Cultivating a parish from a Black Catholic perspective

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“What Would Jesus Do,” and its anagram “WWJD,” was a trendy statement popularized many years ago by young people all around the United States. One would be hard-pressed not to see the phrase or its anagram printed on T-shirts, wristbands, backpacks, stickers, or anywhere one could find free advertising space in high traffic areas. The brilliance behind the “WWJD” marketing thrived on the moral conscious of millions of Christians and people of good will seeking to espouse their beliefs in a way that encouraged thoughtful reflection instead of combative or sarcastic criticism. “WWJD” in some ways replaced the cross or crucifix at the time as the mark of a devout Christian, a symbol serving as a constant reminder for the bearer to consciously consider the mind and will of Jesus Christ as they encountered the ills and thrills of life.

In hindsight, however, it feels as if that particular slogan was as helpful to our collective and individual spiritual development as a daily serving of 12 pounds of red meat is helpful to a heart-healthy, low cholesterol diet.

The intent of “WWJD” was not bad or harmful. Instead, it lacked the depth to move believers beyond a superficial understanding of what it means to follow Jesus Christ. To ask, “What would Jesus do?” in a given situation was to consider how Christ would respond if confronted with the same or a similar situation in the context of his own life and ministry. “WWJD” did not consider Jesus’ actions with a nuanced understanding of why he would choose to respond to life in a specific way. The Gospels show us that every move, every action, every decision and every word of Jesus was intentional, deliberate, and served a purpose that was both imminent and transcendent. A healing or an admonishment at the hands of Jesus, or even a moment of rejoicing or lamenting with him, met a specific need at the time and transformed the lives of those he touched moving forward.

With great respect to the “WWJD” moment, perhaps a better phrase (but horribly awkward anagram) could be, “What would Jesus want me/us to do?”

Answering this question forces us to consider the evangelization tools Jesus gave us. Considering the teachings of Jesus Christ alongside his actions provides a more holistic outlook — wholesome and holy — on being the “light of the world” and the “salt of the earth” we are called to be (Mt 5:13-16). We face being accountable for changing the world with Jesus instead of leaving all the work to him. The same Great Commissioning given to his disciples in the Gospel of Matthew extends to us: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Mt 28:19-20).

Jesus wants us to explore our strengths and weaknesses, to evaluate our capabilities and limitations, to be empowered to step out of our comfort zones into situations and places that may cause anxiety or fear. We must assess our understanding of Christ’s actions and teachings, scrutinizing the extent of our understanding of his ways in order to believe and act in a way that magnifies the imminence and transcendence of God’s Will.

What does this mean for cultivating a positive parish environment from a Black Catholic perspective?

It is easy for the missionary disciple, catechist, priest, deacon, religious, extraordinary lay ecclesial minister, or Catholic school teacher/administrator to wonder “What would Jesus do” to cultivate a positive parish environment for African, African American, Afro-Latino, and Afro-Caribbean Catholics living and worshipping in the United States. We can create bullet-point filled lists of events and programs designed specifically to attract Black Catholics, but any effort to increase the numbers of Black Catholics as a meaningful method of evangelization in our church is a call for deeper discipleship.

Cultivating a positive parish environment means that the followers of Christ must engage one other in ways that welcome deeper, more meaningful discipleship among those seeking an everlasting depth and intimacy in their relationship with the divine. Jesus Christ is the foundation and center of our efforts while our Sacred Scripture, our Roman Catholic tradition, and the official teachings of our shepherds serve as guiding documents. A positive parish environment flourishes when these realities are present for all of God’s children who seek to live, worship, and participate in the fullness of God’s Will. From a Black Catholic perspective and experience, the cultivation of a positive parish environment happens when our unique cultural experiences are widely celebrated as essential to realization of the universality of the Body of Christ. The Black Catholic experience in our country, and even in some of our churches, occurs as something “outside” of that universality to far too many people.

In 2011, the National Black Catholic Congress and the Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame, along with the Office of the President of the university, sponsored a national survey seeking to document information about the religious activity and experiences of African American Catholics in the United States. The Executive Summary of this survey, entitled the 2011 National Black Catholic Survey (NBCS), highlighted the following:

A major finding of the NBCS indicates that, contrary to anecdotal impressions, African American Catholics are highly engaged in their religion. This result may be novel to some, but the academic literature shows that a high level of religious engagement has been a trait of this population … Although African Americans Catholics are highly engaged, a sizeable proportion perceives challenges with the scope of racial inclusiveness in the church. With regard to its efforts to place an emphasis on black saints, promote black bishops, target black vocations, support issues like affirmative action, call attention to problems in Africa, and promote racial integration, African American Catholics express dissatisfaction.

The summary also stated:

However, when asked directly about racism in the church, African Americans overwhelmingly respond that they do not consider the church racist. About one in four do report some form of personal intolerance in their parish, such as being avoided because of their race, reluctance of others to shake hands, and insensitivity of priests on issues of race.

To cultivate a positive parish environment from a Black Catholic perspective, perhaps Jesus would want our Catholic schoolteachers and parish/diocesan catechetical leaders to integrate the biblical or contemporary stories of people of color or of African descent into their year round curriculum. The following resources could be helpful in this regard: Cyprian Davis’ “The History of Black Catholics in the United States,” Vincent J. O’Malley’s “Saints of Africa,” and Joyce Duriga’s “Augustus Tolton: The Church is the True Liberator,” just to name a few.

Perhaps Jesus would want our pastors, deacons and pastoral ministry leaders to put into action the recommendations found in the USCCB’s latest pastoral letter against racism, Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love, as well as Bryan Massingale’s Racial Justice and the Catholic Church. This would enable them to address those still lingering practices and habits that deny the humanity of people of color.

Perhaps Jesus would want us to seek out the disaffiliated or unaffiliated Black Christians instead of waiting for them to come to us. At the parish level, this could manifest as collaborative efforts between Catholic and Protestant congregations on outreach and empowerment projects serving predominantly Black communities. Sharing best practices between offices and ministries to Black Catholics at the diocesan level can help ensure that communities of color are aware of and actively encouraged to participate in diocesan-wide or national initiatives and programs. Joint efforts between organizations such as the Knights of Peter Claver and the Knights of Columbus will also help create positive parish engagement and relationships.

To create a positive parish environment for everyone, with special regard to the experience of Black Catholics, is to understand that we all walk with God and one another on a journey of salvation, solidarity, inclusiveness and love.

In his recent pastoral reflection on racism entitled, The Journey to Racial Justice: Repentance, Healing, and Action, Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore makes a powerful statement about fighting injustices that is also apropos to the conversation of creating a positive parish environment. Archbishop Lori stated, “I have come to realize in a new and clearer way an important truth: wherever the people of God are suffering is where I belong, at their side, listening, sharing compassion, and discerning how the Holy Spirit is calling me to take action.”

We already know what Jesus would do to create community amongst his sisters and brothers regardless of the color of their skin and their country of origin, social status, income level, or any label used to divide us …

What does Jesus want us to do about it?

Ashley Morris, Th.M. is the associate director of the Office of Intercultural and Ethnic Diversity of the Archdiocese of Atlanta.