Black Catholics ‘looking for the opportunity to express’ faith

Washington Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory processes to the altar for the opening Mass for the 13th National Black Catholic Congress that he celebrated July 21 at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. (OSV News photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann, Archdiocese of Washington)

d“Write down the vision; make it plain upon tablets, so that one who reads it may run. For the vision is a witness for the appointed time, a testimony to the end; it will not disappoint. If it delays, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not be late. (Hb 2:2-3).

This Old Testament passage was the theme of the National Black Catholic Congress, held July 20-23 in National Harbor, Maryland. Priests, activists and parishioners represented the diocese as African American Catholics from around the country celebrated culture and faith together.

“It was very inspiring,” said Deacon Frank Nelson. He serves at Holy Rosary, Richmond, a church that has served the African American community throughout its storied history.

“The workshops and sessions were very educational,” he continued. He described the experience, which included Mass, music and discussion, as “very spiritually uplifting.”

“For me, one of the great things was looking at over 3,000 people that love their faith, and knowing they are looking for the opportunity to express it,” said Father Tochi Iwuji. Father Tochi is the director of the Office for Black Catholics. Originally from Nigeria, Father Tochi was ordained in the Diocese of Richmond in 2019 and is pastor at Holy Rosary.

“When I first came to the congress in 2017, I didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “Now, coming as a director and a priest, it helps me understand how better to serve.”

Tanya Lesane, a member of the Ethnic Ministries Advisory Committee, was one of over 30 parishioners from Holy Rosary in attendance. “It was a beautiful gathering,” she said. “It was just so good to see. You don’t see that many African American Catholics in our diocese. It was so good to be able to see everyone all in one place. It made you feel like you were part of something bigger.”

Abby Causey, Director of Evangelization at Holy Family, Virginia Beach, was in attendance as a member of Virginia Catholics for Racial Justice. The mission of the group is to learn, listen, and serve however the Spirit calls in the fight for racial justice.

“There were five of us there from the leadership council,” she said. “We were able to network, to find people who are doing work in other parts of the country.”

Causey had a train ticket to National Harbor, but she decided to ride the bus with her fellow parishioners at the Basilica of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception, Norfolk, the oldest Black Catholic church in the diocese.

Messages of hope

Deacon Nelson spoke in a breakout session on Friday and Saturday titled “Embracing the Gospel of Life Amidst Troubled Waters: Confronting the Faces of Despair When Addressing the Culture of Suicide.” His aim was to talk about how parishioners and clergy can help people experiencing suicidal ideation and can help families who have lost loved ones to suicide.

“After the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s more social isolation, depression and suicidal ideation,” he said. “Suicide is part of that culture of violence that we’re seeing anyway. How can we handle that in a pastoral way, in a spiritual way?”

As a licensed clinical social worker, his approach to the subject came from his role as a mental health counselor as well as his role as a member of the clergy. “I had a slide presentation and engaged the group in discussion, which wasn’t hard to do,” he said. “They were a talkative group. What are some of the warning signs for young people? People were ready to talk about it and share their stories.”

In step with the overall theme of the weekend, his presentation broached a difficult conversation in a productive and positive way. “The overall message was hope,” he said. “People who are thinking about suicide have lost hope. As Christians, and particularly Catholic Christians, there is hope out there. People love you, Jesus loves you, and we love you as well, and we need to show that love.”

Deacon Nelson had a special guest in attendance: Bishop Barry C. Knestout. “I got anxious,” he said with a laugh. “For him to attend, it was humbling.”

More than music

After his own presentation, he attended a session on praise, dance and spirituality. For Nicole Drummond, director of youth ministry at the Basilica of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception, the focus on Black Catholic spirituality spoke to her experience in her community.

“I think that any minority gets pushback when we do not follow the European or Roman standard of the Mass – that is, when you insert your culture into your faith, there are always comments made,” she said. “We often hear, ‘your Mass isn’t focused on the Eucharist, it’s focused on the music.’ But that’s not true. Our Mass is focused on the Eucharist. That’s why we come together. Our music is a different form of prayer.”

Causey also attended a workshop on Black Catholic spirituality.

“The thing that stood out to me was that it was communal. It was joyful, it was holistic,” she said. “When people go to a Black Catholic church, they might comment, ‘we go here for the music.’ But it’s so much more than that. It’s also the proclamation of the Word, the Spirit, the eucharistic prayers.”

Mario Dance, a parishioner at Holy Rosary, gave a breakout session called “Apologetics Without Apologies.” He described it as a chance to talk about issues of spirituality and morality.

“Sometimes as African Americans, we are pulled away towards other congregations that are more accepting of our culture,” he said. “Others are married to people outside of the faith, and they don’t understand why their partner would want to stay Catholic and not just go to their church.”

Part of the solution, said Dance, is talking openly about the richness and joy of Catholic life. “One of the challenges of the Church in general and in particular with the African American community is we don’t understand why it’s amazing to be Catholic,” he said.

‘Write down the vision’

In addition to prayer and discussion, participants took a private tour of the National Museum of African American History on Friday night, followed by a keynote speech by Cardinal Wilton Gregory. At Mass on Saturday, more than 80 diocesan priests were in attendance, and on Saturday night, participants packed more than 70,000 meals to send to Haiti.

In September, those in attendance will reconvene to form a pastoral plan and sustain the positive energy the congress generated. For Causey, the importance of action makes the choice of the vision of Habbakuk an appropriate one.

“In social justice work, ‘now is the time,’ is a phrase that’s always resonating,” she said. “The Holy Spirit does lead. Recognize when the Spirit is moving and be guided in the right direction.”

“The words ‘write down the vision’ gave us hope that we can do this,” said Lesane. “We will survive. We’re not disappearing. We’re going to be here, we’re going to grow, and we’re going to thrive.”


Editor’s note: A previous version of the story identified Abby Causey as coordinator of religious education at Church of the Holy Spirit instead of Director of Evangelization at Church of the Holy Family.

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