By SAMANTHA SMITH, Special to the Bulletin | Published August 9, 2023
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.—Early this year, Delores White was exploring resources for Black Catholics when she learned about the National Black Catholic Congress.
After hearing positive experiences from fellow parishioners at Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Decatur, she decided to attend the congress as a step in recommitting to her faith.
“Over the past several years, I’ve developed a deeper appreciation for worship in the Black church by attending service with my husband who is Baptist,” said White. After pondering thoughts of her personal love and commitment to the Catholic faith and the experience of Black Catholics, she said it was time to get engaged.
For her first congress, White felt like she was floating on a “spiritual high.”
“Being married to a Black Baptist has given me the opportunity to experience Black spirituality that I did not have prior,” said White. “The congress gave me clarity around what I was questioning and why. The congress helped me understand that I can be both Black and Catholic in a way that I had not fully understood before.”
The 13th National Black Catholic Congress (NBCC) was July 20-23 at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, about 12 miles south of Washington, D.C.
Held every five years, the congress brings together Black and African Catholics from across the nation to celebrate faith and culture. With two agendas for adults and youth, the event includes Masses, prayer and presentations on issues facing the community.
About 3,000 Catholics from more than 90 dioceses attended the congress. This year’s theme was “Write the Vision: A Prophetic Call to Thrive,” inspired by Habakkuk 2:2.
Visionaries of heritage
Joyful music filled the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. during the opening Mass of the NBCC on July 21.
The Mass was celebrated by Cardinal Wilton Gregory of the Archdiocese of Washington, the first African American cardinal in the Catholic Church. He served as Archbishop of Atlanta for 14 years before being appointed to the Washington Archdiocese in 2019.
“Visionaries are important people for every culture,” said Cardinal Gregory during his homily. “They are the ones who are able to see and to discover unimagined possibilities. They are those who offer people hope. They are the lead agents for change.”
Black Catholics have many visionaries to follow, explained Cardinal Gregory, including six candidates on the path to sainthood—Venerables Pierre Toussaint and Henriette Delille; and Servants of God Sister Thea Bowman, Julia Greeley, Mother Mary Lange and Father Augustus Tolton.
“As these women and men continue down the passageway toward official sainthood, we rightfully ought to take special pride in the gifts and in the spiritual examples that they bestowed upon our entire church,” he said.
Contemporary visionaries include Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., referred to as “our nation’s only modern-day founding father.”
“His vision challenges everyone in the United States to dream of a better world, a more perfect union, and a society truly free from hatred and fear,” said Cardinal Gregory.
Jesus entrusted his life-changing vision to his disciples, the cardinal explained. “He chose disciples—ordinary men and women—and entrusted that life-changing vision to them. We are the Church that has been entrusted with the redemptive vision of the Lord. We are, in so many ways, Jesus’ vision of a people called into holiness.”
There were 25 concelebrants of the Mass, including Washington Auxiliary Bishop Roy E. Campbell Jr., president of the National Black Catholic Congress and 130 priests. About 60 permanent deacons also attended.
A renewed belonging
This was the second congress for Father Jeffery Ott, OP, who looked forward to hearing Cardinal Gregory speak at the congress and appreciated the theme of this year’s event.
“I was excited about getting together with the Black Catholic community from around the country, especially post-pandemic, and felt the need for inspiration (and) renewal,” he said.
Father Ott, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Atlanta, is one of 25 Atlanta delegates who attended this year’s congress, representing seven local parishes. An additional 19 Atlanta Catholics attended.
Preparation for the Atlanta delegation was based on prayer, listening sessions and guidance by the Holy Spirit, said Ashley Morris, director of Black Catholic affairs for the Archdiocese of Atlanta.
“Our preparation efforts were focused on doing the ‘work’ in three distinct phases to prepare our minds and hearts for the experience—recognizing and acknowledging our trauma and ‘church hurt,’ paying close attention to what’s happening in the church right now, and being inspired to think creatively about the things we want to see our parishes accomplish moving forward in faith,” said Morris. “My hope is that attendees walk away from this mountaintop experience energized and enthusiastic about trying new things to keep the flame of our faith ignited in our hearts.”
Encouraged to attend by a friend, Eshoe Asemota enjoyed her first congress experience this year. She worships at St. John the Evangelist Church in Hapeville.
“Attending Congress has renewed my sense of belonging in the church and invigorated my desire to be a more active participant in our journey together with Christ,” she said.
The most powerful moments of the congress for Atlanta participants were when bishops invited the youth and those discerning religious vocations to come to the altar for prayer.
“When I saw young people—teenagers—come forward, I was moved to tears,” said White. “I was impressed that the bishops embraced those young people and committed to be a resource to them.”
For Father Ott, the congress was a time of reunion and renewal. He described it as a “faith-lift” to his congregation at Lourdes.
“It was a wonderful reunion time with people that I haven’t seen in forever and people who were important to me along my journey of deepening my faith and becoming a priest,” he said.
Write the vision
After each Congress, the NBCC planning committee compiles a pastoral plan of action meant to guide the delegates as they return home to their prospective dioceses, parishes and ministries.
The pastoral plan will be finalized in the coming months. Asemota looks forward to seeing the final pastoral plan so “the faithful feel like they can actively contribute.”
For the Atlanta delegation, next steps include an in-town debrief meeting on their experience, strategizing for upcoming events and preparing reflection days inspired by the six African American candidates for sainthood.
“The future of our church and the unique expression of our Black Catholic faith is far from dead or dying if we remain committed to the Gospels and to the work of evangelization—spreading the Good News,” said Morris.
Father Ott looks forward to working with the Atlanta delegates and bringing what several called the “mountaintop experience” to the archdiocese.
“I look forward to the Atlanta delegation continuing the journey together, supporting each other in our various parishes and ministries and developing a plan of action that is specific for Atlanta,” he said.
“Ultimately, my prayer is that we are able to do what Auxiliary Bishop Roy Campbell did—offer an invitation to our Black Catholic brothers and sisters so they can find a welcoming place to worship, serve and continue to grow in love and service of our God,” said White.