The Living Legacy of the Black Church

Black History Month does not get much fanfare in the Catholic Church. Yet, as February draws to a close in the fiftieth anniversary year of a certain pastor’s impactful “I Have a Dream” speech, and as our Church looks ahead to a new pontificate, we have a unique moment to draw lessons from the Black Church for a stronger Catholic community.

Lesson #1: Preach Through Saturday

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a pastor, first and foremost. His strong Sunday sermons were a significant reason why Dr. King would later have such remarkable skills and influence as a civil rights pioneer. This result begs the proper role of a sermon in the worship setting and beyond. The rhetoric, length, and sometimes theatricality (better known as “whooping”) of many black Protestant sermons suggests that those sermons play a big role in the Black Church.

In my own (mostly Anglo-American) corner of the Church, there is little Catholic emphasis on remembering a sermon. We sometimes refer to texts of sermons by the Pope and others, but few such homilies are quoted from memory, and some research suggests a relatively “moderate” impact of sermons on lay Catholics as opposed to lay Protestants. Perhaps there’s a canon of Catholic homiletics, unbeknownst to me, which directs sermons to focus on a need in the context of the Mass, or to deemphasize the priest in favor of the message, but both goals may yet be served if sermons were instead designed to be impactful over the course of the week to follow. I suppose the late Archbishop Oscar Romero, the late Bishop Fulton Sheen, and the now-popular Fr. Robert Barron would agree, but these priests are the Catholic exceptions that prove the rule.

It is my hope that our next pope will emphasize to his ordained flock the importance of crafting sermons that will stick, not just until the end of Mass, but throughout the following week.

Lesson #2: Get the Church Singing

In the Black Church, songs tend to be a big deal. The “Negro spiritual” of old, for example, sustained many a soul through trying times in this country, including during the Civil Rights Movement. Those songs were, and are, powerful because they align with the needs and desires of their singers while simultaneously praising the Lord. The Black Church services I have attended continue to emphasize the importance of songs which are a joy to sing, a feature common to both Protestant and Catholic gospel choirs.

In turn, the Catholic Church writ large could place more emphasis on engaging the congregation in song. The best current models may be the LifeTeen songs and Latin Mass songs. Catering to the young and old(er), respectively, each genre resonates with those who are likely to attend LifeTeen or Latin Masses. This may be more difficult at Masses with a diverse population, but perhaps a thoughtful mix of songs, both the traditional hymns and modern favorites, could help to energize the Mass and better connect with the congregation.

Lesson #3: Make the Community Smaller

Recently, I worked as a grassroots community organizer in a predominantly black neighborhood, and I was perpetually amazed by the sheer number of churches in the area. Not only were there quite a few prominent churches on major thoroughfares, but there were also several nestled among the houses on residential streets in my area.

As best I could tell, the reason for so many churches is that black congregations, at least Protestant ones, tend to be smaller. With fewer restrictions on ordination than the Catholic Church requires (most notably regarding marriage), historically black denominations are able to welcome a larger number of pastors and preachers, who in turn can preside over a larger number of congregations.

Regardless of the demographic causes, smaller makes sense from a spiritual perspective. Christian communities can more effectively perform their function as members of the Body of Christ when they are small enough to be personal. For example, at several of the black churches – both Catholic and Protestant – that I have attended, newcomers and visitors were invited at the end of the service to stand and introduce themselves, an act of welcome into the family. Indeed, everyone else seemed to know each other! Similarly, black Protestant churches often place significant emphasis on a weekly small group Bible study that spiritually and socially sustains parishioners through the week.

By contrast, the Catholic communities in which I have worshipped tend to be quite large. Perhaps Catholics must be satisfied with larger communities since we have fewer priests, but maybe we can achieve smaller, more personal community another way. Like the Black Church Bible study, “Small Christian Communities” and other Catholic study groups can help us to get to know a subset of the Body of Christ, forming stronger bonds that enable us to better love, pray for, and grow with one another. Likewise, presiding priests who invite parishioners to “greet those around you” prior to Mass can facilitate personal, rather than anonymous, collective worship. I urge the Church to continue exploring ways to make our communities smaller in a spiritual sense.

Together, these three lessons can help us not only to better understand our black brothers and sisters in Christ, but also to reenergize and revitalize our Catholic communities.