What's Behind the Black Rebellion in the Catholic Church? A Charismatic Priest and His Imani Temple Spark Sharp Debate
Randolph, Laura B., Ebony
What's Behind The Black Rebellion In The Catholic Church?
THE Rev. George Stallings Jr. is celebrating mass. He also is celebrating redemption--his own. By 11 o'clock on a warm Sunday morning, nearly 2,000 Black parishioners have gathered inside a huge auditorium to the outskirts of Washington, D.C., to hear the suspended Black priest who openly defined the Roman Catholic hierarchy and established his own church. It is a new liturgy. It is what he calls "the rite of the people."
The 41-year-old priest and his new church, Imani Temple, have come to symbolize the growing debate over what a number of nation's two million Black Catholics strongly believe is institutionalized, intolerable racism within the Roman Catholic Church.
That is why Imani (Swahili for "faith") the European-based rites of the traditional Catholic service have been replaced by a hand-clapping, make-a-joyful-noise service that Rev. Stallings and his followers believe is closer to the Black experience.
Rev. Stallings is by no means the first priest to be suspended, but his split with the church has been particularly disturbing. He had been, after all, one of its rising stars. In 1970, he was sent to the North American College in Rome, a "Harvard" for priests. Four years later he was made full pastor, an two years he was made full pastor, an elevation that normally takes more than a dozen years.
For 12 years, Rev. Stallings was a successful pastor at St. Teresa of Avila in Washington, D.C., where, he says, he increased the membership ten-fold -- from 200 to 2,000. Before leaving St. Teresa a year ago to become director of evangelism for the D.C. diocese, he was, he says, raising $8,000 in the weekly offerings. Despite his success, he was not content. Something hust wasn't right. In fact, he confesses, something was desperately wrong.
"As a successful Black priest, I recognized I could write my own ticket, but I never felt at peace," he says. "No matter what I wanted to do, I always had to get the stamp of the White establishment. I realized the church is a White racist institution controlled by a preponderantly Euro-American White male hierarchy that for a century had decided the fate of Black people in the Catholic Church. My Blackness could no longer tolerate it."
And so, last summer the North Carolina-birth priest announced his intent to establish an independent church, Imani Temple, a congregation of, by and for Black worshippers. The stamp of approval he so resented seeking, however, was not forthcoming. Instead, he received a simple, flat, unequivocal forbiddance.
Rev. Stallings was prepared. On the first Sunday in July, he openly defied his archbishop, Cardinal James Hickey, and celebrated the first mass for his new congregation at the Howard University Law School chapel. A few days later, the archbishop suspended him, which is a step shy of excommunication.
Though the suspension means Rev. Stallings is not sanctioned to say mass in public or private or to administer sacraments, he continues to attract worshippers by the thousands. Every Sunday they wait in line for hours for a seat at his three-hour mass where he dons a red, black and green robe, dances in the aisles with parishioners, and incorporates African music and Black literature in the traditional service. At service's end, the line forms once again as worshippers wait patiently once more, this time for an autograph from the charismatic priest.
Immeasurably more significant than Rev. Stalling's individual actions, however, are the questions his movement has raised and the answers they have wrought. For it has become increasingly apparent that Rev. Stallings is by no means a lone renegade in his dissatisfaction with the 52 million-member U.S. Catholic Church. There is a growing support for the maverick priest among other members of the Catholic clergy -- Black and White -- who say that Rev. Stallings is right about one thing: for too long the church's White establishment has ignored the cultural, social and spiritual needs of the Black faithful.
"When we had our first meeting of the Black Catholic Clergy Caucus in Detroit back in 1968," recalls Chicago's Rev. George Clements, "the first sentence of our final statement was that the Catholic Church of the United States is primarily a White racist institution. Since that time, nothing has really happened to change that," contends the Black Priest who captured the nation's admiration with his "One Church/One Child" program and his anti-drugs campaign.
The Rev. Edward Branch, former president of the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus and a founding board member of the National Office of Black Catholics, agrees. "We are a country dominated and ruled by White racists, and those same people head the Catholic Church," explains Rev. Branch, who for six years was chaplain at the Catholic University of America in Washington. "Imani is a catalyst for Black Catholics and the larger structure to talk about these problems and get off the dime and do those things that have been promised Black Catholic for years."
The Rev. Michael L. Pfleger, a White paster of a predominantly Black church in Chicago, tried to begin such a dialogue. He called for a meeting with the church hierarchy to discuss specific problems, but Rev. Pfleger was not prepared for what happened next. "I begin to receive phone calls from parishioners and clergy telling me that if I didn't like the way the Church treated Black members I should go to Africa and take them with me. It was unbelievable," he laments.
Many who support Father Stallings also point out that, at least when it comes to his demand for an African-American rite, his request is not a radical one. According to Monsignor Alan Detscher, associate director of the Secretariat for the Liturgy of the National Conference on Catholic Bishops, there are more than 14 different rites, including Greek, Russian and Ukranian, which "are all ancient rites and date back to the earliest centuries of the church."
The struggle for an African-American rite is not a new one, says Sister Thea Bowman, the nationally respected nun in Canton, Miss., known for going to the edge of accepted Catholic practice. "Since the 60s, there has been a concerted effort by Black priests, brothers, sisters, deacons and lay people to work for the development of Black theology and liturgies that reflect the experiences, values and culture of Black People," Sister Thea says. "Black folk have rich spiritual and cultural gifts and I want to come to my church fully functional, which means I bring everything I am and everything I have. It means I bring my history, I bring my experiences, my art, my song, my dance, my story."
Rev. Stallings is not without critics. The nation's 13 Black bishops issued a public statement suggesting he is "commingling personal disappointment, individually felt frustrations and personal anger under the banner of racism." racism."
Others flatly charge that Rev. Stallings' break with the church has more to do with personal ambition than with racism in the church. Jacqueline Wilson, archdiocesan director for Black Catholics in Washington, told the press she believes Rev. Stallings' movement "has nothing to do with race," but Rev. Stallings "has an inordinate desire to be in power."
Many say the priest also leads an inappropriately lavish lifestyle (his 100-year-old Victorian home is filled with precious antiques, has a backyard Jacuzzi and an all-marble bathroom). Says the priest: "The White mand didn't give it to me and the White man can't take it away from me."
Even some who agree that there are problems in the Catholic Church disagree with Rev. Stallings' solutions. In that way, the current Black Catholic debate is very familiar in Black history. It is W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington. It is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. It is a clash of strategies in reaching a common goal. Clearly, with the growth of Black Catholics (nearly a 50 percent increase in the last five years) this debate is certain to continue.
While the debate rages on, Rev. Stallings says his goal is to raise enough money to build Black-owned-and-administered churches across the nationa that will be the hub of the Black-owned schools, banks, day-care centers and businesses.
"That's why I'm dangerous," Rev. Stallings says. "I am dangerous because the White establishment already perceives me as one who is going to call forth the best in African-Americans. I am dangerous because the White establishment knows full well that when we develop an economic, political, cultural, social and religious base that we own and control, we than can flex our muscles and make certain demands on that institution and not back off. The wait is over."…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: What's Behind the Black Rebellion in the Catholic Church? A Charismatic Priest and His Imani Temple Spark Sharp Debate. Contributors: Randolph, Laura B. - Author. Magazine title: Ebony. Volume: 45. Issue: 1 Publication date: November 1989. Page number: 160+. © 1999 Johnson Publishing Co. COPYRIGHT 1989 Gale Group.
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