Workshop focuses on evangelizing black Catholics

FLORENCE — Father Marcian Thet Kyaw, pastor of St. Ann Church, responded to a call for increased evangelization to the African-American Catholic community by teaching others to do the same.

He and his parishioners organized a workshop in late April that was attended by 40 people. It was led by Deacon Robert and Juanita Gerald.

“Father Marcian saw this was something we needed to address, because St. Ann was founded for the African-American Catholic community here in Florence, and we’ve lost some membership,” Gerald said.

The idea for the workshop emerged from the annual priests’ convocation held in January in Columbia. The theme was “Black Catholics: A Multicultural Approach to Evangelization.” Priests and guest speakers discussed the needs of historically black parishes, the reasons they leave the church, and what can be done to spread the word in the community and address their  spiritual needs.

 Kathleen Merritt, director of ethnic ministries for the diocese, said she received several notes from priests who took part in the convocation that described commitments parishes are making to increase evangelization to the black community.

“About 40 percent of the participants have made agreements or sent in plans on how they’ll initiate some of the ideas from the convocation,” she said in a recent interview with the Miscellany.

Gerald said the day focused on three primary objectives: creating a better understanding of religious practice and the influence culture has on it, discussing the reasons why black Catholics leave the church, and developing the religious education of African-American youth and effective evangelization techniques for the community.

“The day went great. We came up with a lot of ideas on how to improve everything from the way we greet people as they enter the church to how to address everyone’s concerns about how we do the liturgy and the songs to be sung there,” Gerald said. “This effort is not just for black Catholics.  We’re focusing on multicultural diversity because we have many different people who attend St. Ann.”

Other parishioners who helped organize the workshop in Florence were Frances Thomas, Yulannda Heyward and Willie Mae Adams. Guest speakers included Merritt and Sister Roberta Fulton, principal of St. Martin de Porres School in Columbia.

Gerald said the workshop attracted white, black and Latino parishioners, as well as three college students from nearby Francis Marion University who had been attending Mass at the church.

Making people feel welcome at St. Ann is one of the biggest concerns, Gerald said. The church is bringing back a custom that used to be part of every Mass.

“Before Mass starts, we’re going to ask visitors to stand, and we’ll acknowledge people who are celebrating momentous days like birthdays and anniversaries,” he said.

Volunteers will also serve as greeters at every liturgy.

Merritt said another concern addressed in Florence was adding more African-American music. She said the parish will begin using “Lead Me, Guide Me,” a Catholic hymnal incorporating traditional spirituals and liturgical music written by black Catholic composers.  

“It’s a hymnal that every historically African-American parish should have in the pews,” she said. “Music is an art form that can bring people together, and it’s an important way of reaching out, especially to the youth.”

 Merritt said another concern is generating interest in music among young Catholics so they can carry on the musical heritage.

“They need to teach those kids in churches about music, because these kids are our future,” she said. “They need to not just sing and memorize notes, but to learn how to read music and play an instrument, like piano.” Merritt said some of these goals could be fulfilled if churches could get grants from arts organizations.

Merritt said members of St. Ann  discussed ways of reaching out to young people in the parish and community at large through activities such as vacation Bible school and sports. This is a challenge for all churches, she said.

“It’s important to learn about the things youth are going through, and to try to help young people whose lives aren’t going very well,” she said. “Young black Catholics need positive role models, and they need to be able to see somebody who looks like them in their churches.”

For more information about the Office of Ethnic Ministries contact Kathleen Merritt at (864) 234-9009, ext. 121 or