Black Catholics celebrate heritage with Umoja

CHARLESTON — People who attended the Black Catholic Heritage Festival June 21-22 were all one color, “earth color.”

So said Archbishop Anthony J.V. Obinna of Nigeria who told the congregation at the event’s closing Mass that when people die they are all “taken back to mother earth” and as members of the body of Christ their colors are the same. That Sunday was also the feast day of Corpus Christi and the archbishop reminded the faithful who had gathered to celebrate black Catholics in South Carolina that though times can be hard, “God has given us sanctuary in the person of Christ.”

Bishop Robert J. Baker celebrated the Mass and the archbishop gave the homily.

Archbishop Obinna said his topic was about a messy subject, body and blood. He touched on genocide, infanticide, abortion, and his own war-torn country.

“This indeed is a messy subject and yet Christ our Lord has decided to be a part of this mess,” he said. His focus was on the Eucharist in which “we come to share in the big love, we come here to share in the love of God. When we look at the cross, God is saying, ‘please, please, we have shed enough blood on this earth.’”

But the charismatic archbishop was not just talking about bloodshed. He asked people to consider what they used their bodies and blood for.

“Am I using it so that others can come to life … so that others can benefit from my presence on this earth?” he asked. “We are called to be advocates for the cause of the Eucharist. Give your blood; give your energy so that all of us can become members of the body of Christ. Let the radiance of Christ shine from your body, a body of holiness.”

The archbishop sowed seeds of faith throughout the weekend. He spoke at a banquet June 21 held at the Francis Marion Hotel. He discussed the importance of faith among black people.

“That many African-Americans came to see in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ a sign and pledge of their victory over their own suffering and misery,” he said, “is a tribute to the divine attractiveness of Christ announced to them and to the trusting spirit of African-Americans who saw in Christ the one who was restoring to them their dignity as sons and daughters of God.”

In workshops held earlier that day, participants heard some empowering news from Franciscan Father Paul Williams, who said that the first convert to Christianity was not Jewish, but a Nubian.

“The Holy Spirit of God chose a black man to become the first convert to Christianity,” he said. “When St. Luke wrote this in Acts of the Apostles he is making it quite clear … that all people of all races are welcome into the Church of Christ. St. Luke was making it quite clear that Christianity is not a white man’s religion.”

Kathleen Merritt, director of the Office of Ethnic Ministry for the Diocese of Charleston, organized the event with Father Williams, who is the vicar for Black Catholics. She said black ministers from many faiths in Charleston were invited.

“We want people to go out and talk about the Catholic Church, to encourage and evangelize, bring in the unchurched,” she said. “We want to reach out to those looking for a sense of spirituality.”

At the end of the celebration, Father Williams explained that there is a rich history in regard to people of African descent, and Africans in the life of the early Christian Church. Before Christianity took root in Europe, it was showing up in parts of Africa and the Middle East.

“My hope is that black Catholics will find a sense of unity and know that we exist in large numbers,” he said, referring to the state’s population. “Many black Catholics worship in parishes that are white. There are 7,000 black Catholics in the diocese at present. That’s one of our best-kept secrets.”