S.C. black Catholics prepare for national meeting



COLUMBIA — Hundreds of black Catholics, and those who minister to them, crowded into classrooms at St. Martin de Porres School on Feb. 23 to formulate some action plans to present to the diocese and to the ninth conference of the National Black Catholic Congress (NBCC) in Chicago this August. The actions embrace eight areas of concern to black Catholics: spirituality, social justice, racism, HIV/AIDS, Catholic education, Africa, parish life and youth and young adults. Responses to these issues from around the nation will be used to formulate a Pastoral Plan by the NBCC.

“They’ll represent the voice of the black Catholics in the Diocese of Charleston,” said Franciscan Father Paul Williams, diocesan vicar for African-American Catholics.

Charlotte House, the diocesan Implementation Team Leader for the NBCC, said that the time has come for black Catholics to speak out about their concerns within the church.

“We need to do for ourselves now; it’s time to step to the plate,” she said. “These eight principles are recurring ones.”

In the small-group meetings that followed the general session, participants were definitely taking their cuts from the batter’s box. Father Williams told his Parish Life group that Catholics should be more aggressive in their evangelization techniques: “We need to go out and knock on doors like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and educate people.”

In the Spirituality session, Oneal Tyler said that black Catholics tend to hide their beliefs under a bushel basket.

“We share about basketball games, but we need to share about our faith,” Tyler said.

Etta Harrison agreed: “Other denominations are trained to go out and bring people in, yet I still hear, ‘You mean there are black Catholics?’ People don’t know about us.”

Harrison told a story about refusing a portion of meat on Friday, explaining to her hostess that she was Catholic. The woman replied, “Oh, so you’re Lenting?”

In the Racism group, there were precious few jokes; it was brush back hardball all the way. Rosalyn Frierson said that blacks are underrepresented in diocesan-level positions, even with the recent addition of Kathleen Merritt to the Curia, the bishop’s advisory council.

Deacon Winston Wright said that diocesan positions are filled without input from the black community; he was also upset about the scarcity of blacks in the diocesan permanent diaconate and the priesthood.

Cherry Seabrook said that Bishop Baker is alert to the concerns of black Catholics in South Carolina: “The bishop has given us this opportunity. Let’s not waste it.”

Louis Fleming said that God will help them to overcome the obstacles that litter the path of his race: “If we will be holy people, he will bless us.”

Later, Franciscan Father Steve Pavignano, pastor of the predominantly black St. Martin de Porres, said that racism is more than a church issue.

“I think that America is a racist country, and we are products of it. And we may not recognize our racism. People of color experience it, and others do not always come into contact with it directly. I have seen people switch Communion lines if a person of color drinks from the cup ahead of them. If you asked them why they did that, they don’t perceive their reasoning as racist,” the Franciscan priest said.

Recently, he said, school children were scheduled to visit St. Martin de Porres on a Sunday to experience a black Catholic liturgy. Some did not show, he heard, because their parents were afraid to let them come into a black church.

“There is skewed information out there, and we have to help with that,” Father Pavignano said. “The Catholic Church is in a great position to help because we are universal, accepting all cultures.”

Father Williams said that the large turnout at the session on Feb. 23 was a consequence of having a full-time director for the Office of Ethnic Ministries now. Merritt, who is that director, said that decades of leadership development by the former diocesan Office of Black Catholics is starting to show results.

“They all put in a lot of effort over many years, and it is now paying off,” she said.

All participants at the day of reflection will review the final responses to the eight principles discussed in the classrooms of the little black Catholic school last Saturday before they are presented to the Diocese of Charleston and the National Black Catholic Congress.

On receiving a preliminary report on the Columbia meeting, Bishop Baker said, “We are listening. Fairness shall prevail in the Diocese of Charleston on the issues addressed. Father Paul Williams, our vicar for African-American Catholics, Kathleen Merritt, director of Ethnic Ministries, and I will see to that.”