Black Catholics struggle to maintain two identities

Updated Oct 4, 2005

Walter Allen remembers 30 years ago when he and other African-Americans did not feel welcome in white Kansas City area Roman Catholic churches.

"You could sneak in and sit in the back, but nobody said anything to you or shook your hand," said the 69-year-old Kansas City resident.

Today 3,800 black Catholics in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph worship in parishes throughout the area. Some, like Allen, have found comfort in the central city's black parishes. Others help to provide the racial mix in predominantly white parishes.

Their common dilemma: How to maintain their identity as African-Americans within their Roman Catholic faith. Some black Catholics are particularly concerned now because of recent proposals to close or merge predominantly black central city parishes in Kansas City.


Their solutions vary.

For Deborah Scott, who lives in the central city, the answer is strong black parishes that include Afrocentric elements.

Some parishes, including St. Louis in the central city, are led by white priests who incorporate Afrocentric touches in the service.

The Rev. Philip Egan, a self-described "Irish Caucasian from Boston," often celebrates Mass in a Kente cloth garment, claps his hands to the choir's gospel songs and gives animated homilies that are sprinkled with humor. In the sanctuary hang paintings of a black Jesus and a black Madonna and child.

Belinda Thompson's vision is of a multicultural church.

"It is not my view that all we blacks should get together in black churches and all Hispanics get together in Hispanic churches and all Italians get together in Italian churches," said the Grandview resident.

She is discouraged, however, that her church does not seek more opportunities to involve minorities, especially children, in some of its ceremonies.

She and her husband, Herb, provide their four children with an appreciation of their African-American heritage at home by doing things such as celebrating Kwanzaa, an African-American winter holiday.

"I don't feel that I necessarily need to depend on that at the church," she said.

Part of the problem for black Catholics is that they make up only a small percentage of the diocese's 145,623 Catholics. Some say the diocese is insensitive to their needs and has neglected their community.


They cite examples, including:

A shortage of priests likely will lead to the merger and closing of some central-city parishes, three of which are black.

Allen is concerned that St. Joseph will be closed. He thinks that because of its historic significance as the first black parish in the diocese, it should stay open.

"If you get rid of St. Joseph, you can get rid of any of them," he said. "Personally, I think the diocese wants us to dry up and blow away and don't come back."

The perceived neglect of St. Monica's School. For about six years it has operated at two sites: at 16th Street and the Paseo and at 58th and Euclid streets. In June the Paseo building was closed. St. Monica's will go from two campuses to one at the start of the new school year.

"When the two sites were first established, the diocese promised to maintain both buildings," said Ken Greene, chairman of the Black Catholic Implementation Team, which represents the concerns of black community to the diocese. "But in reality, the north campus deteriorated; repairs were not made. More than $100,000 is needed to bring that building up to standards.

"This is part of the ill-feelings the black community has with the diocese and feelings that the diocese is abandoning the black community."

Diocesan officials say they want to maintain a strong black community in the central city while also attempting to meet the needs of those who prefer an integrated worship setting.


"The abandonment that occurred is that people have moved out of the central city," said the Rev. Patrick Rush, vicar general of the diocese. "The abandonment that has occurred is that big buildings were built in the 1920s to minister to large Catholic populations. Those big buildings were abandoned by people."

The results have been a decrease in school enrollment, worshipers, finances and resources in the central city.

"In those six (central city) parishes, more and more of their money is going into building maintenance," Rush said. "Is that what they want?"

He said the diocese had subsidized the area significantly through the Central City School Fund, which raises $1.6 million each year, and the Parish-based Ministry Fund, that provides grants for ministerial personnel.

Some African-American Catholics think the black community should not be too firmly attached to buildings but should consider the advantages of merging parishes.

"They can make some new history, start a new tradition," said Amanda J. Holman, 16, a member of the youth group at St. Joseph parish. "Then 30 or 40 years from now someone will be saying, "Our history started in 1995.' "

Many Black Catholics point out that they have gifts they are eager to share with the church; they are not just approaching with empty palms. Beyond their active participation in worship, lay ministry roles and involvement in such social service groups as the Knights and Ladies of Peter Claver, they also bring to the church artistic creativity, customs, spirituality and expressions of faith to the larger Catholic Church.


Some African-Americans agree with diocesan officials that the black community needs to do more in evangelizing, developing leaders and encouraging young men and women to become priests and nuns. There are only two black priests in the diocese.

"The people in the (black) community need to be self-determining and exert leadership, and we need to be unified," said Sister Barbara Moore, one of six black Catholic sisters who serve in the Greater Kansas City. "We need to decide what we want for our community and take the steps to bring that about and not wait for someone else to tell us what we need."

Some thought the black community should have given more support recently to the only black sister ministering in a central city parish whose contract was not renewed.

One group addressing such concerns is the National Black Catholic Congress, with headquarters in Baltimore, which assists dioceses and parishes in addressing the needs of African-Americans in the church. The organization offers training in African-American history and culture to white priests and others ministering to African-Americans. The local Black Catholic Caucus of Greater Kansas City and Implementation Team have brought in national speakers who have addressed the concerns of blacks.

Despite the present uncertainties and tensions among black Catholics, many remain aware that this also is a time of opportunities and new beginnings.


Greene, chairman of the Black Catholic Implementation Team, is optimistic.

"If encouraged to do so, I see black leadership in the Catholic Church becoming more pronounced and visible," he said. "I see blacks less willing to be seen as subservient and more self-assured about who we are in the church."

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