American and Indian children. "When you close the schools, you're putting a block on people coming into the church."

The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament were, as you know, founded by a saint.

PHOTO: Jim Winn/The Courier-Journal