BEDFORD-STUYVESANT — Black Catholics in Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island have concerns about how they are treated by the Church, and they’re preparing to voice those concerns at a national convocation this summer.
The Vicariate for Black Catholic Concerns for the Diocese of Brooklyn and the Office of Multicultural Diversity of the Diocese of Rockville Centre co-hosted a “Day of Reflection” on Feb. 13.
The online discussion included a listening session in which participants were asked to speak about the issues they would like to see discussed at the 13th National Black Catholic Congress, set for July 20-23 at National Harbor, Maryland.
Shaniqua Wilson, a member of the Vicariate’s advisory board who facilitated the listening session, said the chief concern mentioned was the lack of respect black people feel from the Church.
Wilson said participants were asked, “Do you feel respected by the Church?”
The overwhelming answer was “no.”
“We talked a lot about the question of loving a Church that has not always loved us back and the difficulties involved in that,” she explained.
Another advisory board member, Donna Leslie, added: “We do feel like second-class citizens. We are the ‘Hidden Figures’ of the Catholic Church,” she said, referring to the hit 2016 movie about the unsung role of black women in America’s space program.
Leslie, a parishioner of Our Lady of the Presentation Church in Brownsville, noted that Black Catholics are often dissatisfied when it comes to the type of music performed in their worship services.
Historically, in black congregations, she said, music is a vital part of the liturgy and features lively, rhythmic hymns that often have parishioners clapping and swaying in their pews.
She recalled a conversation she once had with a priest who told her he felt the lively music wasn’t appropriate in Catholic services. After all, she remembers him saying, this isn’t a Baptist church.
“But this is the way we worship,” she said.
While Wilson paid close attention to the answers about respect, it was the answers to the second question that struck her.
“If they answered no, that they didn’t feel respected,” she explained, “the second question was, ‘Then, why are you still here?’ ” The answers pointed to The Eucharist.
Participants said they go to church to partake in holy Communion and insisted that no amount of disrespect is going to keep them away.
Another concern involved young people. “We have to get them back into the Church,” Leslie said.
Participants also discussed the need to increase vocations to religious life, particularly in the African American community.
The National Black Catholic Congress, an umbrella group representing African American Catholics and their affiliated lay organizations, has been holding nationwide gatherings since 1889.
At that first congress, held in Washington, D.C., delegates met with President Grover Cleveland, attended a Mass celebrated by Father Augustus Tolton, and passed a resolution expressing solidarity with the people of Ireland, “who like ourselves are struggling for justice.”
The congress was held annually or semi-annually for the first few years. But after 1894, there was a gap of 93 years when it did not take place.
The congress resumed in 1987 and has been held every five years since. The last congress took place in Orlando, Florida, in 2017.
The Diocese of Brooklyn has the largest number of Black Catholics of any diocese in the U.S. — more than 200,000 — and plans to send a delegation of at least 40 this summer.
This year’s theme, “Write the Vision: A Prophetic Call to Thrive,” is inspired by the Book of Habakkuk in the Old Testament.
The congress operates like a convention, with speeches and panel discussions. But being a religious gathering, it also features Masses and prayer services. The four-day meeting will culminate with the adoption of a Pastoral Plan of Action — a set of recommendations — to be presented to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The congress will have a Youth Track to get feedback from teenagers and offer them opportunities to perform community service.
The diocese’s contingent will include teens from the vicariate’s Young Ambassadors program. Father Dwayne Davis, pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Flatlands, and chairman of the local Youth Track committee, is organizing their trip.
Just being there will be beneficial to young people, he predicted. “Some of our ambassadors come from parishes that have a small number of Black Catholics. The Black Catholic Congress is a large-scale group, and for them to see people from around the country is a great moment for them,” he said.
And it lays the groundwork for the future, he said, noting. “Most of these young people will be young adults by the next congress.”