Catholics of Color are Keeping the U.S. Catholic Church Alive

Mary C. Curtis, October 18, 2017

As an African-American Catholic, I often feel like the unnamed black man from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, present but not really seen.

I was raised steeped in Catholicism—from my name, Mary Cecelia, to my education. I grew up in Maryland in the 1960s and ’70s. I attended the now-shuttered St. Pius V Catholic School, where I was taught by teachers from the Oblate Sisters of Providence, an order founded in 1829 to educate and care for African-American children. I wore my faith proudly, even when the bonds of it were strained. When my classmates and I got the side-eye from the white Catholic school kids at citywide field day games held in Patterson Park, or when some members of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul at the predominantly white Seton High attributed my high test scores to divine intervention rather than intellect, I remained proud of both my heritage and my faith.

My Catholic education continued at Fordham University, where the Jesuits offered a fine education. It was at Fordham where I met my husband, and though he has strayed from the fold, our son would not have been baptized in any other faith.

My faith has also played a role in my career, which, for me, is akin to a vocation. I became a journalist because I wanted to illuminate the lives of those so often dismissed as not worthy of notice or respect, despite the full, complicated and generous lives they—my friends, family and neighbors—lived. This is evident in my writing and in the work I do with The OpEd Project. We work with individuals and institutions across the United States, from universities to corporations, and encourage under-represented experts and thought leaders (especially women) to influence the important public conversations of our time.

The bonds of my faith have once again been strained, even tested, by the partisan infighting of today’s U.S. political scene, which finds very little cooperation and compromise. During the 2016 presidential election, Catholic voters were split between Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump. Throughout President Trump’s first year in office we have seen the chasm among many U.S. Catholics grow even wider, on issues that range from health care to immigration. In my diverse but mostly white parish, we have long since stopped talking politics and justice, sticking instead to the ministries for the homeless, hungry and disabled and spiritual relationships that have kept us close.

The truth is, the Catholic Church in the United States is being transformed by its black and brown parishioners, whose numbers and voices are rising. They and priests from around the world are keeping the church alive. When the National Gathering for Black Catholic Women met in Charlotte a few years ago, I connected with my sister, still holding strong in her Baltimore parish—transformed from white to black and offering services with hymns, praise dance and more emotion than the services of our youth. Yet the parishioners are as devout when it comes to the celebration of the Mass.

After a right-wing gathering turned to tragedy and death in Charlottesville, Va., this summer, some evangelical Christian leaders sought to make excuses for the president’s failure to forcefully denounce white supremacists and neo-Nazis. U.S. Catholic leaders, on the other hand, forcefully reacted on the side of those marching and, yes, dying, against hate and for justice. There was some comfort in a church that looks to the future, though not without the stumbles that will hurt and sow doubt. It is a new day in an old faith, with more voices sharing their concerns and their joy—and there is no going back for Catholics of every color if we are to live our faith.

We were never invisible.

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