Why Would a Black Man Stay in the Catholic Church?

Article excerpt

For the last three years, I have been part of a group of African-American Catholic men who meet for a monthly breakfast. Our gatherings are punctuated with lively discussions on faith, politics and justice. Often we grapple with why a black man would stay faithful to the Catholic church. These men are both cradle Catholics and converts, and we all ponder whether the church can nurture a black man.

We struggle with the same issues that afflict many of today's Catholics: the stunning revelations of the scope of clerical pedophilia, the irresponsible transferring of perpetrators by bishops, the subsequent bankruptcies and closures, the exclusion of women and married men from the priesthood.

Like many, we are left confused and searching. Yet for black men, the issue is magnified, for it is harder to find mentors, friends and fellowship in our church. The absence of other black men leaves us without comrades in the faith. Many of the unique challenges of being a black man go unaddressed by a church that is overwhelmingly Anglo. Further, as local parishes correctly strengthen their Vietnamese, Filipino and Hispanic ministries, black issues seem forgotten. Black women have serious issues as well, but to some extent have more sisters for fellowship and conversation.

What are these unique challenges of being a black man? First, to be a black man is to be part of a race-gender composite resting on the bottom of the misery index in countless categories. Our brothers rank high in the rates for unemployment, incarceration, dropouts, illiteracy, infant mortality and early death, and low in home ownership, matriculation and corporate presence. Even if you have "succeeded" in America's scale of values, you can't help but remember Martin Luther King's nervousness, expressed in 1965, that we might be "integrating into a burning house."

Your job, house and security are appreciated, but not completely, for you are saddened by the number of illiterate, jobless and incarcerated brothers. You feel, in fact, a smoldering "black rage" that whites often misunderstand. They cite your personal accomplishments, knowing little that your celebration is muted when so many brothers are denied what you possess. Black men often need a place a share the hurt, anger and joy of being black and male in America. The great black scholar W.E.B. Du Bois said it best in The Souls of Black Folk: "One ever feels his two-ness; an American, a Negro, two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder." In this context, the best thing the Catholic church can do is be a place where black men may gather without judgment or whispers.

So where does this leave the black male Catholic? One of our breakfast members said a local black Baptist minister told him any black man who remains Catholic has lost his mind. This minister sees Anglo paintings of the Virgin Mary, the preponderance of European saints and white priests and wonders aloud why a black man would remain in a place so devoid of color. While black Baptist and Pentecostal churches abound with male leaders, social sermons and community roots, a black Catholic man is often alone.

Yet like many Catholics, we find our hearts longing for our church. The beautiful liturgy has a seasonal rhythm that changes each year into a spiritual odyssey. …