In honor of Black History Month, which begins today, a friar based in South Carolina describes his passion for the spirituality of the African-American community and the many gifts of the people. He encourages readers to experience the traits and behaviors of blacks who, he says, inherently display the values of the teachings of St. Francis.
In recent years, authors and pastors with experience serving the Black Catholic community have noticed remarkable parallels between their cultural traditions and foundational Church documents (of both antiquity and modernity) as they explore the genius of African-American spirituality.
Overriding themes such as: ancestry (or community of the saints), telling the story (or proclamation of the Divine Word), frequent family reunion style gatherings (like the gathered assembly), and singing through loss, pain, alienation (similar to the stations/way of the cross) — to name a few — are striking evidence that African-American life is replete with a deep revelation of and experience of Church.
Further, a Catholic leader of any level of experience can gain new depths of meaning from entering the realities experienced by the black community. But he or she will have learned them at a ‘gut level’ through concrete experience and practice. These teachings include:
- not returning evil for evil
- taking your identity from Christ’s presence, proclamation of human worthiness and self-sacrifice
- keeping your head up while in times of trial as the most intimate union with Christ
- seeing the importance of “face time” (actually being with another person instead of mailing, emailing, texting, calling, and the like)
From such skills learned from the black community, one can discover both a humanizing of the Church and a concomitant soulful transcendence. African-American genius has been described as gift, hidden and precious. A Franciscan, in particular, will relate this African-American reality with the experience of Francis himself, and to the themes of mother, flesh, story, humility, servant, community and grace.
Experiencing Love and Dignity
As Francis experienced a remarkable depth of soul in being a lesser one, as well as a love of and a model in Mary, the mother of Jesus, and as Francis knew that the chosen dwelling place of God was the human person, so, too, our African-American sisters and brothers have found a dignity in the challenges they have faced. They also have found a profound appreciation of and gratitude for mother as a model and protector. Furthermore, African-Americans refuse to accept the indignity that often comes as a consequence of blackness — sociologically, darker skin in most cultures is seen as less dignified — that comes from within and from outside their race.
What a unity of movement and reality: Christianity, Franciscan theology and African-American life! But more importantly, by the amazing access to the depth of God’s real presence through human struggle and achievement, Black life can be both the Garden of Gethsemane and the Kingdom of God at hand in one day.
Guard against the shallow thought that “you can experience these things in every people,” or you would overlook the unique gift of the lineage of having once been chained and property of another. Such stories are retold so as never to allow it again. But stories die in the quiet.
Many individuals claim to know Black life without ever “sitting with.” There is no credibility in claiming to truly know the black community unless they know you. You must come and see, but even more importantly, you have to simply sit down, to observe, to learn, to pick up the genius, and to maybe even change.
Sometimes, to experience a deeper conversion, people pilgrimage to Jerusalem to walk the Via Dolorosa. But, but you could walk it in the United States with the black community any day. Often, people go to great lengths to experience intimacy, love and friendship, when they could know it sacrificially right before their eyes within the Black community. Again, guard against any shallow thought that “you can experience these things in every people” for you would miss valuable gifts. This is not said to create a pariah and a pitiable people; that would be grossly missing the point. Rather, as is the case with Francis and in Christ, it is the low that reveals the high.
It is a package deal. “Come and see,” says the Lord. We find ourselves called, broken and sent by Christ to encounter Christ, and then become Christ. But in answering that call, we may overlook a path, because we do not already know it. Come and see.
The Black community is much like Juan Diego surprising the bishop in Guadalupe. But we Franciscans are used to God surprising us: The little, lesser brother being so big, so great; the poor being so rich; the alien one so welcoming — the God of surprises.
Let God at work in the black community be like a pearl of great price that one could sell everything for.
— Fr. Patrick is pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Parish, Greenville, S.C.