Diocesan News

Worries Over Racism Permeate Parish’s Black History Mass

As parishioners left Holy Rosary Church, they saw this banner hanging from the choir loft calling for black history to be taught every day – not just during Black History Month in February. (Photos: Paula Katinas)

‘History is a Battlefield,’ Fr. Mario Powell Tells Congregation

BEDFORD-STUYVESANT — The Black History Month Mass of Thanksgiving at St. Martin de Porres parish was joyous, featuring Gospel music and an impassioned homily that elicited shouts of “Amen!” from the congregation. But throughout the event, there was an undercurrent of uneasiness about the current state of race relations in the U.S.

“It’s getting worse,” parishioner Mike Davis said in an interview before the Mass on Sunday, Feb. 6. “When you have anti-voting laws being put into place in some of these states, you know things aren’t going in the right direction.”

Davis was referring to laws, recently adopted or in the process of being drafted in two dozen states, that proponents claim will reduce chances of voter fraud, but which African-American leaders and advocates fear will restrict blacks’ access to the polls.

Parishioners and church staff gathered at Holy Rosary Church (one of the three churches that comprise St. Martin de Porres parish) expressed deep concerns over the persistent climate of division in U.S. politics. 

“We have a long, long way to go,” usher Juanita Vega-Perdomo said as she handed out programs and directed people to pews. “I’m 81 years old. I’ve seen good and I’ve seen bad. I don’t like what I’m seeing right now.”

Traditionally, the Black History Month Mass of Thanksgiving is held at St. Martin de Porres Parish, which, in addition to Holy Rosary and Our Lady of Victory churches, includes St. Peter Claver Church, the first African-American church established in the Diocese of Brooklyn.

Father Mario Powell, sprinkling Holy Water on the congregation, sought to impart a message of warning and optimism.

Attendees said they were keenly aware of the lingering effects of the George Floyd murder, the blacklash against the 1619 Project (the New York Times article detailing the history of slavery) and the controversy surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement.

Prior to the Mass, Liturgical Event Coordinator Julia Primus was busy setting up a display featuring a poster board displaying drawings of famous African-Americans like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and famed black classical singer Marian Anderson, images of the covers of books such as actress Cicely Tyson’s autobiography “Just As I Am” and samples of colorful fabrics from Ghana.

“There has been progress, I know. But it’s still hard in terms of jobs and opportunities [for blacks],” said Primus, who called the display “a cultural prayer table that could be a teaching opportunity for everyone.”

Father Mario Powell S.J., president of Brooklyn Jesuit Preparatory School, who was invited by Father Alonzo Cox, pastor of St. Martin de Porres, to be the main celebrant, struck a similar tone. 

“History is a battlefield. Ours is a history of struggle. There is a concerted effort to chip away at our civil rights,” he said.

Still, there is reason to carry on, Father Powell said. “God cares about how we can be repairers of the breaches in our society,” he added.