What's Behind the Black Rebellion in the Catholic Church? A Charismatic Priest and His Imani Temple Spark Sharp Debate

Article excerpt

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That is why Imani (Swahili for "faith") the European-based rites of the traditional Catholic service have been replaced by a hand-clapping, make-a-joyful-noise service that Rev.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. …