PROSPECT HEIGHTS — Raphael Civil, a third-year student at St. John’s University, wasn’t aware of Black Catholic History Month until very recently but he became a quick study.
After reading up on the subject, Civil stepped up to help school administrators organize the campus celebration.
“I personally didn’t realize that it was a big thing before I was told about it,” he said. “But now I see how important it is and why we should celebrate it. Blacks have had an impact on the church. I think it’s important just to bring that awareness to people.”
Black Catholic History Month, celebrated nationwide every November, was initiated by the National Back Catholic Clergy Caucus of the United States in 1990.
The SJU commemoration, conducted virtually due to COVID-19 precautions, took place on Thursday, Nov. 18, at 1:20 p.m.
The celebration featured prayers and discussions of the achievements of black Catholics and their role in moving the church forward.
One of Civil’s jobs that day was to introduce the keynote speaker, Dr. Shannen Dee Williams, an associate history professor at the University of Dayton and author of the forthcoming book “Subversive Habits: Black Catholic Nuns in the Long African American Freedom Struggle.”
Civil is working to spread the word on campus about Black Catholic History Month and black Catholic history in general — not just for this year, but looking ahead in the hope that more students will pursue information, just as he did.
For example, students may be interested to know that there are numerous black saints in the Catholic Church, he said.
According to CollegeFactual.com, black students compose 14.2% of the undergraduate population at SJU. White students make up the largest segment, at 42.1%.
Dr. André McKenzie, the university’s interim chief diversity officer, said the campus celebration of Black Catholic History Month ties into the university’s core mission.
“Number one, it’s important for us as a Catholic institution which as part of its mission is an anti-racist institution. It’s important from a perspective of the core values of this institution, which talks about love, opportunity, service, excellence, and truth,” McKenzie said. “And one last one, which is respect — respect for every individual who was here and respect for the diverse campus environment we have,”
Civil, who hails from Maryland, said he doesn’t feel like a minority at SJU.
“It’s a pretty diverse campus. I’ve never felt discriminated against. I have a lot of friends from different backgrounds and different races. That’s how you grow — when you see different people coming together.”
He is majoring in health services and plans to pursue a master’s degree in public health.
Civil’s student leadership roles include serving as vice president of the university’s chapter of the St. Vincent de Paul Society. Chapter members visit homeless people on the streets to deliver food, clothing, and blankets.
“I want to have a seat at the table when institutions are making decisions,” he said.
Civil is also a member of SJU’s Catholic Scholars Program, in which recipients receive $5,000 a year for each of their years in the university and meet on a regular basis with campus ministers for prayer sessions, lectures, and retreats.
“When we’re talking about our Catholic faith, it’s not only about prayer,” he said. “It’s about what you do outside of the church that really defines who you are.”