Black Catholic Leadership Initiative aims to broaden roles, presence across archdiocese

| May 8, 2018 | 0 Comments

From left, Father Erich Rutten, parochial administrator of St. Peter Claver in St. Paul; Everlyn Wentzlaff, Lynette Graham, Cynthia Bailey Manns and Hazel Waterman visit before a meeting of the Black Catholic Leadership Initiative at St. Raphael in Crystal May 5. Father Rutten serves as a liaison with the group. Robert Cunningham/For The Catholic Spirit

Lynette Graham, 61, is a lifelong Catholic, but she admits that she hasn’t always understood the Eucharist’s meaning and significance. But responding to a prompt of what gives her joy as a black Catholic, she said, “What I can say gives me joy now is the Eucharist.” 

Graham, a parishioner of St. Peter Claver in St. Paul, was among about 20 people who met at St. Raphael in Crystal May 5 to share their joys and struggles as black Catholics. She recalled growing up in Los Angeles attending Catholic school — not the Catholic school in her neighborhood, which was for white students, but a Catholic school farther away for black students that required her to take a bus with public school students. With her uniform making her a target for harassment, she and others from her school sat behind the bus driver. 

She said a lot of lifelong Catholics take their faith for granted because it’s all they’ve ever known, but without really knowing it. In the absence of that knowledge about her faith, Graham left the Church for a while. But now, “I will never leave, and I defend it everywhere I go,” she told the group.

Other attendees also reminisced about their Catholic school days and admiring nuns who taught them — some in Jamaica — while others shared about missing the Latin Mass and how praying the rosary gives them peace. One woman spoke about admiring the faith from afar when she lived a few blocks away from a Catholic church in a small South Carolina town. She described converting to Catholicism upon marriage as a “childhood wish come true.” Each person’s story pointed to how experiences of being black enrich his or her Catholicity, an important common thread given the group’s objectives — to bring forth multicultural expressions of Catholicism and increase black leadership throughout the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.   

On the heels of last summer’s National Black Catholic Congress in Orlando, local participants organized the Black Catholic Leadership Initiative to put the congress’ themes into play with three focus areas: prayer, youths and justice. The meeting at St. Raphael provided an update of the group’s ongoing work as well as a spiritual retreat, which was led by Cynthia Bailey Manns, a parishioner and the adult learning director at St. Joan of Arc in Minneapolis. 

“[The Black Catholic Leadership Initiative] is a very broad brush intentionally because prayer encompasses so much. Justice isn’t just about social justice; it’s about justice overall. So, it’s a macro perspective,” said Carole Burton, 50, a parishioner of the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis and one of the group’s organizers. “So, how do we engage people? How do we engage conversation? How do we act and walk in that within our faith? That’s why the three [foci], and that’s what came out of that work.” 

Organized as an “initiative,” the goal is for everyone to provide input.

“Everyone’s voice is included because everyone’s experience is different,” said Burton, who is completing a graduate leadership program at Augsburg College in Minneapolis. 

Immediately following the “Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in America” in Orlando July 1-4, the National Black Catholic Congress met in the same place to celebrate and affirm attendees’ faith, and address hopes and wishes, as well as challenges and concerns of black Catholics from across the country. 

Following the congress, which occurs every five years, delegates devised a pastoral plan of action to guide their priorities in their respective dioceses. Among their tangible goals are committing to dismantle racism; addressing mental illness, mass incarceration, domestic violence and other issues that “challenge the sanctity of life”; promoting the canonization causes of five men and women; and listening and responding to the needs of youths and young adults. Delegates plan to align these priorities with those of the Convocation of Catholic Leaders. 

Mary Noble, 70, one of the group’s organizers, said attending July’s congress has energized her to reach out to other black Catholics to engage their faith.  

“We have all these folks who are Catholic, but they’re spread around. It’s good to know there are other black Catholics in the archdiocese; we just don’t see each other,” said Noble, a parishioner of the Basilica of St. Mary and retired Minneapolis public school principal. In Cincinnati, where she’s from, black Catholics were prominent in many parishes, but that’s not the case here, Noble said. Manns told the group that there are 3 million African-American Catholics in the United States, more than membership in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Attendees of the May 5 meeting, which included non-blacks, highlighted the importance of welcoming everyone in their parishes and accurately reflecting the universality of the Church. They listed both as challenges, especially being “black Catholics in a white culture.” Skin color, one man noted, shouldn’t matter, but race plays a role because of cultural barriers. Even among black people, Americans need to welcome African immigrants, he noted, saying, “We can’t call ourselves African-American and not welcome African-Americans.”

Noble said the group is meant to unify, but in doing so, it has to acknowledge some of those cultural barriers.

“Any time blacks have asked to do something, we are always looked at with suspicion. That’s historical,” she said, citing slavery and segregation. “Any time we look to put forth an issue, we’re looked at with that suspicion. [But] nobody questions me when I’m out marching for life. But we forget when we’re talking about life that life includes black people. But life is not just at birth. Life goes on throughout, and some of the things that happen to us may not necessarily happen to majority people.” 

Noble referenced Father Augustus Tolton, a former slave who, after his ordination in 1886, came up against Catholics in Illinois not wanting a black priest. 

“It was OK for him to clean up the church, was OK for him to teach the kids, to an extent. But when it came right down to giving people the sacraments, they looked upon him as being less than human,” Noble said. “Our history has been so washed out and minimized.”

Father Tolton is the first recognized American diocesan priest of African descent. Chicago Cardinal Francis George opened his cause for canonization in 2011. 

Burton sees the group’s work as an opportunity to educate people about the “vibrancy” of the archdiocese, alongside other Catholic ethnic groups such as the Irish, Germans, Latinos and Native Americans. 

“To us, this is just another layer of the tapestry, if you will, of who this archdiocese is,” she said, “and to celebrate it is to learn and to deepen our faith as Catholics.”

According to the Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study, about 1 percent of Catholics in Minnesota are black. Data for the archdiocese isn’t available. 

Father Erich Rutten, parochial administrator of St. Peter Claver and liaison for the group, said in addition to discerning the needs of black Catholics and developing leaders in the archdiocese, the initiative is part of Pope Francis’ call to all Catholics to encounter others different from themselves and to share their gifts. He added that a major theme at the Orlando convocation was that all Catholics are called to be active in their faith. 

“All of us are called to share our gifts. That’s what it means to be Catholic. And it’s not just one group or another,” he said, noting parallel dynamics among Latino Catholics with the Encuentro process, and also Vietnamese Catholics.

“It’s really about pastoral needs and about growing leadership,” he said. “It’s not meant to be political or confrontational; it’s meant to be about being Church.”

Regarding the group’s dynamics in a climate with racial tensions, Father Rutten said culture and race can’t be separated. 

“Within Catholicism, we’re supposed to be all one Church, but there are still some of those same kinds of tensions or difficulties even within Catholicism,” he said. “So, we need to show the way. If the world is having difficulty with justice and peace and race, the Christians above all — and maybe we should say Catholics above all — should be at the forefront of trying to bring … involvement and participation among all of us on a kind of an equal basis.”

Citing a “critical need” for youths to have a sense of their roots and identity, the Black Catholic Leadership Initiative is working to revive Kujenga, a national leadership retreat for black youths that was last held in the archdiocese in the early 2000s. The name is derived from a Swahili word that means “to build (together).”

With the archdiocesan Commission of Black Catholics inactive for some years, members of the Black Catholic Leadership Initiative hope their grassroots work will eventually pave the way for the commission’s renewal. Funds for Kujenga retreats formerly came from the commission, which Archbishop John Roach established in 1986. Leaders anticipate knowing what form and structure the initiative will take after an archdiocesan synod that Archbishop Bernard Hebda announced plans for in fall 2016. Details have yet to be determined. 

Burton said they hope the initiative will be an improved version of the commission, especially given issues such as social and economic disparities, and, citing police killings of black men, how black men and women are being treated. 

“We’re saying it’s time to get together, but in a different manner as far as the purpose of how do we walk, how do we represent, how do we have a voice in the archdiocese, as well as how do we have a voice being black and Catholic in this country,” she said.

Right now, the group, which has about 50 members, meets quarterly. They plan to attend deanery meetings and visit Catholic churches to invite others to participate. 

The group was involved with planning the Martin Luther King Jr. event May 11 at the Basilica of St. Mary. The ecumenical prayer service will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the civil rights leader’s assassination and his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” sermon he delivered the night before his death in Memphis. 

The group also plans to host events in the fall, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ National Day of Prayer for Peace in Our Communities on the feast of St. Peter Claver Sept. 9, and a St. Luke Productions play about Father Augustus Tolton Oct. 23 at the Basilica of St. Mary. 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Category: Featured, Local News