By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published October 29, 2015
DECATUR—Caribbean beats mixed with African hymns and Negro spirituals when the crowd filled Sts. Peter and Paul Church. Softly repeating the prayer, “Be with us,” those gathered recalled the names of black saints and historical figures, from abolitionist Harriet Tubman and St. Benedict the Black to Father Cyprian Davis, OSB, the late black Catholic historian, and Sts. Monica and Augustine.
“We too must preach (Jesus’) message by how we live, by the love we share,” said Deacon Fred Toca, of Most Blessed Sacrament Church, Atlanta, during the prayer service to open the day entitled “Faith in Action.”
More than 100 people came together on Saturday, Sept. 26, to brainstorm on how to energize the archdiocese’s black Catholic community. Talks in small groups touched on ways to draw young people more deeply into parish life, to weave the history of black Catholics into religious education programs, devise more family-friendly activities and schedule parish events with working people in mind.
Black Catholics in the archdiocese represent a great variety of backgrounds and languages. They include immigrants from many African countries, African-Americans, and African-Caribbean people. The Office for Black Catholic Ministry distributes its publication, “Parish Connection,” in 17 parishes. Black Catholics comprise about 6.5 percent of the archdiocese, according to the archdiocesan Office of Planning and Research.
At the event, women and men were encouraged to see their cultural heritage as a gift to be shared.
“As Catholic Christians they have both the responsibility and the right to present their gifts and their needs in receiving good evangelization,” said Kathleen Dorsey Bellow. She is an expert in liturgical studies and has taught at Xavier University in New Orleans.
Reading from the 2015 Pastoral Plan written by Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, Bellow said the plan is a guidebook for the black community to talk with others about living as Catholics.
“He’s called us to come to the table to talk as a family,” she said.
Welcome at parish-level is key
The 2015 Pastoral Plan recognized the ongoing evolution of parishes in the Archdiocese of Atlanta and made responding well to the range of different ethnic communities one of its priorities. It was spotlighted as one of the plan’s four pillars.
According to the plan, “the diversity of the general and Catholic population has reached a point where there is no single ethnic group that constitutes a majority in our largest counties. Both trends challenge us to redefine the meaning of ‘parish’ in our archdiocese.”
The plan specially calls for creating a welcoming and nurturing environment for all cultures within a parish. (To read more, visit: http://pastoralplan.archatl.com.)
Since the Catholic Church is universal, worship reflects cultures from around the world. The prayers are the same and the Scripture readings are the same because it is a Catholic service, but the liturgy can be celebrated in a variety of cultural styles, Bellow said.
“It is not better or worse. … The spirit will do what the spirit does,” she said.
The Atlanta Black Catholic Clergy organized the day. It was co-sponsored by the Black Catholic Ministry Office. The thoughts discussed in the small groups will be shared with leaders in parishes and at the archdiocese. The ideas will also serve as a springboard to design future events.
Nick Goodly, who attends St. John the Evangelist Church, Hapeville, sat in on the discussion about reaching black youth. He said parents need to be role models by serving in church ministries so young people will want to emulate what they see. Also, other parishioners can be active in children’s lives, offering praise and even correction when necessary, he said. Parish members could support parents in raising successful children by acting as loving aunts and uncles, Goodly said.
Another suggestion was helping priests and deacons to understand the people they serve by offering training for pastors who serve in multicultural churches.
Muriel Jackson traveled from the Diocese of Savannah to be at the discussion. Jackson, who attends St. Peter Claver Church, Macon, said the conversations in the Atlanta Archdiocese are important to share with her community, especially “keeping young people in the fold.” She said the dialogue highlighted mutual concerns among parishes. “We’re not all alone in our thoughts,” Jackson said.