Thursday, February 26, 2015

Confessions of a Black Catholic

Praised Be Jesus!

I hope this post finds everyone well and that everyone is keeping warm in these cold times (and to all those in warm climates, I have some uncharitable things to say, but in charity, I will leave them out).

Every February, the secular world celebrates Black History Month, a month to remember and celebrate the contributions and history of African Americans and other people of color. So, in honor of Black History Month, I wanted to share my experience of being both Black and Catholic. This is neither the story of my conversion, nor about the sociological implications of what it means to be Black and Catholic (even though I may touch on these things) but just my personal experience and my outlook.

When most people hear the words Roman Catholic, usually the image that comes to mind is not that of a young, handsome African American man, as opposed to, say, an Irish or Italian person. I usually get the question, "Black and Catholic, how does that work?" It seems to perplex people that you can be both Black and Catholic, so I've always wanted to give my own personal outlook. I had began practicing the faith from when I was about 12, and I officially entered the Church when I was 18. I was raised in a black Baptist church, and my earliest experience of religion was your typical idea of African American spirituality: high energy worship, inspiring sermons, Bible study, and the Seven Last Words of Jesus on Good Friday.

I have to say, my earliest understanding of spirituality is still a big part of my faith. My Baptist roots prepared me for what it means to have a relationship with Jesus, what it means to pray, and what it means to be rooted in Scripture. I like to consider myself a "Trad-Charismatic." I am completely in love with the traditional liturgy and rituals of the Church. After I entered the Church, I became a member of Mater Eeclesiae, one of the first parishes in the United States after Vatican II to offer the Latin Mass every day. It was here that I served and solidified my faith in the Church's tradition, and her past. I had been on a journey of deepening my faith, and my experiences at Mater and other Latin Mass communities (shout out to Saint Agnes in New York and Santissima Trinità in Rome!) really solidified in me a Catholic identity. It was here that I learned to be quiet and to see the beauty and wonder of Catholic worship in all of its splendor.

Now, with that being said, I still am very true to my roots, and charismatic gospel music, let's-praise-dance-down-the-aisle is still very much apart of my spirituality. I have had the pleasure of being able to go to Mass and even serve in historically black churches, where my heritage is integrated into Catholic life. The music of my heritage and the understanding of the worship of the Black Church is very dear to me. African American worship integrates the experience of our lives, our struggles, and our joys into our act of adoration. We use our bodies and voices to praise and worship our Creator. In a way, this type of spirituality connects us with our own unique past and heritage. It's what has been handed on to many of us through generations and has given hope to our people.

I know this will make more traditionally-minded Catholics cringe, but I don't see the harm in incorporating this type of worship into a Catholic context. In the correct context, this is a part of the religious and spiritual heritage of a multitude of African American Catholics. It is a legitimate spiritual expression. I know there has been a movement in the Church against a type of emotionalism, or the idea that this type of worship is just Protestantism creeping into the Church, that this is what is destroying the traditional moorings of Catholic liturgy. I have to disagree; for the African American community, worship and music are undeniably sacred. This is not just entertainment. This is a community bringing together its collective experience to God through our many gifts.

On Pilgrimage in Medjugorje
It can be difficult to hold on to a black identity and be Catholic. The Church is universal, yes. The Church is the one true Church and the Church for all people, but at the same time, for the large bulk of us, the Church in America is overwhelmingly European. It can be difficult to identify with when you see very few people like you in your parish. Even the Saints — with the exception of a few images of Saint Martin de Porres — are almost exclusively white. Even Saints that are of African heritage are portrayed as Europeans. This can be an isolating experience for anyone of color. It can be hard to feel like you belong in a Church where you can seem and feel out of place. It takes a lot of research and reading to find out about the deep Catholic roots of Africa, and the thousands of African Saints, to know the stories of great Catholic figures, such as Catherine of Alexandria, Josephine Bahkita, and Moses the Black — not to mention American Black Catholics, such as Venerable Pierre Toussaint, and Father Augustus Tolton. They are of great worth to those of us who are looking to find our face in our Faith.

And in my free time, I moonlight as Saint Michael the Archangel
It can be difficult to relate to the Faith when what is seen as "good Catholicism" is predominantly European, that what is considered good liturgy is influenced by those "dead white men" of the past — such as Masses composed by Bach and Mozart — and that these things are what is considered the pinnacle of Catholic Culture, when the liturgical heritage of the Church of Africa is almost dismissed and completely relegated to the every-now-and-then concert performance. Sometimes, I feel that there's still a very strong push to assimilate in Catholic culture, the leftovers of colonization to basically make everything European and expunge diversity. The sad part of this is that it is so contradictory to the essence of the Catholic Faith, the Catholic Faith that embraces all people, all cultures, and all those expressions that go along with that, the one Faith that unites all people in their diversity.
My mother receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation
This Faith is everything to me. It is the wellspring of my life. Catholicism colors my day-to-day patterns. I am that black guy you'll see on the train with his rosary, and on another day rocking out to some Yolanda Adams. The Faith has brought me so much closer to Our Lord, and I would have never had been here in the Church with my Jesus truly present in the Blessed Sacrament, if my past experience in the Black Church hadn't prepared me for it. This faith has colored so much of my life, even to the point where my mother decided to enter the Church. Catholicism is my everything! And I can proudly say that I am both Black and Catholic.

Prayer for Black History Month

Father of Creation 

Whose Son Jesus incarnated in time 
And whose Spirit enlivens our lives today 
May we honor the height of your creation, the Human Family 
In every hue that you chose to give each person of our family human 

Jesus, brother of us all 
Your prayer to the Father "that they all may be one" 
Through the Holy Spirit 
May we witness this Unity of One 

Each people with its history of your love 
Each people created in your earthly garden seen from above 
A people's story woven in struggle and triumph 
Tears of pain and shouts of joy 
The journey of a people in its history's flow 
The divine weaver's loom hand does show

Spirit of God in the month of appreciating 
The gift of your children of African descent 
May we be inspired to see your kingdom mystery 
In one facet of the jewel of our Human Family's descent

Unity the prayer of your incarnate Son 
Disciples praying the Our Father that we may all be one 

One in love of the family human 
One in hope for the family human 
One in faith in the family human 
This month, next week and every day 



  1. I know of one Priest who is Trad-Charismatic and African-American. I hope you interview him sometime. His name is Fr. Joseph Skelton.

  2. Welcome! Thank you for posting your journey!

  3. "I would have never had been here in the Church with my Jesus truly present in the Blessed Sacrament, if my past experience in the Black Church hadn't prepared me for it." Amen! Beautiful. Thanks for sharing.

  4. A Catholic Church with charismatic gospel music...yes please!!! Thank you for sharing!