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Black Catholics Searching for Recognition, Identity

The Brooks family — Joe, Desiree, Gabrielle and Alyssa — pray after arriving for Sunday Mass at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Alexandria, Va., in this 2011 file photo. (CNS photo/Nancy Phelan Wiechec)

The Catholic Church in the United States likely encompasses every cultural group. African Americans, who comprise about 3% of the membership, bring a unique perspective, yet also face challenges of identifying with leadership and contemporary societal issues.

Anthea Butler (Twitter | Bio), Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania (USA) shared with AirTalk, a program of Southern California Public Radio, about the relationship between Black Catholics and the Catholic Church at-large in America.

Interview summary and audio link | Audio only 

Introduction of the segment and Anthea Butler (0:00)

African American Catholics have a long history in the [United States], tell us a little about that. (0:54)

Is there still a connection between the Catholic Church and Black America? (1:40)

AB (2:15) I do think, for Catholics, there’s a sense in which the universality of the church makes you, in one way, try to overlook some of the ethnic things that are happening. On the other hand, you have to deal with them because of the different ethnic communities and parishes.

What role does racial identity play in Catholic worship services? (2:32)

AB (2:35) It plays a very big role- if you think prior to Vatican II, there wasn’t a lot of racial identity. Everybody was forced into the same kind of worship styles and all of that. Post-Vatican II, Black Catholics were able to explore different musical styles with gospel music…so there’s a lot of different ways in which Black Catholics have put forth their culture within the Catholic Church.

How is it different from the way that other Catholics conduct services? (3:08)

AB (3:31) I think the difference is in how Black Catholics were perceived by other Catholics in the church. If you think about immigration and all the ethnic Catholics we have — Polish Catholics, Irish, Germans, Italians, everybody always focuses on them for a culture within the Catholic Church, but nobody looks at Black Catholics, and I think our unique history has a lot of cultural implications, because we’ve had to straddle the line between being Black Americans and being Black Catholics.

What effect has [the rise in Latino demographics in the US] had on black parishes? (3:59)

Has [this effect] led to a number of Black Americans, maybe, not identifying as Catholics? (4:51)

AB (5:10): I do think, however, that by not paying attention in some places- I’m not going to say all- to the needs of Black Catholics, especially with the kinds of priests that are assigned to diocese and parishes, that has caused a real problem. Let’s say you have a priest that does not understand the unique kinds of cultural needs for African American Catholics and they’re, say, from the Philippines or even African priests. That causes a lot of problems.

AB (6:18) It’s really hard, sometimes, to integrate Black Catholics into other parishes if those parishes don’t have Black people already in them, if you know what I mean. It’s hard to put together people and just say “Well, because you’re all Catholics, that’s going to work”. Enculturation just doesn’t mean that you can just throw everybody together and it’s going to be okay. Sometimes, people are really upset about that. That can create a lot of tension.

Pope Francis has spoken out a lot about poverty, corporate greed- he’s remained silent, though, on issues like use of force or recent civil unrest that we’ve seen in places like Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri- what do you think Black Catholics are hoping to hear from the Pope during his visit? (6:40)

AB (6:56): I think that they hope to hear several things: One is, I think they would like to hear some comment about racism in America. The Catholic Church’s history with race has been a troubled one in a lot of ways. You have to think about missionary activity and slavery- even though popes spoke out against slavery and issued papal bulls, slavery still happened. This racial situation we are currently in in America right now, especially with mass incarceration and police brutality, I think would be something very important for the Pope to say that Black Catholics want to hear.

Second, I just think that Black Catholics would like to be recognized. We have a huge history here in the United States, the first black Jesuit in the country, Patrick Healy  was the president of Georgetown [University], we have an order which was started by Henriette Delille, the Sisters of the Holy Family, people are hoping that maybe the cause for her sainthood could progress. There’s lots of different ways in which Black Catholics could be recognized by the Pope and I am hoping that we hear something from him while he is here in the United States.

Discussion questions:

What problems can arise from leadership that is not aware of the cultural needs and contributions of a segment of the congregation?

How can a congregation meaningfully engage with different cultural communities within its membership?

Whose cultural identity is most prevalent in your worship service? How do you see this?

How can a congregation appropriately relate to its complicity in past injustice and respond to contemporary challenges?

The Ocean’s Influence on Theology

This morning, I came across a quote from Paul Tillich that caught my attention.


It made me think of the influences that have shaped me into the person who I am today. Usually, we think of teachers, pastors, friends, family members, or authors who have contributed to our development, but Tillich’s quote reminded me of the environmental influences that may, more subtly, effect our perspective. (more…)

José y Maria: Still No Room

In the United States, it is typical to rent a room temporarily while traveling. Mary and Joseph were not looking for a room for the weekend, as we are accustomed to doing around the holidays. They were looking for temporary lodging, to fulfill whatever obligations of the census and to be ready in case Mary went into labor. In a town that would have been filled with Joseph’s kin, none were willing to make room for him and his pregnant fiancee. Think less about a “No Vacancy” neon sign and more of being told that there are no guest rooms, no rollaways, no couches, no air mattresses, no floors that you are welcome to. “That girl” is not welcome in our town.

Illustrator Everett Patterson has an image that strikes this chord in scene preceding the nativity we are accustomed to decorating our homes, lawns, and churches.

José y Maria, by Everett Patterson

José y Maria, by Everett Patterson

In his commentary on the piece, he writes, (more…)

“Listen, Smith of Heaven!” | An Ancient Icelandic Hymn

In 1208, an Icelandic poet named Kolbeinn Tumason wrote Heyr Himna Smiður, which would become a stalwart piece of Icelandic Christian tradition. Its imagery is dynamic to these northern peoples, using  the terms “Smith of the Heavens” to convey the craftsmanship and attention that God shows to creation; “mild one” which is a play on the word that means the generous tribal leader, or king; and “King of the suns”, capturing the spiritual significance of solar seasonality to the island just south of the Arctic Circle.

Listen to the poem sung in it’s original language with an English translation, performed by Ellen Kristjánsdóttir. (more…)

Good News for the City: Urban Apologetics

Friend of the blog, Ramon Mayo of Urban Ministries Inc. and UrbanFaith.com has an interview with Chris Brooks about his new book, Urban Apologetics: Answering Challenges to Faith for Urban Believers. In the interview, Mayo and Brooks explore the need for thoughtful articulation of the faith to respond to the distinct questions that people are asking. Doing Apologetics from an Urban Perspective opens a conversation about how best to engage the living contexts of our cities with the gospel–acknowledging that both the questions and responses may differ from those of prior generations of apologists.

Chris Brooks is the senior pastor of Evangel Ministries and also the founder and president of the Detroit Bible Institute. He also hosts a Detroit-aired daily radio show, “Equipped For Life,”and is the newly appointed Campus Dean of Moody Theological Seminary-Michigan. I recently had the opportunity to talk to Chris over about his new book “Urban Apologetics” and apologetics in general.

What inspired you to write a book on apologetics?

Two things. First it comes from a passion for the gospel in the urban community. People have intellectual barriers and need answers to their questions about life, so I wanted to provide the answers from Christ and scripture because most people assume that we don’t have answers.

Secondly it stems from our members being sent out to do evangelism and coming back with the questions and objections of the urban community they were sent to. I took it upon myself to develop a specific ministry of equipping Christians to answer people’s objections regarding the faith.

Why do you believe apologetics are important for the urban context? (more…)

My Problem with The Lord’s Prayer

We recently began attending a church that recites The Lord’s Prayer each Sunday as a part of their liturgy. We have never been a part of church that practiced this weekly–participating more in communities that place spontaneity over ceremony. While I do appreciate the intentionality of a liturgical church, there is something specific that bothers me every time we pray these words together.praying

The English translation which we use is based on the text of Matthew 6:9-13 that depends on an outdated form of language, namely the “King James” English. See the chart below for words and phrases no longer in common usage:

Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.

Not a single sentence can be understood with contemporary usage!

Why do I have a problem with the Lord’s Prayer? Two reasons… (Click to Tweet) (more…)

How the East Sees the West

The presence of multiple perspectives within the Christian faith is not a new invention of the 20th century. The split between the Western (Roman Catholic, then Protestant) church and the Eastern Orthodox church is well traveled by Christian historians, yet an understanding of the churches which grew from this cultural differentiation is not as common. In the infograph below, several theologians who are considered to be pillars of Western Christian thought are examined through an Eastern Orthodox perspective. (One of these three pillars is so esteemed, he even garnered an entry in our recent World Cup of Theologians – Augustine of Hippo!)UnsungInTheEast1-514x1024This infographic originally appeared at www.russianchristianclassics.org, a blog exploring Russian church history, the relationship between Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Christianity, and introducing Russian Christian leaders to an English-speaking audience.

For more information about a leader in the Orthodox church, see our post on an interview with Thelophilus III, the Patriarch of the Holy City of Jerusalem and all Palestine.

World Cup of Theologians: Belgium – Edward Schillebeeckx

The World Cup of Theologians is a blog series that coincides with the 2014 World Cup Tournament. Each team in the round of 16 has an entry with the biography of a noteworthy theologian or leader from that same country.

schillebeeckxEdward Schillebeeckx (1914-2009) was a member of the Dominican Order and a professor of Theology until his death in 2009. Schillebeeckx was also closely involved with several topics of the Second Vatican Council.

Because of his work with Vatican II, Schillebeeckx is well known for his strong arguments for a more reconciling ecclesiology, celibacy, and the sacraments. He often came under fire from the Catholic Magisterium because of his ideas, with the most volatile clash happening in the early 1980’s with the Congregation for the Defense of the Faith (CDF). Schillebeeckx’s passion for the Church can be clearly seen in many of his writings, but especially in this excerpt from The Church with a Human Face: A New and Expanded Theology of Ministry (1985):

The crucified but risen Jesus appears in the believing, assembled community of the church. That this sense of the risen, living Jesus has faded in many [churches] can be basically blamed on the fact that our churches are insufficiently ‘communities’ of God…. Where the church of Jesus Christ lives, and lives a liberating life in the footsteps of Jesus, the resurrection faith undergoes no crisis. On the other hand, it is better not to believe in God than to believe in a God who minimizes human beings, holds them under and oppresses them, with a view to a better world to come. (34)

Schillebeeckx was a respected Catholic theologian, and one who has strongly influenced both the direction of the Church and of various forms of theology including liberation, European political, and systematic Catholic Theology

Zane Ridings is a Masters of Divinity student at Brite Divinity School. As an undergraduate at Eureka College, he completed an honors research thesis titled: Walking Alongside the Least of These: Liberation Hermeneutics and Praxis-based Missions in Guatemala. This work has been part of Zane’s theological exploration of questions concerning justice, politics, and Christian fellowship and ethics.

World Cup of Theologians: USA – Cornel West

The World Cup of Theologians is a blog series that coincides with the 2014 World Cup Tournament. Each team in the round of 16 has an entry with the biography of a noteworthy theologian or leader from that same country.

westCornel West (1953- ) is the Professor of Philosophy and Christian Practice at the Union Theological Seminary and an outspoken public academic, philosopher, and activist.

He uses philosophy, Christian practice, and Marxist thought to bear witness and influence in love and justice. Much of his work has grown out of studies on race, class, and gender within American society, as well as the ways in which people interact based upon racial conscientiousness.

As a public intellectual, West’s dream of keeping alive the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. takes shape in the ways in which he writes and participates in current events, asserting that theology must be expressed in one’s social and political life. In Race Matters, he examines moral authority and racial debates regarding skin color in the United States and focuses on progress through what unites man in love and justice as he points out the differences that divide humanity.

In these downbeat times, we need as much hope and courage as we do vision and analysis; we must accent the best of each other even as we point out the vicious effects of our racial divide and pernicious consequences of our maldistribution of wealth and power. We simply cannot enter the twenty-first century at each other’s throats, even as we acknowledge the weighty forces of racism, patriarchy, economic inequality, homophobia, and ecological abuse on our necks. We are at a crucial crossroad in the history of this nation–and we either hang together by combating these forces that divide and degrade us or we hang separately. Do we have the intelligence, humor, imagination, courage, tolerance, love, respect, and will to meet the challenge? Time will tell. None of us alone can save the nation or world. But each of us can make a positive difference if we commit ourselves to do so.

Currently, Cornel West contributes to the radio show Smiley and West and has authored a memoir, entitled Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud. For more information, you can find his official website here.

Phillip Sturgeon is a graduate of Chapman University. He writes at his personal blog, phillipotamus.com and lives in Southern CA, where he almost always drives with the windows down.

World Cup of Theologians: Switzerland – Karl Barth

The World Cup of Theologians is a blog series that coincides with the 2014 World Cup Tournament. Each team in the round of 16 has an entry with the biography of a noteworthy theologian or leader from that same country.

barthKarl Barth (1886-1968) was a 20th century Swiss Protestant theologian within the Reformed tradition who has come to be referred to as the Father of Neo-Orthodoxy. His father was a minister, and his mother was a minister’s daughter. In his early education, he studied within the theology of German liberalism, yet when introduced to Immanuel Kant, and leaned away from his father’s influence.

However, in his early pastoral career, he saw that the political conditions surrounding him contradicted many ideas that he was learning and teaching. Within his church, the factory owners were exploiting many of the industrial workers and Barth encouraged the workers to unionize. When World War I broke out and many of his theological peers and mentors supported the German war effort, Barth was struck by what he deemed as a lack of strong theological foundation to separate a nation’s action from the church.

In this context, he authored his commentary on Romans in which he tried to articulate what he saw as Paul’s vision of Rome turned upside down and to counter the theology of his contemporaries.

The descriptively thorough essence of Barth’s theology is the person of Jesus Christ. This forms the center of Barth’s theology which is expounded in his infamous tome, Church Dogmatics. (Click here for Reading the Church Dogmatics by Karl Barth: A Primer, by David Guretzki, PhD). This emphasis upon the person of Christ is seen in his work, The Humanity of God:

This much is certain, that we have no theological right to set any sort of limits to the loving-kindness of God which has appeared in Jesus Christ. Our theological duty is to see and understand it as being still greater than we had seen before.

Thus in this oneness Jesus Christ is the Mediator, the Reconciler, between God and man. Thus He comes forward to man on behalf of God calling for and awakening faith, love and hope, and to God on behalf of man, representing man, making satisfaction and interceding. Thus he attests and guarantees to God’s free grace and at the same time attests and guarantees to God man’s free gratitude.

[Editor’s note: Gender-exclusive language expressed in the quotation is consistent with the source material.]

Phillip Sturgeon is a graduate of Chapman University. He writes at his personal blog, phillipotamus.com and lives in Southern CA, where he almost always drives with the windows down.


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