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Black Catholics Seek Racism-Free Places of Worship


When Joseph Geeter retired from the United States Marine Corps and moved to suburban Philadelphia 20 years ago, he attended mass at a few different Catholic churches with predominantly white congregations near his new home and was met with an unwelcoming welcome.

“I was not received there,” Geeter, a black Catholic, told the Catholic News Service in a February interview. “People wouldn’t even look at me and almost wouldn’t allow me to be on the bench. I could tell that I was definitely not wanted there.

He had navigated racism in just about every American institution in his life and learned to exist peacefully in society despite it.

However, that was not how he wanted to worship in the religious tradition he loved, so he contacted the Black Catholic Office of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, who directed him to St. Rose de Lima from the city, which had a predominantly black congregation. .

Church in Philadelphia on February 6, 2022.” width=”550″ height=”365″ srcset=”https://i0.wp.com/thecatholicspirit.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/RACE-BLACK-CATHOLICS.jpg?w=550&ssl=1 550w, https://i0.wp.com/thecatholicspirit.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/RACE-BLACK-CATHOLICS.jpg?resize=300%2C199&ssl=1 300w” sizes=”(max-width: 550px) 100vw, 550px” data-recalc-dims=”1″ />

Parishioners attend mass at St. Barbara’s Catholic Church in Philadelphia on February 6, 2022. CNS Photo/Chaz Muth

Geeter found a welcoming parish at St. Rose of Lima and later at St. Barbara Catholic Church in Philadelphia when the two parishes merged in 2013, without the burden of racism.

This is why many black Catholics prefer to worship in churches with predominantly black congregations.

This, however, is not always possible in other locations in the United States.

It may also be a reason why there are so few black Catholics in the United States and why they are the least likely to remain Catholic.

“The share of black Americans who were raised Catholic and who remain Catholic is lower than the corresponding shares of Hispanic and white Catholics,” according to a Pew Research Center study released March 15. “About half of black adults who were raised Catholic still identify as Catholic (54%), compared to 61% of white adults and 68% of Hispanic adults.

There are more than 72 million Catholics in the United States, according to a 2020 report by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University. Only about 3 million of them are black.

Of the 35,513 priests in the United States, 250 are black and of the 41,357 nuns in the United States, 400 are black.

When the late Auxiliary Bishop Joseph A. Francis of Newark, New Jersey—the fourth black Catholic bishop appointed to serve the American church and the primary author of the 1979 U.S. Bishops’ Pastoral on the Sin of Racism—was made asking why there were so few black Catholics in the United States, he responded with the question, “Why are there so many?” »

He pointed to the Catholic Church‘s history of being silent during the slave trade, with Catholic institutions owning and selling slaves, continuing to have separate schools, parishes and religious orders long after the laws of the civil war ending slavery and well into the 20th century.

“Very few institutions in our country have done less to combat racism than the church,” Bishop Francis said at a gathering of Catholics in Brooklyn, New York, in 1980.

As bold of a speaker as the bishop was on the subject of racism and the church’s failures on that issue, he remained a Catholic, said Father Stephen Thorne, chairman of the Commission for Racial Healing of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

“One thing that is great about black Catholics is that we know we are children of God,” Fr. Thorne told CNS. “No matter what you may say, we know it and we express it. We have the right to continue to be what God has called us to be. It’s part of our struggle, that if we want to move forward and evangelize, we have to tackle those issues that sometimes get in the way of evangelism.

Many American Catholic leaders recognize that racism continues to be a problem in the church.

The church – as an institution – started calling racism a sin decades ago.

Ridding the church of racism, however, has proven as difficult as ridding the world of it, said retired Bishop Edward K. Braxton of Belleville, Illinois, one of the few American black Catholic bishops.

The first step is to acknowledge a racist past, which the U.S. bishops did in the 1979 “Brothers and Sisters to Us” pastoral and again with the 2018 “Open Wide Our Hearts” pastoral, Bishop Braxton said, “ where the church continues to express sorrow for – and commit to overcoming and getting rid of … racial prejudice and prejudice towards different groups of people, including African Americans.

All of this writing, however, won’t make a difference if you can’t convince people to acknowledge that racism even exists, something that many Americans struggle with, said Joseph A. Ferrara, vice president and chief executive officer. Office of the President of Georgetown University.

Georgetown and the Jesuits reported very publicly on a history of owning and selling slaves, considered by some to be a lesson for the rest of the Catholic Church and American society, but considered by others to be pandering to radical liberals about a racial problem they say no longer exists.

Religion is a sacred part of a person’s life and that sanctity motivates many Black Catholics to worship in predominantly Black spaces, Oblate Sister Marcia Hall said.

When Sister Marcia began exploring a vocation to religious life, she decided that the Oblate Sisters of Providence – a historically black congregation of women religious – was going to be the right fit for her.

“I felt predominantly white environments would be too toxic to live in,” she said. “I had worked for them; I had gone to school with them. I had had enough racist experiences for two lifetimes, so I saw no reason to do this to myself for religious life.

Although Geeter has said he will go to any church — regardless of the racial makeup of the congregation — to worship if he is out of town, his preference is to attend Mass with others. Catholics “who look like me. Unless I’m in a church with people who look like me, I’m just not comfortable.

According to the recent Pew study, only about 25% of black Catholics worship in predominantly black churches.

There are fewer than 800 American Catholic churches with predominantly African-American congregations, most of which are on the East Coast, making it more likely that black Catholics will attend mass in predominantly white congregations.

As mass attendance nationwide has declined in recent decades, bishops have been forced to close or merge parishes and in many cases closed churches have predominantly black congregations, the minister said. Father Thorne.

He’d like to see those kinds of closure decisions made with more consideration for the consequences for black congregations, “so it can really be a decision that will be in everyone’s best interests.” Because when those parishes closed, we lost a lot of those people. »

Key words: Black Catholics, Without Racism, Joseph Geeter, Racism

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