By SHEILA OJENDYK
GREENVILLE African-American Catholics traveled from all over South Carolina to meet with Bishop Robert J. Baker at St. Joseph High School to follow-up from a previous listening session held Feb. 17.
Kathleen Merritt, diocesan director of multicultural ministry, planned and led the gathering.
Bishop Baker first informed the group that he will always include other representatives of the diocesan Curia when he meets with African-Americans. Present were Merritt; Msgr. Joseph Roth, vicar general; Margaret Adams, Ph.D., superintendent of schools; and Lisa Rawlins, director of planning. Also present was Franciscan Father Paul Williams, pastor of St. Anthony’s and vicar for African-American Catholics. Father Williams also serves on the diocesan personnel committee.
The Curia advises the bishop on policy decisions and approves the diocesan budget.
Bishop Baker stressed to participants, “People from other countries bring their own specific gifts.” He spoke further of the need to evangelize and accept cultural heritage. Multicultural ministry, which is new to the diocese, will serve the needs of all ethnic Catholic communities in South Carolina.
The meeting was called to address three issues that were first identified at the previous listening session. The first issue is a heritage Mass. The first heritage Mass is tentatively scheduled for June 2002, but Bishop Baker would prefer to schedule future Masses around Dr. Martin Luther King Day. He asked for suggestions about the liturgy and stressed that everyone should be welcomed to attend.
The second issue is facilitating the healing process. Bishop Baker’s apology for slavery was first published in the Feb. 22 edition of The Miscellany and later in a national publication for Catholic bishops. His document addressed the evils of slavery and racism and the sins of neglect and omission. He would like to finalize his document by June 2002.
The third issue is the presence of Catholic churches and schools in African-American communities. Bishop Baker asked, “What is the African-American community’s opinion on preserving the church in African-American neighborhoods?”
He cited a situation now happening in Sumter. Leaders at St. Anne’s want to build a new church and are open to a collective identity with St. Jude’s, a predominantly African-American church nearby. Options include maintaining two separate parishes, making St. Jude’s a mission parish of St. Anne’s under Redemptorist leadership, or complete merger of the two parishes.
Bishop Baker said that he did not expect to resolve all issues immediately but that he would like to see a consensus soon.
“We’re not going to be making decisions affecting the African-American community until we’ve heard opinions,” he said.
Participants broke out into small groups to discuss each issue and then presented their recommendations to the entire group.
Everybody liked the idea of a heritage Mass. Many wanted to publicize the event not only in the diocesan newspaper but also on the radio and in publications targeted to African-American audiences.
“Make it a grand affair,” said one man. Cherry Seabrook of Our Lady of Mercy in Charleston suggested making it a weekend event like a family reunion and inviting people from other ethnic groups to set up displays.
Other ideas for the heritage Mass included an essay contest for young people, workshops about cultural heritage and history, wearing African attire, and recording the event on audio or videotape. One participant suggested sharing the event with non-Catholics because a lot of black non-Catholics do not understand the role of black Catholics in the American church.
The second issue, reconciliation, was somewhat more controversial. Most people agreed, however, that healing will take a long time. Seabrook said she appreciated the apology but emphasized that Bishop Baker had nothing to do with past evils against African-Americans.
She emphasized that Bishop Baker’s taking the initiative to address these issues “speaks of his level of leadership.” One individual said that reconciliation should go past the African-American community and include other black ethnic groups such as Haitians.
Ella Harrison from St. Martin de Porres asked that Catholic schools teach African-American history, particularly African-American Catholic history.
Bishop Baker commented that most people are not aware of the contributions African-American have made to the United States. He also emphasized that priests need to learn more about black theology.
The last issue on the day’s agenda was the presence of Catholic churches and schools in African-American communities. Everyone agreed that the churches and schools should be kept open and active. When smaller parishes are merged into larger ones, the smaller ones lose their identity. Keeping the church in the community calls its members to reach past the neighborhood to evangelize.
Merritt told of growing up in an African-American community with a church and a school. Her life centered around church and school activities such as Girl Scouts throughout her grade school years. She said she felt very much a minority when she went on to an integrated high school.
Sherman Earl Gaskins of St. Philip the Apostle in Lake City added that the church transforms itself to the population moving into a community. All churches were mission churches at some time.
“Don’t shut the doors because of the small population,” he said.
Frankey House of St. Martin de Porres said “Catholic schools and parishes are vital to the evangelization of African-Americans.” He noted that many participants in the meeting became Catholic because of the black Catholic schools. Otherwise, these children would go to the public schools.
Numerous individuals stressed that the diocese should be very careful when setting the criteria to close schools. Everybody agreed they did not want to see St. Jude’s closed.
As the meeting drew to a close, several participants reported on recent activities among the African-American Catholic community. Edith Benson of St. Martin de Porres is coordinating production of a black history video. People are needed to gather history for this children’s video, which will be narrated by a storyteller.
Charlotte House, also of St. Martin de Porres, shared news from the recent meeting of the National Black Catholic Congress. She stressed, “People without history are people without understanding of who they are.”
Bishop Baker had a few closing remarks. He stressed that no action has been taken on closing St. Jude, but acknowledged that many rumors exist. He also emphasized the need for a liaison at state government level to keep the diocese apprised about social justice issues. The issues discussed at the meeting were action items, and the bishop said plans include establishing a committee for each one.