By BISHOP ROBERT J. BAKER
Among the issues that surfaced in our Feb. 17 “listening session” with our brothers and sisters of African-American heritage, held at St. Patrick’s Church in Charleston, was the importance of neighborhood.
A discussion focused on the importance of the church maintaining a presence in the neighborhoods where our African-American communities live.
Historically this was the practice in the church’s evangelizing efforts in African-American communities. Churches and schools were located precisely where the people lived.
Such is no longer the situation in many areas of the country. Schools have closed and moved to suburbs. Churches too have closed in African-American neighborhoods. Partly this was the result of efforts at integration, where the “separate” but “equal” policy was replaced by a policy of merger and commingling of the races.
Also the predominant opinion was that children would get better education in the schools where Anglo boys and girls were being educated.
Many of the schools founded by Mother Katharine Drexel and many of the churches staffed by Josephites were closed through integration.
At its root the principle was an admirable one. What succeeded in happening though was that the presence of the Catholic Church in African-American neighborhoods was diminished or in effect eliminated.
In recent years there has been a resurrection of desire by the African-American community for the Catholic Church to retain its presence in neighborhoods populated predominately by African-Americans.
I experienced what I believe was a balanced approach to such evangelization while pastor of the Cathedral parish in St. Augustine, Fla. (1984-1997), a parish that encompassed the mission parish of St. Benedict the Moor, located in an African-American neighborhood.
St. Benedict’s School had been established by the Sisters of St. Joseph from Le Puy, France, brought to this country by Bishop Augustin Verot, the first bishop of St. Augustine, following the Emancipation Proclamation. They were to work specifically with freed African-Americans.
The parish Church of St. Benedict the Moor was built in 1911 at the request of the African-American community, who had previously worshiped in the left transept of the Cathedral. It was their wish to have a special church in their neighborhood.
Evangelization efforts flourished with the presence of the Josephite Fathers in the parish and the Sisters of St. Joseph in the school, a school that received funding from Mother Katharine Drexel. When Martin Luther King came to St. Augustine early in the 1960s, the church responded to his challenge to integrate by closing St. Benedict the Moor Parish. The Josephite Fathers soon after left St. Augustine.
Eventually, at the wish of the African-American community, St. Benedict the Moor Church reopened as a mission parish within the Cathedral parish, an integrated parish also, but with the parish council being composed primarily of African-Americans, who wished to focus the parish outreach to African-Americans.
While there were questions raised about maintaining a “parish” connected to another parish that was so close to the Cathedral church, I believe the decision was a good one.
As people said to me at our “listening session,” African-Americans should be given a choice as to worshiping in their neighborhoods or worshiping elsewhere.
Some will prefer to go across town to the churches that are composed predominately of whites. Some will not.
Maintaining parishes in African-American neighborhoods will call for a special commitment by the entire Catholic community if they are to succeed in sharing the message of Christ.
I believe the time and effort are worth it. But I also see the need to look to the entire Catholic population for support if we are to experience a new time of evangelization in the African-American community.
Education is a component of this evangelization effort, as was indicated in our discussion. The diocesan policy for maintaining quality schools calls for all our Catholic schools to be academically excellent, thoroughly Catholic, financially feasible, and community supported. For us to justify maintaining Catholic schools anywhere in the diocese, these principles must be at work.
African-American Bishop J. Terry Steib of the Diocese of Memphis, Tenn., has undertaken, thanks to a generous donation, one of the most ambitious programs in the nation to resurrect Catholic schools in African-American neighborhoods. He calls the effort “Jubilee Schools,” and with the seed money donated, he was able to establish a scholarship fund to provide tuition assistance for students who would not otherwise be able to attend Catholic schools.
He was also able to use this fund to begin reopening Catholic schools in African-American neighborhoods that had previously closed.
The intention in the Memphis Diocese is to continue to seek additional funding “to ensure that we will never again close a Memphis Catholic School.”
Anonymous donors are providing funds to renovate schools in African-American neighborhoods and to help pay tuition for needy students. There are six elementary schools scheduled to be resurrected, with St. Augustine School in Memphis, closed in 1995, being the first to reopen in 1999, offering kindergarten the first year and adding a grade every year.
That is an ambitious project, calling for strong grassroots efforts and broad-based community support!
In the Diocese of Charleston, we have inaugurated the “Beacons of Light” effort to generate funds to help our needy schools and assist with tuition for needy students. We will continue to emphasize the importance of “Beacons of Light” so that we will help our schools in African-American neighborhoods thrive and assist qualified needy students with tuition. Please help us in this important effort. We will be making an annual appeal in our diocese specifically for “Beacons of Light.”
Besides the issue of neighborhood parishes and education, our listening session focused on the need for liturgies, with their homilies and music, to be reflective of African-American culture and life. We addressed the need for training of those ministering to our African-American brothers and sisters, with an effort to bring a greater sense of cultural awareness to our evangelization efforts.
We discussed the need to help promote and strengthen family life.
We saw the need to discuss the issue of racism, still pervasive in our society, sometimes directed maliciously, sometimes practiced out of ignorance of the sensitivities of others. The basic message of love of God and neighbor needs to be developed in this context.
The importance of developing a history of our African-American parishes and presence in the Diocese of Charleston was pointed out by Sister Anne Francis Campbell, OLM, general superior of the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy. And this proposal was voted in as an item for immediate action.
The issue of vocations also was presented. There is a great need to foster vocations to the priesthood and religious life from our African-American community. This is a goal that every priest, religious, and lay person should be working toward with our diocesan Vocations Office.
Many other important issues surfaced, and the decision was made for a smaller committee to be established that will meet regularly through the year to advance the implementation of these important matters addressed.
Everyone present at the Feb. 17 “listening session” saw the value of taking time out to listen, discuss, and search out ways that will bring about reconciliation in the parish and diocesan settings where we live and work and thus enable us to share a message of reconciliation concretely lived that will help advance future efforts at evangelization.