Converting the Ethiopian
"Lord knows I've never seen so many black folk."
Brian K. Johnson, an African-American youth minister from Texas, looked out at the crowd of Catholics who had gathered at the Baltimore Convention Center on August 29 for the eighth National Black Catholic Congress (NBCC). "Live churches are constantly changing, while dead churches don't have to," he told the audience of over 3,000. "Live churches evangelize, while dead churches fossilize."
Shortly thereafter, in a room nearby, a young man began reading an account from the New Testament of the first recorded Christian conversion of an African.
Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, that is, the queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury, who had come to Jerusalem to worship, and was returning home. Seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. The Spirit said to Philip, "Go and join up with that chariot." Philip ran up and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and said, "Do you understand what you are reading?" He replied, "How can I, unless someone instructs me?" So he invited Philip to get in and sit with him. . . . Then Philip opened his mouth and, beginning with this scripture passage, he proclaimed Jesus to him. As they traveled along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, "Look, there is water. What is to prevent my being baptized?" Then he ordered the chariot to stop, and Philip and the eunuch both went down into the water, and he baptized him. When they came out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, but continued on his way rejoicing.
A little while later, the same young man was sitting in an imaginary bus, trying to engage another youth in conversation. "What part of the Bible are you reading?"
"Acts 8," said the second youth with a look of boredom.
"Acts 8? I had a hard time understanding that when I first read it. Do you know what you're reading?"
"Yeah," said the youth, looking even more bored. "Acts 8."
Soon afterwards, though, the conversation in the bus had deepened. "Why is it that every time I look out of the window, somebody's getting shot?" asked the youth with the Bible.
Accept Jesus as your savior and the answers will become clearer, the other young man urged him. "This is not to say that life becomes a cakewalk after you're baptized and saved," he added. "Now you're on the hit list."
Evangelization – that was the theme of this skit and of the eighth NBCC. This theme is no small matter to America's black Catholics.
A WHITE DENOMINATION?
Although the Catholic African World Network calculates that there are 200 million Catholics of African descent in the world, in 1990 only two million out of America's 55 million Catholics were black. As the NBCC point out, the Catholic Church continually faces the problem of being perceived as a "white" denomination.
Some of the conflicts over the Catholic Church's identity may also be found inside the church. The Summer 1997 issue of The African American Catholic Tribune, published by the NBCC, carries an article by an American Catholic who was upset by the European-style worship she encountered at a Nigerian Catholic church:
Here I am in Africa in an African American Catholic Church, and the statues of Jesus are all European! I just cringed to see beautiful brown and black Africans bent down scrambling to kiss the feet of a blond-haired, blue-eyed statue of a Saint. The symbolism made me shudder.
The author went on to conclude that her attitude was too narrow, but her perspective was hardly unusual. Bishop Edward K Braxton, in an August 20 speech to his fellow bishops (which was closed to the press), told of a visit he paid to a neighborhood barber shop, in which a shop patron commented that he didn't know the Catholic Church "allowed" black priests.
On a Black call-in radio station there is a heated debate about what color Jesus was. One participant argues loudly that Jesus and the apostles were definitely Black. Another says if He was Jewish, He probably was not fair skinned the way He is usually pictured. One of the patrons dismisses the radio debate saying, "No self respecting Black man could fall on his knees before a White Jesus, when the White man was and is the oppressor."
Many of the congress's participants stated their belief that the Catholic Church has fallen short in its mission to bring the gospel to all cultures and all races. Bishop Braxton quoted a young man who said, "The image of a magnificent Black angel in a cathedral would do more for the evangelization of Black people than handing out copies of a prayer book at the door."
For many black Catholics, then, one part of evangelization must consist of adapting Christianity to African culture, just as that Middle Eastern religion was long ago adapted to Western European culture.
On August 30, at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, another step was taken in that process.
AFRICA AND EUROPE ENTWINED
"Beyond our wildest imagination."
That was how one speaker described the mood of the congregation who assembled at the Washington basilica on the following afternoon. What had stunned the African-American community was the outpouring of support for the National Shrine's latest and last chapel, Our Mother of Africa Chapel. Now, in a service which combined European-American and African-American ritual, NBCC delegates had gathered to celebrate their Christian and African-American heritage.
"This is a celebration, not only for those of African descent, but for the whole Catholic Church of the United States," said Cardinal James Hickey, archbishop of Washington. "The whole church benefits from the gifts which you and your forebears have given throughout this nation's history."
Above the archbishop towered a mosaic of a blond-haired, blue-eyed Christ, designed during the 1950s. Behind him, dressed in African-style robes, were 12 of the Catholic Church's 13 black bishops. (The 13th was ill but was watching the service on television.) One of them, Bishop John H. Ricard, came forward to read from St. Paul's Letter to the Ephesians. "You are strangers and aliens no longer," he read.
"Amen!" cried the congregation.
As the bishops proceeded downstairs to consecrate the chapel, NBCC delegates clapped their hands in time with African-American spirituals. "Abraham was not the father of anyone until he met an Egyptian," Father Clarence Williams told the congregation. "Out of Africa came Moses. Jesus saw the great pyramids of Egypt."
The bishops returned, and the worship service proceeded to the giving of communion. Already, though, a line was forming downstairs at Our Mother of Africa Chapel. Visitors entering the chapel walked over a representation of the Henrietta Marie, a 17th-century slave ship. They filed past a statue of an African Virgin Mary and Christ Child, paused before a crucifix shaped in a style based on Entebene tribal carvings, and took pictures of a relief depicting African history from enslavement to the hopefulness of a modern black family.
The line for the chapel lengthened as the service ended; the wait increased. Visitors found a way to occupy themselves, though. As bishops and priests finished disrobing and walked past the chapel, they were greeted by the sound of dozens of African Americans singing a Latin hymn: "Ave Maria."
THE ROLE OF THE NBCC
And what of the future ? Will the American Catholic Church find a way to increases its black membership? Or will the dedication of the African chapel be seen as the high point in the history of black Catholicism?
On August 29, NBCC members were told a story by Leodia Gooch, Supreme Lady of the black Catholic organization, the Knights of Peter Claver. Ms. Gooch did not reveal the race of the main character in her narrative – perhaps, in the long run, it does not matter. But the story gives insight into the role that the NBCC may play in Catholic evangelization.
Two women, she said, had been eating dinner at the congress the night before. A young man approached them and asked, "What's going on? Why are all these priests here?"
The women explained to him about the NBCC. When they had finished, the young man said, "You know, I've really got to go to confession. I haven't been to confession for 25 years."
He left the women, started to depart the dining area, stopped, paced back and forth, and returned to the women. "Do you think one of those priests will take my confession?" he asked.
The women pointed to where the clergymen were eating. "Well, the priests are over there," they said, "and that one's a bishop." The young man left the women again.
A moment later, the bishop put down his fork, stood up, and left the room. He was accompanied by the young man.
©1997 Heather Elizabeth Peterson