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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.
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.
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 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.
Cornel 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.
Union Theological Seminary recently hosted a documentary about the origin of Womanist Theology through the perspective of some of its early adherents. The 12-minute video below is a preview of the full documentary, Journey to Liberation: The Legacy of Womanist Theology and Ethics at Union Theological Seminary, which will be shown at the American Academy of Religion meeting this fall in San Diego, California, USA.
A social and spiritual look at female theologians and ethicists of African descent…Union Theological Seminary will premier Journey to Liberation, a 50-minute documentary on the founding of Womanist theology, an African-American feminist liberation movement. Filmmaker Anika Gibbons takes a deeper look at the radical spirituality and scholarship within the lives of the founding mothers of Womanist theology and Womanist ethics. She focuses on their significance as figures in African-American theology and history, and on the role played by Union in that founding.
For a summary and commentary on the event, see Womanist Theology at Union: A Past, A Present– A Future? by Jamall Calloway (H/T to Jason Harris and Postcolonial Theology Network Facebook Group)
For more videos, including an introduction to the film and resulting panel discussion about the current state of African-American women in theology and Womanist perspectives, follow this link.
If you are interested in sharing your perspective and becoming a writer with GlobalTheology.org, find more information on our Get Involved Page!
Michael Shepherd is a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary and Hope International University. He is the editor of GlobalTheology.org and lives in Fullerton, CA, USA with his wife and son.
It is my firm belief that God works through all cultures of the world and uses them to reflect his attributes and ways. This is definitely true in the case of African American culture. In writing this book, I have written about the journey of a people as they have sought freedom and equality in a land that was not their own. In spite of all this, they maintained a level of dignity and humanity in the face of suffering and showed the world that tragedy can be turned into triumph. I wrote this book because I love two things: God and myself. I am an African American male and the product of the black church. One thing that frustrates me is the lack of literature and resources that highlight my heritage and my faith. Black History month has been a time to celebrate the rich legacy of African Americans and their contribution to the world, but it has been divorced from one of the things that has made that contribution so rich: the faith of African Americans, which is largely found in Jesus Christ.
This book is for all those who have an interest in African American culture and history. It can be used to enlighten and give understanding to African Americans and it also can serve as an introduction to Black History for those who are not African American. So if you are curious about Black History then this is a small taste of the historical figures and accomplishments that have made a great impact in the world.
Secondly, it is for those who are hungering for a way to integrate their faith with their heritage. This is to show the ways in which God is not divorced from the African American experience and he is not divorced from your life as a black person in the United States. In the same way that he was with your ancestors he will be with you when you face the fiery trials and weighty burdens of life. Your faith is not “the white man’s religion ” but something that is uniquely yours.
Lastly, this is for all those who are on a spiritual quest. Wherever you are on your journey this book has something for you. If you are spiritually curious then you will find in these pages something that will get you thinking and meditating. The Christian faith of African Americans provides a unique spiritual legacy. It was a resource that helped to bolster them in the harshest conditions . This rich spiritual tradition is something that can benefit anyone who is spiritually hungry or curious.
(Introduction. Mayo, Ramon. His Story, Our Story)
His Story, Our Story is a 31 day Black History devotional. It is a collection of biographical sketches on great figures in African American history along with devotional thoughts, discussion questions and prayers on themes from the Bible. It connects the journey of African Americans with the God who sustained and liberated them. Containing biographical information on a variety of different characters in Black History, His Story Our Story uses the heritage of African Americans to help you go forward in your spiritual journey.
In the 1960s, theologian James Cone was writing in an era of civil unrest due to racial disparity in the presence of a majority church largely unaware and unconcerned with the injustices common to his experience.
Rather than postpone the triumph over injustice to some abstract, heavenly future, he stresses the incarnation of Christ into the lives of the oppressed. This emphasis empowers the oppressed as well as challenges the privileged. This hermeneutic introduces reconciliation as a necessity for mature discipleship.
Below is an excerpt from James Cone’s book, Black Theology and Black Power:
“The way of the church is related to the fact that the Kyrios Lord himself is on his way in the world, …and the church has no choice but to follow him who precedes. Consequently obedience and witness to the Kyrios require the discernment of the opening which he provides and the willingness to step into this opening.” –Thomas Weiser
The opening has been made and the Church must follow. To follow means that the Church is more than a talking or a resolution-passing community. Its talk is backed up with relevant involvement in the world as a witness, through action, that what it says is in fact true.
Where is “the opening” that Christ provides? Where does he lead his people?
50 years ago today, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his poignant essay “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”. A watershed moment for the American Civil Rights Movement, King’s letter continues to be an entry point for understanding Christian opposition to systemic injustice. The stark realities of churches captive to cultural notions of superiority echo from its pages and should give us reason again to acknowledge our complicity in mistreatment of our neighbor (regardless their ethnicity, gender, or creed) and resolve to change ourselves and our communities.
In his address, King is writing to white pastors who were silent or resistant to the need for social justice regarding civil rights for African-Americans, and his call resounds to Christians who are ignorant of the histories and current realities of ethnically and historically marginalized groups. Continuing to ignore the reality (or the identity-creating history) perpetuates the cultural divides that subtly (and not-so-subtly) influence contemporary Christianity.
Below is the letter in it’s entirety.
16 April 1963
My Dear Fellow Clergymen:
While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms. (more…)
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is best known for his accomplishments in the area of civil rights and fighting against injustice. He will always be remembered as a “drum major for justice” and as a man who had a dream of equality for all. What many do not know is that along with being an activist King was a theologian. King’s activism was rooted in a theology that was rich and deep and drew upon a variety of sources. Let’s take a look at what influenced one of the greatest Americans of all time.
Dr. Ralph Watkins, Associate Professor at Columbia Theological Seminary discussing the current voices of theology and social consciousness within the African-American community.
Video credits to the Ogilvie Institute of Preaching
Religion and politics are strange partners, especially in an election year. The faith of the Republican candidate (Mitt Romney) seemed like an issue in the early nomination process but has since been less questioned. The relationships between a candidate and the teaching of his church (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, similarly called Mormonism) have not been scrutinized on a national level at the same vigor seen of John F. Kennedy and his membership to the Catholic Church in 1960 or of Barack Obama in 2012.
Paul Harvey and Edward Blum have an article titled Why No One Cares About the White Jesus of Romney’s Mormonism. They trace the iconography of white personification of Jesus and the LDS church’s history, with obvious ramifications to the identity of Christ that other churches consciously or unconsciously propagate. (more…)
Michael Eric Dyson, a leading black intellectual states in his newest book Know What I Mean? that “conscious rappers are lauded as much for what they don’t say as for what they spit on record. They don’t brag about exorbitant jewelry, excessive women, or expensive automobiles. Conscious rappers do talk about racial injustice, police brutality, over-incarceration, political prisoners, rampant poverty, radical educational inequality and more” (66). There is a deep critique of the injustice and white supremacy that has pervaded the United States way of life within the hip hop community. Dyson reminds the reader that there is plenty of “rap that is socially aware and consciously connected to historic patterns of political protest and aligned with progressive forces of social critique” (64). No one is safe from the rhetorically resistant hip hop community. All aspects of life are under the microscope and are seen as fair game for critique. “Hip-hop, in fact, calls attention to the failures of government, schools, police, preachers and churches, bringing them to light while shaming them at the same time” (The Hip Hop Church, 81). The rules of American life have never proved itself to be true for the urban youth, especially those who are black and brown, and therefore critique is the natural response from this otherwise powerless and voiceless community. Hip hop will question “everything from whether the American dream is attainable for urban youth to whether the police force and the national government are systems that can be trusted” (The Hip Hop Church, 106). Some conscious emcees have gone beyond just the struggles of the ghetto, to tackle more national and global problems that might not benefit them directly. Dyson explains that “they have also occasionally linked their work to quests for social justice, whether making a song to galvanize social response to police brutality or to dramatize and inspire social outrage against an unjust war” (Know What I Mean?, 64-65). And so we see a powerful and strong voice critiquing the injustice that dares try to oppress them. (more…)