In the footsteps of Daniel Rudd, Black Catholics challenge racism in their church and society

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Black Madonna and Child (Artwork by Anthony VanArsdale for the National Black Catholic Congress)

This past weekend, more than 3,000 Black Catholics from more than 80 dioceses across the country gathered in National Harbor, Maryland, one of the newer suburbs of Washington, D.C. It was the thirteenth National Black Catholic Congress. Although the theme was, “Write the Vision: A Prophetic Call to Thrive,” in many ways the meeting was dedicated to addressing the existence of racism in the church and in the society wherein the church exists.

The sponsoring organization of the convention was the National Black Catholic Congress. It had come into existence in 1889 under the leadership and at the initiative of Daniel Rudd, a Black publisher and outspoken, faithful Catholic layman. Between 1889 and 1894, five of these congresses were held, calling for equality in the Catholic Church, the elimination of societal racial oppression, and promoting strategies of Black self-help. After the 1894 convention, however, the movement died until it was revived in 1987, largely through the efforts of Bishop John Ricard, who attended the National Black Catholic Congress last week.

There were numerous things that clearly showed today’s Black Catholics walking in the footsteps of Daniel Rudd. Along the line of Rudd and his contemporaries calling for equality, these Catholics spoke of racial equality, white supremacy, and racism.

The issue was more than subtly emphasized by the fact that there was a commissioned portrait of the baby Jesus and his mother Mary as beautiful Black people positioned in several locations in the Gaylord Resort and Convention Center, which was the headquarters for the meeting. The portrait inspired many to pose beside them and to glory in their own blackness. The matter of struggling against racism was also illuminated by the repeated focus on the racist burdens borne by the six Black American saints who are on the road to sainthood, especially those who had racist obstacles placed before them in their efforts to answer the call to the priesthood and religious life and/or were discriminated against in their efforts to serve. 

During The National Black Catholic Congress XIII, the two major keynote speakers, His Eminence, Wilton Cardinal Gregory and Dr. Omekongo Dibinga, addressed the existence and destructiveness of racism. Cardinal Gregory dwelt more on the sinfulness and divisiveness of racism and the role that strong adherence to the faith and devotion to the eucharist can play in healing the nation from the historical impact of racism. Dr. Dibinga used contemporary rap or the hip-hop genre to inspire people in an effort to utilize their human resources to overcome racism, poverty, and self-image problems. In both cases, they were able to easily connect with the audience and elicit resounding supportive responses.

Perhaps, even more amazing was the fact that the homilies during the Masses, on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, were all received by tremendous applauds from the congregations. 

On Friday, Washington, D.C. Cardinal Gregory used that day’s scripture reading to talk about the need for Black Catholic visionaries; to publicize the types of visions discernable in the lives of the six African Americans being seriously considered for sainthood; to point to Father Clarence J. Rivers as a visionary and Dr. Martin L. King as the greatest of the contemporary visionaries; and to show how those visionaries align with the revelations of Jesus in the pursuit of freedom. 

On Saturday, Bishop Jacques Fabre Jenne of Charleston, South Carolina, used the story of Mary Magdalene to talk about the underlying racism that became the means of securing and enslaving African people during the Atlantic Slave Trade. He ended his talk by utilizing one of the youth altar servers to illustrate an act of freedom and liberation. 

On Sunday, Bishop Emeritus John Ricard of Pensacola/Tallahassee added to the four-day conversation on the evils of racism and what has to happen to diminish and destroy it. He ended his homily by urging the audience to let the spirit rain down upon them so that they can do miraculous things regarding eliminating racism and other problems faced by contemporary Americans and urging Catholics to not let the fire go out as was lighted by the likes of Daniel Rudd and the six African Americans on the road to sainthood – Father Augustus Tolton, Mrs. Julia Greeley, Mother Mary Lange, Mr. Pierre Toussaint, Mother Henriette Delillie, and Sister Thea Bowman.

In addition to the keynote speakers and clergymen who preached, the planners of the convention had set the agenda to challenge racism through at least twenty Break-Out Sessions. Although the title of each session may not in every instance indicate that they were about racism, the following sessions, several of which were presented in two or three different time slots, were staged through the first three days of the convention: (1) Synodality, Black Catholic Spirituality, and the Racial Divide; (2) Exploring Catechesis from an Afrocentric Perspective; (3) Strengthening the Spirit for Turbulent Times and Beyond; (4) Saints: Witnesses for Our Times and a Testimony of Holiness; (5) What We Have Seen and Heard for the 21st Century; (6) Developing Catechetical Resources from an Afrocentric Perspective; (7) The Preserving Black Churches Grant Program: Two Success Programs; (8) See, Judge, Act: How Youth Can Use Faith to Become Active Champions for Justice;  (9) Sojourning Towards Racial Justice; (10) Let’s Talk: Black Catholics are Thriving; (11) Six Black Americans on the Journey to Sainthood; (12) A White Man’s Journey into Biblical Black History; (13) Made for Such a Time: Gifts of Black Catholics for the 21st Century Church; (14) Let Our Healing Begin; (15) Pastoral Lessons from Father Clarence Joseph Rivers; and (16) Are the Prolife and Racial Justice Movements Incompatible? Each Break-Out Sessions was a one-hour discussion period wherein presenters introduced researched topics, which were followed by questions and comments from the audience.

Three of the most informative sessions, which dealt with White supremacy or racism were: “What We Have Seen and Heard,” “Sojourning Towards Racial Justice,” and “Synodality, Black Catholic Spirituality, and the Racial Divide.” In the “What We Have Seen and Heard” session, Bishop Emeritus Terry Steib of the Diocese of Memphis explained that Black Catholic parishioners in the late 1980s complained and wanted to hear from what had grown to be 10 Black bishops regarding the continued racism in the Catholic Church. In response, the document, “What We Have Seen and Heard,” a 1984 pastoral letter from the Black bishops, was produced. That document spelled out the gifts that were possessed by Black people that needed to be more widely accepted in the Catholic Church. It was also designed to challenge the church leadership to understand that the Black bishops and Black church people were not children in the church, but mature, gifted souls who needed to be accepted and treated as such. Ali Mumbach, a master’s degree student at Howard University, followed him, explaining how there are similar needs in the church today as the statistics for Black Catholics decline. Simultaneously, there is a rise in materialism secularism, individualism, and relativism affecting society.

In the “Sojourning Towards Racial Justice” session, Adrienne Curry gave a brief history of racial oppression in America, beginning in 1619. This was followed by a listing of papal documents, outlining Catholic social reaching as it related to slavery, freedom, race, and human brotherhood. She then proceeded to spend some time defining racism and its various manifestations. Her talk concluded with a discussion of the fact that there had been only four documents on racism issued by America’s Catholic bishops since the Supreme Court issued the Brown vs Board decision in 1954. One was issued in 1958, affirming that court decision. One was issued in 1968, after the Kerner Report on the urban riots of that year. One was issued in 1979, calling racism a sin. One was issued in 2018, which was a response to the “What We Have Seen and Heard” letter from the Black bishops. She indicated that in each case, the documents were inadequate and/or not highly publicized.

In the “Synodality, Black Catholic Spirituality, and the Racial Divide” session, Daryl Grigsby talked about the gifts that are possessed by Black Catholics that are underappreciated and underutilized; the fact that too often whatever that is positive that comes out of the synodality sessions is not openly shared with or embraced in white parishes. He also shared statistics which showed that white Protestant Evangelicals were the most likely people to accept or see current police misconduct against Black and Brown people as non-racial and to reject the idea of reparations for Black and Native Americans, but that Catholics were not far behind. Individuals with no religious affiliations were much less racist in such regards than either those who are Protestant or Catholic.

Throughout the convention, it was clear that many Catholics were concerned that in terms of liturgy – music, prayers, greetings, and various forms of celebration and personal interactions – the church was too restrictive, stifling Black cultural expression; that too often what was considered as sacred or Catholic was merely examples of white cultural preferences; that one can be fully Black and fully Catholic at the same time. In addition to the issue of cultural preference, however, there were also complaints about incidences of white personal attitudinal expressions – Black people being ignored or treated differently. One presenter suggested that it would be easier to attract others to the Catholic Church “if we cleaned up our house first.”

Beyond the examples of racism in the church itself, there was concern about examples of racism that are manifest by the governmental and public bodies. Several speakers pointed to decisions of the courts in things like health care, voting rights, food, criminal justice, educational funding, curriculum distortions, and educational freedom. One person was highly applauded when she made the observation that politicians, including Catholics, need to bring as much passion to the fight for racial justice as they do to the fight against abortion.

Based upon what was seen and heard at the XIII National Black Catholic Congress, there seems to be a serious movement to follow in the footsteps of Daniel Rudd and others to challenge racism and to do so with the full weight of the Black Catholic Church. More than a few of the attendees expressed the idea that they had become Catholic because the teachings of the Catholic Church had encouraged them to act boldly in the area of racial equality and that they do not intend to turn-back. Daniel Rudd would be proud of the work that the National Black Catholic Congress continues to do.

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In the footsteps of Daniel Rudd, Black Catholics challenge racism in their church and society

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
July 31, 2023