For Black Catholic Women, Gathering Is "like Cpr for the Spirit"

By Mary C. Curtis
Politics Daily
August 18 2010

"Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again."

The words of the Eucharistic prayer's acclamation are known to regular Catholic Mass-goers. But the choir's tune -- while just as familiar -- may come as a surprise to someone attending this particular type of Mass for the first time. The unmistakable accompaniment is "We Shall Overcome," the anthem of the civil rights movement.

This is the closing service of the Third National Gathering for Black Catholic Women, which met in Charlotte, N.C., for three days over the weekend. As Catholicism itself has been rocked with turmoil from the top down, this group has made the rituals of the church its own, finding relevance, added meaning and a refuge.

More than half of American Catholics say the Vatican is out of touch with their lives, according to a CBS News/New York Times poll, which found discontent, particularly over the church's and Pope Benedict XVI's perceived inaction over clergy sex-abuse revelations. But the same poll shows that, by a wide margin, Catholics say the abuse crisis has not caused them to view their church in a more negative light. These Catholics still attend Mass every week and remain loyal to their parishes and priests. They find comfort in the church's message, expressed in different ways.

Nearly 400 women traveled to Charlotte for "inspiration, motivation and spirituality," as Jeannette Malveaux of Houston said, by "remaining Catholic while remaining authentically black." (Texas and Maryland each sent more than 50 women, making them the largest delegations.)

For three days, they attended workshops mixing the spiritual ("The Power of Prayer") and the practical ("Health Issues as Related to Black Women"). Educator and author Theresa Wilson Favors, director of the office of African-American ministries for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, led a session on "Black Catholic Women Transforming Family and Community." A presentation aimed at young adults explored "Building Relationships," including the issue of abuse.

The mission was "to develop a collective sense of heritage, identity, purpose and vision, and to promote opportunities for ongoing dialogue, reflection and networking with black Catholic women," said Sister Patricia Chappell, a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur and co-coordinator of the event. "Central to everything will be the nourishment of the Eucharist." Chappell, a social worker in Washington, D.C., is former president of the National Black Sisters' Conference, founded in 1968, which co-sponsored the Charlotte gathering.

At Sunday's final service you could see African head wraps and colorful robes, and hear call-and-response during the sermon of Monsignor Mauricio West, chancellor and vicar general of the Charlotte diocese. He exhorted all those in the Hilton ballroom to offer "spiritual and material assistance" and "a hand up and out" to those "who have been ridiculed by others, even church-goers."

"If there are any holier than thou persons present, you can go home now," said West, to shouts of "preach, preacher." Bishop Peter Jugis of the diocese of Charlotte was principal celebrant of the closing liturgy and an excited host to such a large group of devout worshipers.

After last year's meeting in Houston, Malveaux and her fellow Sisters in the Spirit stayed strong and stayed together. "It lets you know who you are and how you fit in."

The struggle to fit in has long been a part of the story of black Catholics in America, with women often leading the way. The Haitian-American Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, with the help of the Rev. James Hector Joubert, in 1829 founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence in Baltimore. This first order of African-American nuns pledged to educate excluded children of color, and also housed orphans and tended to the sick and elderly. The Oblates remained strong in their mission into the next centuries, and taught me and my siblings at St. Pius V elementary school in Baltimore.

One of them, my sister Janice Curtis Greene -- whose New All Saints parish in Baltimore has reflected the neighborhood's shift from white to black -- embraces the change in worship styles that the black Catholic women's group represents. I've never heard so much applause in a Catholic Church, I jokingly tell her. At New All Saints, now led by an African-American pastor, the music is a mix of traditional and gospel and Sunday service is punctuated by praise dance by her troupe of young girls. It doesn't change the faith, just the trappings.

She's attended all three national gatherings, and in Houston performed a tribute to our family's African-American Catholic women. For her, the conferences are "like CPR for the spirit," she said. "I come to be revived, to renew my commitment to God and to the Catholic Church, and to reclaim my heritage as an African-American Catholic." She said, though, that "if I never heard a gospel song in the Catholic Church, I would still remain Catholic" because of its universality.

From Favors' workshop, my sister was inspired by the message to "wake up, look up and get up and do something." She said she has already talked with other women from her church about working on school violence and bullying issues, with community action and a prayer vigil.

"I'm not in the church for the pope," Greene said. "Our commitment is to Christ. Women have been deacons in the church for a long time without being ordained."

Lucinda Tate, who traveled from Portland, Ore., for her first conference, shared that happiness to be among such a large and committed group of black Catholic women, not so common in her own church and diocese. Tate, who converted from the evangelical Church of God in Christ in 1989, said she is trying to persuade black cradle Catholics to become "more boastful, not be so reserved and silent" about their influence.

But now she joins many struggling with a more personal crisis. "I'm searching to see if I'm going to stay in the Roman Catholic Church," Tate said. Tate was hurt, she said, by Vatican policies that include the attempted ordination of women among the list of most serious crimes, alongside sexual abuse of a minor by a priest. "It's so anti-Christ," she said.

For now, though, the outreach ministry coordinator for her home parish is concentrating on changing what she can within the church. "We have a lot to do to revive our communities and families and influence political and social justice."


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