Black issues conference strives to transform communities


SUMTER  Concerns relevant to the experiences of more than 1 million black men, women and children who live in the Diocese of Charleston were addressed at the first Black Issues Joint Conference held Saturday, April 24, at St. Jude Church here.

The event began with a rite of libation and blessing and a welcome from Catherine Fleming Bruce, director of the diocesan Office of Black Catholic Ministry.

The office was one of several sponsors for the gathering, including the National Black Sisters’ Conference Black Women’s Project, and the Knights and Ladies of Peter Claver Council 316.

In a letter of greetings to event attendees from Bishop David B. Thompson, he writes, “As we approach our Jubilee as a Christian family, many inequalities and racial tensions exist in neighborhoods, churches and hearts. We in the Diocese of Charleston are not immune to these complex issues of race and ethnicity, yet we see hope in our faith, in our people, and in our determination. As a member of the Bishops’ Committee on African-American Catholics, I work hand-in-hand with other Bishops and the Secretariat for African-American Catholics in developing initiatives that will address these challenges.”

The Bishop further states, “I urge you to use the opportunities presented during this conference to support one another as you witness to God’s love, forgiveness and compassion. I urge you to share your gifts with the Church. If we are to successfully evangelize, if we are to expand multicultural, multiracial aspects of our church community, it will be because each of us has pledged to overcome those factors that impede our progress. Let us strive in every way to truly be brothers and sisters to one another.”

Keynote speaker for the day was Carol White, co-chair of the Black Women’s Project, a program of the National Black Sisters’ Conference. She is employed with the campus ministry program at St. Philip’s College in San Antonio, Texas.

In her introduction, she gave a summary of the history of the National Black Sisters’ Conference, which is an inclusive organization of Black Catholic Women Religious and Associates from across the United States. Its purpose is to strive to provide ongoing communication and dialogue that focus on the education and support of African-American women religious.

To that end, the NBSC holds an annual meeting and conducts an annual joint conference of African-American clergy, women religious, seminarians, and deacons. It also conducts a ministry clearinghouse for African-American women religious who want to minister within the African-American community and a resource center for statistical research of African-American women religious throughout the United States.

“None of us can work by ourselves. We’ve got to work together,” said White in her opening.

“We’re an important part of this church community. We are one church. Some are heard, some are not. We have to step out on faith. We have gifts, we have talents, but what is happening to our gifts?” she asked.

White continued, “Church for us as a people have always been an important place. We are who are we are. We are concerned about what is happening in our communities. We don’t have an arena where we can be heard.” She then stressed, “You need to be heard. You need a forum for dialogue. We need to promote a sense of identity. Think of blackness as a state of mind. Communicate to our people that its OK to be black and Catholic. Why can’t I carry my culture with me into Church? I want to define me. I want to say who I am.”

The co-chair of the Black Women’s Project urged attendees “to work with your bishops, not against them. We’ve got to be singing off the same sheet of music. We need to know what it is we want. We have to learn how to work together: collaboration.”

Following White’s keynote address, morning sessions included discussions on “Black Catholic Women: Untapped Treasures,” led by White and Bruce; and “Who Do You Say That I Am? Role of Black Men in the Catholic Church,” led by Louis Fleming and Deacon Roland Thomas. Gatherings concerning leadership for youth were also held for those 6 to 11 and 12 to 17.

In the afternoon workshops, topics included “Fatherhood,” presented by Patrick Patterson and Dr. Glover Hopson; “Vocations in the Black Community,” led by Deacon Winston Wright; “Catholic Education,” from David Held, principal of Bishop England High School in Charleston; “Brothers and Sisters to Us: A Dialogue on Racism,” facilitated by Sherman Gaskins; and “HIV-AIDS, Drugs and Alcohol: Health Threats to Our Community.” In addition, community sessions were again held for youth in two age groupings.

After these gatherings, a general session for all attendees was held inside the church. Speakers focused on the need to continue to come together for such dialogues, and that a mechanism be put into place to meet the new bishop after he is named.

In a report from the women’s discussion group, a number of concerns were surfaced. Among these were fears about personal safety, the lack of young people involved in religious education programs, the need for access to Catholic education, and adequate resources for children.

In discussions from the men’s group, Fleming said his counterparts “intend to greet the new bishop and offer ourselves as vessels of service to the diocese.” He said the group also focused on “experiencing ownership in the Church without losing our ethnicity or culture.”

To conclude the conference, a liturgy in the African-American tradition was celebrated at the regular 5 p.m. vigil Mass at St. Jude. Celebrant for the service was Father Paul Williams, pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Church in Greenville. Music for the event was provided by the Junior Voices of Padua and the St. James the Greater Church choirs.

After Father Williams’ homily, during the intercessory prayers, a group of African-American men came forward and issued a public apology to the African-American women in attendance on behalf of all African-American men who have failed to take leadership roles in the Church and left those positions and their resulting burdens to the African-American women. The men pledged to stand alongside the women and offer their leadership from the African-American community to the larger Church.