Motherless Children: The African American Youth & Young Adult Ministry Struggle
In 1989, Sr. Thea Bowman, F.S.P.A., addressed the USSCB at their annual June meeting. Here she explained what it meant to be Black (specifically African American) and Catholic. She said; “That means I come to my church fully functioning. That doesn’t frighten you, does it? I bring myself, my black self. All that I am. All that I have. All that I hope to become. I bring my whole experience, my history, my culture. I bring my African American song and dance, gesture and movement, teaching and preaching and healing and responsibility, AS A GIFT to the Church.” She ended her moving presentation with the bishops standing hand in hand singing the Negro Spiritual, “We Shall Overcome.”
Here we are almost 30 years later and we, as African American Catholics—a distinct group from African, Caribbean, or Hispanics that identify as Black but are many times all lumped together as Black—are still asking for the Church to see us as a “gift” and not a burden. Looking at our history as African American Catholics, we have always had to fend for ourselves in various ways. Our history, which is as old as the Church itself, especially with the founding of the church here in America, is constantly overlooked and unshared. Our ministries are constantly under-resourced or ignored. Our spirituality constantly has to be defended as being “authentically Catholic” by those who administer the litmus test.
We are a people of great faith and achievements, but being a youth or young adult (and this includes campus ministers) in the African American Catholic community is difficult. We constantly have to fight to fit in in a Church that sometimes treats us like we do not belong. There are two factors I would like to focus on that create this dynamic of marginalization: racism and proximity.
Racism is commonly referred to as “America’s original sin.” Out of that came the dynamic of slavery, whose effects are still felt today. It is this sin that makes it difficult to do youth ministry within the African American community. The USCCB just released a pastoral letter titled, “Open Wide Our Hearts” to address this sin and what the Church should do about it as a follow up to the other pastoral letters on racism that they have written in the past. Fr. Bryan Massingale’s book, Racial Justice & The Catholic Church, powerfully illustrates the issues that divide us as a Church today. Bishop Edward Braxton from the Diocese of Bellville wrote two strong pastoral letters about racism that many of his brother bishops have shared widely as well.
It is through these documents that we are reminded—for those of us who do not have to deal with this issue on a regular basis—that racism does not only occur outside the Church, but is a sin within the Church that we must address. When we look at the history of our Church in the United States, a Eurocentric model (worship styles, images that are used, languages that are spoken) is upheld as the norm. In an ever “browning” culture (whether through immigration or births) there seems to be a backlash against anything that is not part of this norm. Look at the leadership of our chanceries around the country: are the decision-makers representative of the people they are called to serve? When people are called to the table to address racist actions, are all called, or does leadership only “welcome” those folks of color that go with the status quo and are seen as safe? Does our Church blackball those who challenge these norms and label them as “trouble makers?” When we have large diocesan or national gatherings of youth and young adults, is the music that is played, the sacred images that are shown, or the speakers that are invited representative of the diversity of the Church? Most of the time the answer is no. And to add insult to injury, faces of color are often used as tokens to show diversity on brochures or marketing materials, but are not in the actual programming or decision-making process. It is through these (many times institutionalized) racist occurrences that the African American youth and young adult community does not feel included, and often feels left to do its own thing with little to no support from the wider Church.
At the 2018 USCCB Spring Meeting, Bryan Stevenson—a famous criminal justice lawyer who gained recognition for leading the creation of The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, more commonly referred to as the Lynching Memorial, in Montgomery, AL—to address the body about racism as they were writing their pastoral letter. During his address, Mr. Stevenson talked about several factors that cause racism to exist. One factor was proximity. Proximity refers to how close things are to each other. Mr. Stevenson said the issues of racism persist in this country because people are not within proximity of each other. We still live in a segregated society. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. put it best when he said that the most segregated time in America is Sunday morning. This is very true of our Catholic parishes around the country. Despite the rise of many “multicultural” parishes in the U.S., and despite the existence of many distinct cultural parishes, we are still divided as a Church when it comes to realizing that no one expression of our faith is “more Catholic” than another.
Bryan Stevenson said one way to combat racism is for those in leadership (bishops, diocesan leaders, Catholic event organizers, liturgists, etc.) to be in the authentic presence of others. I remember that when we were trying to rebuild our Archdiocese following Hurricane Katrina, we had many Catholic groups visit my home parish, St. Peter Claver. These groups, most of whom were white and of various age groups, were in awe at our gospel choir and the sacred art that reflected the people in the pews. They were struck by the preaching that touched on the social justice issues our communities face. Many greatly appreciated being able to sit with and interact with youth from the African American Catholic experience. When they learned about our specific “right to life” issues that affect our communities—like mass incarceration, poverty, racism, poor education, and a lack of other resources—they understood that basic survival is something many of our families struggle with.
Just as Bryan Stevenson suggested to the USCCB, it is when we are in proximity with one another that we can truly see the dignity of another human despite our differences. It is in this “sharing of space” that we share our souls and live as one Body of Christ.
When Sr. Thea began her talk with the Bishops in 1989, she sang the Negro spiritual, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” In her presentation she continued to share the gifts we, as African American Catholics, bring to the Church, but talked about how the Church sometimes treats us as second class Catholics because we tend to express our Catholicism differently. As stated earlier, here we are 30 years later and we, as African American Catholics, are still asking the Church we love to show us that it loves us back. Not only when it is comfortable and affirms Eurocentric norms, but when the Church is challenged to truly be a welcoming Church for all. Those of us who have worked in youth and young adult ministry within the African American Catholic community know all too well how we must tweak certain resources to be relevant to our youth and young adults’ experiences. We know how sometimes we have to “fight” certain diocesan officials to help them understand that we are just as Catholic as other parishes. We also have the challenge of helping our non-Catholic brothers and sisters understand why we remain Catholic. In 2020, we are seeing various African American Catholic schools, parishes, and institutions closing. We are seeing our youth ministries dwindling. In conversations that are presently taking place between the USCCB and various HBCU’s (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) Catholic campus ministers, we are seeing a disconnect between many of our young adults and the Catholic faith. It was during a conversation with one of these campus ministers that the following questions were brought up:
- What would it look like for national Catholic leaders and conference coordinators to attend our conferences (Archbishop Lyke Conference, The Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana, The National Black Catholic Congress) so they can meet those speakers and learn about those topics that are important to our communities?
- Why can’t these leaders attend a Black Catholic Gospel Mass near them to see how to better integrate our worship styles and environment into their diocesan and national events, instead of just using black people as “tokens”?
- How can these leaders better connect with the Black Catholic Clergy Caucus, the Black Catholic Sisters Conference, the Black Catholic Seminarians Association, the Knights and Ladies of Peter Claver, Inc., and the Black Catholic Theological Symposium, and learn about the histories of these organizations?
- How can we create more opportunities for diocesan and national leaders to come into “our” spaces so that they can understand our realities and needs?
These issues and the pain caused by having these constant discussions, cause many of those doing this work to burn out or give up; but our hope is in the fact that our ancestors sacrificed much more so that we could be here. We have historical records, as well as stories passed down via word of mouth, detailing the disrespect they endured by the Church to keep the faith. So, who are we not to do the same? Yes, it is a challenge to lift up the next generation of African American Catholic youth and young adult leadership, but it is a must. Our Church has benefitted and continues to benefit from our gifts, but more work needs to be done so that our realities, needs, and worship experiences are seen as just as valid and Catholic as anyone else’s. To truly be ONE, means to not be the same, but to be welcoming of all experiences and expressions of our Catholic faith.