Being Black and Catholic
"If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you do not see." - James Baldwin
My very existence lies at the intersection of being Black and Catholic. An intersection that means my heart skips at the sight of an officer while on my way to Mass, or I experience racism right before teaching catechism to middle school students. In this intersection of faith and race, the burdens I carry and offer up to the cross are also related to the color of my skin.
In recent months, I have been through a roller coaster of emotions. I have experienced fear, despair, anger, hope, doubt...deep doubt and joy. With each news story, each life lost turned into a hashtag, or picture of a woman that could very well be me now a troubling statistic, my emotions grew deeper. It was in that longing that I realized that I do not have Black Catholic peers in my immediate circle. My Catholic circle was more homogeneous than I would like. This revelation shook me. I needed the safety and commonality of others whose existence also laid at the intersection of Black and Catholic. The many years bearing witness to countless Black men and women lost disproportionately at the hands of those who are sworn to protect, seeing devastating statistics of Black female mortality rates after childbirth, or watching the number of Black individuals who identify as Catholic dwindle over the years were beginning to add up.
What does it mean to be Black and Catholic? For me, there is strength and power in embracing both identities. To be Black and Catholic means to add to the rich tapestry of the Catholic faith. In my praise there is an echo of my Nigerian ancestry, in my worship there is a depth that has roots in emotion and honor, and in my oration is the whisper of stories told and untold. To be Black and Catholic is to join the richness of my experiences and being with the graces of the sacraments.
Sister Thea Bowman, Servant of God, answers it best in this quote. “What does it mean to be Black and Catholic? It means that I come to my church fully functioning. That doesn’t frighten you, does it? I come to my church fully functioning...I bring my whole history, my tradition, my experience, my culture, my African American song, and dance and gesture and movement and teaching and preaching and healing and responsibility as a gift to the church.”
Now, what if that sting came from the church she so loves? There was a time when we were not allowed to even take part in Catholic rituals and sacraments. Serving at the altar or receiving Communion was was either segregated or not allowed. Times when the leaders of the church were on the wrong side of justice when it came to race. Or more recently, if you bring up current topics that affect Black Catholics uniquely the issue is brushed away, or worse, ignored? In my Black Catholic experience on any given day, I am on the receiving end of countless microaggressions which pick apart my humanity. I am always keenly aware that for many people their experience with me will be one of few they might have with a Black person, and I hold a responsibility to represent not only myself, but my Blackness well. That juggle of self chips away at a person’s sense of self. My desire to be more palatable took away the richness in flavor of who God made me to be. My Black experience must include the whole of me. Unfortunately as of late, I have found little solace in sharing my experiences with my non-Black Catholic brothers and sisters. I am met with “what abouts” and “the past is the past” or “perhaps…”'. I have never encountered so many ‘devil's advocates’ as I have recently with people of faith. The devil does not need an advocate; I and countless other Black Catholics do. I have reached out in conversations to be a bridge-builder, but as author Austin Channing Brown states, “The role of a bridge-builder sounds appealing until it becomes clear how often that bridge is your broken back.” Having to share personal trauma in order to validate my anger or sadness about the fact that black lives once again are not seen to matter is back breaking work. I tell you at that intersection of race and faith stands a Black woman disappointed and weary. Disappointed but hopeful, weary but persistent.
In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we start in prayer and in an examination of conscience. As individuals who make up the body of the church, we must examine our conscience as it relates to social justice. This includes telling the full story of the role the Catholic Church played in it. As Shannen Dee Williams writes for the National Catholic Reporter, “The historical record is inundated with gut-wrenching examples of Black Catholic faithfulness in the face of unholy discrimination and segregation in white Catholic parishes, schools, hospitals, convents, seminaries and neighborhoods. Yet, this history is rarely incorporated into dominant narratives of the American Catholic experience.” It is not enough to be a diverse church if members of that church do not feel welcome to be and bring all that they are. Their burdens, their traditions, their voices, all in gift to the church, all woven into the body of the church. In faith, there may be moments where we lose hope, but by faith, we know that that hope will come again. That flame is never truly extinguished. The beauty of connecting with true allies towards justice and new Black friends of faith quenched the desert in my soul. Allies who have truly listened and relieved burdens by educating their fellow non-Black Catholics, new Black friends who share similar experiences, emotions, and desires for their church.
We must encourage each other and our parishes to continually engage in discussions on issues that deeply harm and affect communities of color. Issues that are not easy to talk about. Issues like police brutality, mass incarceration, inequity in leadership in our parishes and dioceses, or personal biases. Including Black Catholic history, Saints and stories into main Catholic education will help create a more diverse and rich story of the Catholic experience and provide a narrative of faith that allows for better representation. Invest in saving African- American churches and audit leadership to include positions that focus on inclusion across various races and backgrounds. Solidarity must be built by celebrating the richness of cultures Black Catholics bring to their faith along with highlighting those experiences.
Written by: Ogechi Akalegbere, Christian Service Coordinator