Diocesan News

Black History Month Mass Focuses on Resilience, Adversity, and Sacrifice

The following is the full text from homilist Father Franklin Ezeorah, for the Feb. 28, 2021 Black History Month Mass:

“I like to begin by thanking your excellency Most Reverend Nicholas DiMarzio, the Catholic Bishop of Brooklyn Diocese, and the Very Reverend Father Alonzo Cox, the Vicar for the Black Catholic Concerns of the Diocese of Brooklyn, for graciously allowing me to be the homilist of this year’s Diocesan Black History celebration. This Diocese is arguably the most diverse in the US because of its openness to welcome immigrants and its diversified nature of pastoral ministration… and the credit goes to you, Bishop, and your collaborators for realizing that there is strength in diversity. We essentially embrace diversity because although we have different people globally, we have only one human race.

[Related: Black History Month Mass Homilist Calls on Church to be Moral Conscience]

Today as we gather to celebrate Diocesan Black History Mass on the 2nd Sunday of Lent, I like to talk about three things.

  1. The importance of the Black History celebration and the need to thank God
  2. The readings of today in the light of the Black History celebration
  3. Some recommendations for the Church and Black people

1. The importance of the Black History celebration and the need to thank God

The Black History Month celebration is an important way of highlighting Black people’s breakthroughs as well as motivating them to keep forging ahead even in the face of daunting oppositions. Black History Month started as an annual celebration, initially proposed by the historian Carter G. Woodson and other prominent African Americans, to mark African Americans’ achievements and as a way to recognize their central role in the history of the United States. There is a Nigerian adage that says, “when a lizard falls from a high tree, it feels entitled to congratulate itself for its acrobatic skills, even if no one else does.” As African Americans, we should first and foremost thank God for granting us the tolerance and resilience in dealing with countless challenges that come our way. We also ought to congratulation ourselves for the successes of heroic black figures – whether they be inventors, educators, entertainers, or soldiers, even if no one else congratulates us. After all, “if you do not blow your trumpet, no one else will.”

Notwithstanding perceived injustice and discrimination against most African Americans in the past, many tried their level best to remain exemplary and irreprehensible. Please permit me to mention a few.

Martin Luther King Jr.: He was an African American Baptist minister and a nonviolent civil rights activist from 1955 until 1968, when he was assassinated. Despite the oppositions he faced that culminated in his death, King remained cool-headed and civil in his agitation for African Americans’ desegregation, Blacks’ right to vote, labor rights, and other basic rights.

Nelson Mandela. He was a South African anti-apartheid revolutionary political leader who served as the first black President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999. His leadership concentrated on dismantling the legacy of apartheid by tackling institutionalized racism and fostering racial reconciliation. Before becoming the President of South Africa, he spent 27 years in prison for standing up against the then oppressive government. And when leaving the prison after 27 long years, he said to himself: “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew If I didn’t leave my hatred and bitterness behind, I’d still be in prison.”

Jane Matilda Bolin: She was the first black woman to serve as a judge in the United States. Inspired as a child by articles and pictures of the extrajudicial hanging of black southerners, she grew up to develop an interest in law as a way to fight injustice. She refused to be stopped from pursuing her dream even when she was prevented from entering Vassar College as it did not accept black students at the time. When she finally enrolled into Wellesley College in Massachusetts, she was surprised to discover that she was one of only two black freshmen in the college and had to live off-campus as the other students rejected them. Despite the social rejection, she continued to push forward, enrolling into Yale Law School, where she was the only black student, and one of three women and subsequently graduated in 1928. Bolin was relentless in her fight for children’s rights and education irrespective of race or religion.

Booker T. Washington: He was a renowned black educator and an outstanding example of calmness in the face of denigration or degradation. Shortly after taking over the presidency of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, he was walking in an exclusive section of town when a wealthy white woman stopped him. Not knowing the famous Mr. Washington by sight, she asked if he would like to earn a few dollars by chopping wood for her. Because he had no pressing business at the moment, Professor Washington smiled, rolled up his sleeves, and proceeded to do the humble chore she had requested. When he was finished, he carried the logs into the house and stacked them by the fireplace. A little girl recognized him and later revealed his identity to the lady. The next morning the embarrassed woman went to see Mr. Washington in his office at the Institute and apologized profusely. “It’s perfectly all right, Madam,” he replied. “Occasionally, I enjoy a little manual labor. Besides, it’s always a delight to do something for a friend.” She shook his hand warmly and assured him that his meek and gracious attitude had endeared him and his work to her heart. Not long afterward, she showed her admiration by persuading some wealthy acquaintances to join her in donating thousands of dollars to the Tuskegee Institute.

2. The readings of today in the light of the Black History celebration 

The original idea of Sacrifice is to unite humans with divinity. In other words, Sacrifice is carried out in order to improve the relationship between God and humanity. In today’s first reading, Abraham intends to offer his son Isaac to God as a sacrifice to strengthen the bond between him and God. By God asking Abraham to sacrifice his only son, one might erroneously think that God is demanding a human sacrifice. However, it is only meant to be a test of faith. God does not want an innocent boy to be killed. Instead, He wants to ban the practice of human Sacrifice in a dramatic and explicit manner because His son would go ahead and pay the price once and for all.

In the same way, in the 21st century, God is certainly not in approval of a section of His children being marginalized or maltreated because of their skin color. The fact that God wants Abraham to evade human Sacrifice is a testament to the fact God wants us today to avoid human maltreatment and think of some other sacrifices to ensure equality in the world. It is time to think real hard about reducing injustice; it is an opportunity for us to start thinking of pursuing values that make for a better Christian society. It is time for the Church to act as the moral conscience of the world to bring about lasting peace and tranquility not only in American society but in the world. The Church in the Diocese of Brooklyn is already doing well, but we need to make an extra effort (or, if you like, Sacrifice) to ensure that we continue to foster Unity and shun injustice.

The first reading today teaches us about Sacrifice and the blessings associated with it. When we look back at eminent black personalities in the past, one thing is clear. They all made tremendous sacrifices––Dr. Martin Luther King had to die for the course he believed in; Nelson Mandela had to endure imprisonment for 27 long years in order to secure the freedom of South Africans who were being segregated; Jane Bolin had to work extra hard to reform our prisons and to minimize the plight of children who were profiled in detention facilities; Jesus himself, who was arguably a black Palestinian Jew, emphasized within his inner circle the importance of sacrificing himself on the cross that we might be free.

In today’s gospel pericope, the Transfiguration of our Lord Jesus Christ paints a picture of God’s desire for inclusivity and Unity. This explains why Transfiguration’s vision depicts the union of the Law (marked by Moses’s appearance), the Prophet (manifested by Elijah’s presence), and God (depicted in the transformation of Jesus). These appearances of Moses, Elijah, and Jesus are symbolic – three men who fasted 40 days and nights; three men who spent a significant part of their lives fighting injustice and discrimination; and three men who defiled death by their mysterious endings (Moses’ grave was nowhere to be found, Deut. 34: 7, Elijah reportedly ascended into heaven, 2 kg 2: 1-13, Jesus rose from the dead on the third day and also ascended into heaven, Lk 24: 1 – 53). We, too, must learn from them and get involved in our devotion to God, in determination to fight injustice, and in our resolve to peacefully leave a good legacy to the coming generation.

The Transfiguration of Jesus Christ also carries a message concerning the importance of listening to God through the Law, the Prophet, and the Son of God. At the transfiguration encounter, the voice of God is heard through the thick cloud, saying, “This is my beloved son. Listen to him.” To this extent, when we obey the Law, including the just laws of the land, we are invariably listening to God.

The country was originally designed to pursue equality and unity. This intent for unity does not mean that we are one in terms of race, culture, color, creed, ideology, etc. It actually means that despite the diversified composition of the United States people, the country is still regarded as “one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” That is what made America great and the world’s number one. This idea of Unity in diversity is further reinforced by the de facto motto of the United States until 1956: E pluribus unum, meaning “out of many, one.” Much like New York City, which is called the “melting pot of the nation”––a title that is regarded as a monocultural metaphor for a heterogeneous society that is becoming more homogeneous, the different elements “melting together” with a common culture. To this extent, our Unity is not a negation of our diversity; instead, it is a recognition that our diversity is our strength.

Without wishing to go into the history of the misapplication of this great ideal of our founding fathers, I think it is correct to state that Black people in America have suffered incredible levels of prejudice in the past and are still suffering. Just after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and faced by such prejudice, a black priest from Rockford, Illinois, Fr. Herman Porter, convened the first meeting of the Black Catholic Clergy Caucus in Detroit, attracting 58 black priests and religious, and drafting a statement that inaugurated a national Black Catholic Movement intending to condemn the then Catholic Church in the U.S. perceived to be a racist institution.”

Progress is being made today, no doubt. Before the Transfiguration or transformation brought about by the Black Catholic Movement and the Civil Rights Movement, African-American heritage was such a social disability in the U. S. that White shopkeepers would slap a Black customer’s change on the counter to keep from touching his/her hands. In some restaurants, Blacks’ dishes or glasses would be broken immediately after they had finished eating. If a Black swam in a public pool, it would immediately be closed, drained, and disinfected. Even in some of our Catholic parishes, Black parishioners had to wait until all the White parishioners had received the Eucharist before presenting themselves at the altar for Communion. The issue, however, is not only a matter of race, it is a question of all people in our society who are “different” from us. Our modern society ostracizes some on account of their beliefs, personalities, and status; some are stigmatized simply because they are alcoholics or drug addicts or homeless, migrant workers, and asylum seekers. Such attitudes are unchristian. They have no place among Jesus’ disciples.

Nevertheless, in the face of mounting oppositions, we have continued to forge ahead. This was essentially the rationale behind the nonviolent movement and struggle of Martin Luther King Jr. That movement he initiated and died for accomplished some purpose in improving race relations in America, but we are not out of the woods yet. Just around this time last year, we witnessed the horrendous death of Breonna Taylor and, shortly before summer, the death of George Floyd. Our new President described the incident that led to George Floyd’s death as “a knee on the neck of justice.”

3. Some recommendations for the Church and Black people

Through some of our outstanding leaders, the Church has contributed in no small measure in elevating African Americans’ status in this Diocese. I like to highlight the achievements and contributions of one of the priests of the Diocese, the venerable Msgr. Bernard Quinn. Msgr. Quinn, who was ordained to the Diocese of Brooklyn sought the permission of the then Bishop Charles Edward McDonnell to begin an “Apostolate to Blacks” because of his perceived negligence of African Americans in the Diocese. Although he met with resistance from the Bishop who sent him instead to work as a Chaplain in the military that was actively involved in the First World War, he remained resolute and committed to this course that ultimately saw to the opening and dedication of St. Peter Claver Church on February 26, 1922 (which is 99 years ago and I thank the Bishop for the graciously allowing me to serve in that great Church).

Msgr. Quinn was a good example of resilience in the face of opposition as he remained undaunted in his resolve to improve the relationship of the Church with African Americans and improve their quality of life. That is the role of the Church and Msgr. Quinn stopped at nothing in accomplishing this task, including founding an orphanage for the numerous Black children who became orphans during the Great Depression, despite the relentless pushbacks and attacks from the Ku Klux Klan.

Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, N.Y., arrives to celebrate a Black History Month Mass of thanksgiving Feb. 28, 2021, at the Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph in Brooklyn. The liturgy was sponsored by the Vicariate of Black Catholic Concerns of the Diocese of Brooklyn. (Photo: CNS/Gregory A. Shemitz)

The beautiful words and prayers of our Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio on the occasion of the official opening of the Canonical inquiry into the Cause of Canonization of Msgr. Quinn leaves much to be desired. The Bishop addressed the following prayer to God on that occasion:

“Almighty God blessed the Diocese of Brooklyn by sending Father Quinn to minister among us. That ministry did not end upon his death but has continued to grow and take root in the hearts and souls of the faithful and clergy of this Church in New York, which has continually ministered to the poor and oppressed. I am delighted to be given the privilege to preside at the cause of Canonization for this priest who was a courageous and tireless proponent of the equality of all people.”

Thank you, Bishop, for those beautiful words, and that is essentially what we are called to do as a Church.

Today, we are experiencing a staggering loss of lives due to the current coronavirus pandemic in which people of color are disproportionately affected. We all know the reason why that is. Now, that is not the Church’s fault, but the Church in the Diocese of Brooklyn can mirror the example of Msgr. Quinn in trying to step in and address the problems affecting our numerous worshippers and members of the body of Christ.

As Abraham was willing to sacrifice his only son Isaac and God was willing to sacrifice His only Son Jesus, are we willing to sacrifice our wealth for works of charity (something that the Annual Catholic Appeal evidently does for us)? Are we ready to embrace the Sacrifice of practicing works of mercy? The courage of Abraham and Jesus should teach us to confront the difficult challenges of our lives as a Church and as people of color, believing that God will provide the grace to do that, just as he provided Abraham with a ram for Sacrifice.

This country, from day one, was set up for success. Much like the Unity of the Three Godhead, the binding up of many diversified people as the United States of America speaks to the country’s greatness. However, Unity is a work in progress, which is why we still have work to do. Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, in his homily during the Vespers on the Solemnity of the Conversion of St. Paul in 2015, describes Unity in the following light: “Unity grows along the way; it never stands still. Unity happens when we walk together.” Together we have to continuously nurture this UNITY in order to have it fresh in our minds. We cannot forget that we had struggled with Unity during the civil war, or when the Blacks faced segregation, or in the recent time through police brutality. In the past, the Church played a role in uniting the country, even if in a little way. We praise the Church’s efforts in bringing about Unity, but we must frown against the use of the Church for furthering divisions.

Given that the Church is theandrical, that is, the Church has both the divine and human elements, we must guard against allowing our human dimensions to override our spiritual qualities. There is no doubt that in touch with her divine dimension, the Church has often promoted unity, justice, love, peace, equity, and all other universal Christian virtues that promote wellbeing in our human society. We cannot afford to allow the human dimension of the Church members to lead us to fan the embers of vices that make for disunity like racism, inequality, hate, injustice, and so on.

Therefore, our Black History Month celebration reminds us that the struggle is still on, but we shall overcome it. The second reading today assures us that no one can be against us if God is for us. However, in anticipation of our success, what are we doing in the meantime to bring about a better tomorrow for ourselves, for our kids, for our Church, for our society, for our environment, and our world? It, therefore, calls for action on the part of the Church and its members. All hands must be on deck to stamp out the ugly trend of racism and disunity and promote Unity and peace for all. The contributions we make to foster Unity can be incremental or massive, but we have to keep doing something. We cannot sit down with virtually folded arms waiting for things to get better. Against this backdrop, Martin Luther King Jr once advised, ‘If you cannot fly then run; if you cannot run then walk; If you cannot walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward (and I add physically and spiritually).’ We, too, must keep moving. We must contribute to the society in which we live. That is how God’s kingdom flourishes. We must do our part and allow God to do His.

According to Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States and an American Founding Father as well as the principal author of the Declaration of Independence (1776), (he said) “Wisdom is knowing what to do next. Skill is knowing how to do it. Virtue is doing it.” With our wisdom as a Church, let us get to work. We have to figure out what to do next in order to evade injustice tomorrow, in order to be the moral conscience of our society, and in order to ensure a peaceful and loving society. As a Church, we have to imbibe some skills that will get us there, one of which is the vicariate for the Black Catholic Concerns as well as the annual Catholic Appeal that helps the most vulnerable among us. We have to develop the virtue that will set our work into motion until we achieve the aim of forging a peaceful and successful society.

What is important is to be serious in our collective commitment to addressing systemic racism in America for more peaceful coexistence of children of the same Heavenly Father.

May God help us as we try. Amen!

Happy Black History celebration.