Economy, faith are key topics for Black Women’s Project

CHARLESTON — Times are tough and the economy is bleak, but a recent meeting of the Black Women’s Project focused on how to overcome the difficulties through prayer, faith and cooperation.

The regional gathering was  sponsored by the National Black Sisters’ Conference, a networking group for black women religious.

The Women’s Project was founded by the conference in 1989 as a way to help black Catholic laywomen develop a collective sense of purpose and identity, and create opportunities for networking and dialogue.

The April 19 meeting’s theme was “Commemorate, Celebrate and Commit: Led by Christ, Black Women Respond to the Economic Crisis in the Church, Family and the Community.”

Sister Roberta Fulton, a member of the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur and principal of St. Martin de Porres School in Columbia, led a panel discussion with Kathleen Merritt, director of the Office of Ethnic Ministries for the Diocese of Charleston; and Sister Barbara Moore, a sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet and co-chair of the national conference.

Sister Roberta talked about ways the economy is affecting the church, and how it offers black women a source of strength and support during this recession.

“The economic climate is hurting black people from the grassroots to Wall Street, but this is not new for us,” she said. “We have come over a way watered with our tears, and it was the church that kept us going. It’s been a place where we can come and feel like going on. It’s called to be a beacon of hope. We know there is financial trouble in our parishes, but it’s not insurmountable.”

Sister Roberta said people need to find ways to support parishes and schools, and to help young people who might feel left out. She encouraged women to overcome petty differences within their communities, and to focus on treating each other with dignity and respect.

Merritt discussed ways the economic crisis was affecting families, and said many black women have a long history of dealing with financial hardship.

“The economic crisis hit the African-American family long before our government recognized it was a problem,” she said.

She noted that abortion continues to be a concern and that the abortion rate is highest among African-American women.

Merritt said it is more important than ever to teach young people about making moral choices when it comes to sexuality, and to make sure churches offer activities both for high school youth and the 18-35 age bracket.

She suggested five things women can do to help each other in difficult times: pray together with their families, communicate with extended family members and watch out for their well-being, pay special attention to youth and keep them motivated, develop a family plan on how to deal with financial hardships and other emergencies, and avoid fretting.

“Don’t worry because it is all in God’s hands,” she said. “Worry has never been helpful or solved anything.”

Sister Barbara said the recession offered a great opportunity for black women to continue a long tradition of working together both in their parishes and the community as a whole.

She said many issues — including black-on-black crime, teenage pregnancy, high HIV rates, and other health problems — can only be addressed if everyone comes together.

“We need to reach back and remember who we are,” she said. “We need to commit ourselves to getting regular checkups, to welcoming other sisters into our community. These are not times for gossip, for judgment. We can’t imagine the baggage our sisters are carrying on their journeys … They say ‘bad times make good neighbors,’ and a shaky economy forces us to rediscover the importance of community.”

In the afternoon, Sister Roberta gave a presentation about the history of African-American women leaders in the United States, and how their examples can be applied to the tasks that need to be undertaken now in their  Catholic communities.

“Let us be steadfast and hold onto our dreams,” Sister Roberta said. “Let us continue to lay foundations for the future. You may never see the fruits of those foundations, but we’re being used by the Lord … We also need to build relationships, ladies. That’s what we’re here for. Together we have to renew our communities.”

The panel then led a discussion session focused on individual women’s concerns. Participants from Green ville, Sumter, Columbia and Charles ton named a variety of issues, including the need to mentor young people and encourage vocations.

Several women worried about the future of historically black Catholic schools. They said keeping them open and vibrant was key both to evangelization and to improving the lives of youth.

The ideas will be used to develop workshops and other events for the National Black Sisters’ Conference planned for Charlotte, N.C., in 2010.