The Colors of Catholicism Black Worshipers Seeking to Dispel Myths, Share Faith

Article excerpt

Sylvia Washington's faith is just as immutable, and just as fundamental to her identity, as the color of her skin.

And because her faith taught her about forgiveness, she tries to be understanding when people express ignorance or surprise to learn she's both African-American and Catholic - and living in predominantly white DuPage County.

Like the time a white parishioner registered shock at her presence in church. She "turned red as a beet and said, 'I'm so embarrassed. I thought all you people were Baptists,' " Washington said.

Or when a member of a predominantly black Protestant church tried to get her to convert, telling her Catholicism had nothing to offer blacks.

Or when a boy in her daughter's kindergarten catechism class told her the Catholic church is not for "brown people."

"I know that some people have a problem with it, but the reason I'm still Catholic is because not everyone I encountered was racist or intolerant," Washington said. "This is our faith and, regardless of the problems some people will have ... we're not running away. This is who we are."

Though the Secretariat for African American Catholics estimates its numbers in the United States are more than 2 million strong, several black Catholics who live in the Chicago suburbs say they're often misunderstood, not just by non-Catholics, but even within their own churches.

Closing that gap is one of the reasons why Washington, a community college professor who lives in Winfield, has formed a support organization called Black Catholics in DuPage County.

Washington, who has gained the assistance of Joliet Diocese Bishop Joseph Imesch in her efforts, is not interested in forming a separate black parish in the diocese.

Rather, she wants to foster a source of fellowship, support, history, identity and education to other African-American Catholics in the county.

So far, she has been contacted by about 30 families in the county interested in joining, and has hosted a black Catholic art show and a meeting where the group has discussed a book about Ugandan Catholic martyrs.

"There is a spiritual healing that happens when you're surrounded by people of the same background and the same racial unity," said Maryse Derosena, who came to the United States from Haiti when she was 8 and now lives in Carol Stream.

Like Washington, Derosena said she's committed to her faith and to her parish. But unlike in Chicago, where there are many predominantly black Catholic churches, most suburban Catholic churches have only a few, if any black parishioners. …