Ministry to African Americans

Father Matthew Hawkins at his priestly ordination in June 2020

By Father Matthew Hawkins, parochial vicar of St. Mary Magdalene and St. Benedict the Moor parishes, shares eight principles

Few Black Americans are Catholic, and few American Catholics are Black. No one should be satisfied with this. Members of all parishes, not only those with a large percentage of African Americans, should reflect on how this came to be and why it persists. It can’t be dismissed as “just the way things are.”

We must find ways to minister more effectively to African American communities. Here are eight principles for doing that:

First, we should acknowledge that, as is true of all racial and ethnic groups, Black Catholics have a dual social and cultural heritage: We are at once Catholic and African American. We are Catholics who happen to be African American. As is true for all people, we have a proud and distinctive historical and cultural identity.

Our history, culture, and our heritage, however, should link us to the rest of the human story and to the Body of Christ. We acknowledge and celebrate the importance of our historical and cultural heritage but we reject any form of sectarianism. Catholicism that is open to all that is beautiful and true is not merely our “religious affiliation,” it is the very essence of our being. It is who we are.

Second, we should recognize that African American communities are diverse; they are not a monolith. Unfortunately, many young African American Catholics are put on the defensive by their Black and white peers, who accuse them either of not being “Black” enough or of not being authentic Catholics. In our catechesis with Black Catholics of all ages, we must be prepared to openly discuss these dual but complementary identities of being both Black and Catholic. Above all, we must be prepared to listen.

Third, in our pastoral planning we should acknowledge the challenges, complications, and opportunities of Catholic ministry in the context of the Historically Black Protestant Tradition (HBPT). In all parishes located in communities that have a significant number of African Americans, we must study the heritage of the HBPTs and thoroughly understand it.

Fourth, in the spirit of subsidiarity, all parish pastoral planning for non-Catholic African American neighborhoods needs to be done in collaboration with existing networks and institutions in those neighborhoods. Our efforts will not succeed without support for and cooperation with the informal leadership and long-existing block clubs and neighborhood-based organizations and institutions that cultivate healthy family and community life and that minister to the needs of the neighborhood.

Fifth, in the spirit of solidarity, all Catholics, regardless of race or ethnicity, should share the burden and responsibility of fighting the sin of racism. This concern and responsibility should not fall primarily on the shoulders of Catholics who are African American, Asian, or Latino.

Sixth, the Catholic presence in African American neighborhoods should not just acknowledge the historic victimization of Blacks, it should acknowledge the historic resilience of African American communities, institutions, and organizations. Similarly, the foundation for ministry in distressed neighborhoods should not focus on the deficiencies and disabilities of the population. Catholic ministry should identify the constructive forces in those communities and build with them on the foundation of their strengths, talents and abilities.

Seventh, ministry to African American communities, or any other community, should focus on empowerment through the strengthening of family and community life. Strong families and strong communities are essential for survival and for the transmission of culture, heritage, values and beliefs. They are essential for strengthening the character of individuals.

Eighth, Catholic social outreach and activity should be grounded in spirituality. A recurring theme in ministry to African American communities, as in all communities, is how to go beyond celebrating our joys and constructively enter into the agony, the suffering and the pain of the cross.

We are called to see our experiences through the lens of the Psalms of lamentation in exile and the passion, death and resurrection of Christ. The Book of Exodus has always encouraged and fortified African Americans through hard times, The Book of the Prophet Amos has provided powerful clarity and insight, and the Gospel according to Luke has been a particular source of inspiration. We should prayerfully draw on all these sources for strength, wisdom and inspiration.