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.


Worse if Rain, Rain Goes Away

Few repeat offenders are as persistent as bad weather. That’s easy to say during the week in which Hurricane Sandy rocked the East Coast, but our society consistently laments the weather in our common parlance (“rain on your parade”), children’s lore (“Rain, rain go away”), pop culture (The Perfect Storm, Castaway), and even stories from the Bible (Noah!). Yet, is there some good that comes of this bad weather, even bad weather like Sandy?

Indeed, it is hard to imagine where we would be without rainy days. Our plants obviously would be browner and our streams drier. But beyond the physical impact, our very capacity to value sunny days would be smaller. Since I moved north from Florida, where I weathered a number of hurricanes but much more sun, my appreciation of sunny days has grown in direct proportion to my exposure to rainy days. If it weren’t for rainy days, I, at least, would not appreciate as thoroughly the beauty of creation.

This insight extends to the rainy days of life, as well. Whether we face daily difficulties, relationship problems, chronic illnesses, or the approach of death, our hardships may increase our capacity to enjoy the blessings of good days—and bad ones. Many of the great achievements of our human experience are savored precisely because of the difficulties en route. To name relatively recent examples, the Moon, Mount Everest, and the Four-Minute Mile were only reached after great sacrifice.

From a spiritual perspective, the analogies are readily apparent. Were it not for trials and tribulations, we would not have God’s covenant with Noah, the lessons of Job, Paul’s letters from prison, or, most importantly, the saving work of Jesus Himself. These are not merely analogies. The hardship, or sacrifice, made all the difference.

The interesting question is not whether there is a silver lining in a dark cloud. It’s what we do differently as a result. Do we in fact do anything differently as a result?

The Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, seemed to think that our outlook does make a difference in our outcomes. In his nineteenth century poem, The Wreck of the Deutschland, Hopkins recounted a news story of a crew and passengers, including nuns, who perished aboard a sinking ship in a terrible storm. One of the nuns resolutely cried out “Christ, Christ, come quickly!” whereas others on board could think and yell no more than “we are perishing.” Among these latter were the sailors who died faster scrambling to save themselves and their passengers. Hopkins did not mean that trying to save oneself or others is futile, but rather, saving takes many forms, some longer term than others.

As the East Coast picks up the pieces after Sandy—the damage, many rescue efforts, and even deaths—we would be wise to remember that our rainiest days can nevertheless be one of our greatest blessings.

Religion at the Dinner Table: Still Bad Manners?

Post-convention quarterbacking is largely over, but there will be no shortage of serious dinner table conversations this fall about the parties, platforms, and candidates. Given the range of political beliefs among Catholics, our homes will be filled with such discussions.

There is more than a tinge of irony though as spouses, siblings, and friends choose to sort through election issues over a meal.  After all, when we sit down to dinner, or so the saying goes, we should steer clear of two discussion topics: religion and politics. It is unclear exactly whywe ought to obey this unwritten rule. Perhaps our parents warned us that this talk “causes indigestion.” Or maybe we simply intuit that such conversations might not fare well, judging by the other ways that our families, friends, or colleagues have clashed over past meals. Yet, whatever the reason for avoiding religion and politics, the popular adage remains.

It is unlikely any of the families in Norman Rockwell’s paintings were allowed to talk about religion and politics at the dinner table. It might have caused indigestion.

By this metric, at our national dinner table, we have long had poor manners. In the United States, the media, in all its forms (print, radio, broadcast, and increasingly, the internet) acts as our national dinner table. Politics has always been a discussion starter for our nation, even before the days of yellow journalism, and it has been messy ever since.

Religion, on the other hand, has not been a perennial mainstay of the news, unless you count its coverage in political or ethnic conflicts (such as Northern Ireland, Israel-Palestine, Iran, Afghanistan,… and the United States). Yet, it seems, from my armchair, that the era of narrow attention is definitively behind us. Now religion too is the talk of the national family.

Take, for example, The Economist, a distinguished weekly news magazine with a long-running penchant for politics in the largest and smallest of countries. Scarcely an issue goes by without at least one article on religion, often focusing on religion in America. Other big media outlets dedicate a regular space to religion through blogs such as The Washington Post On Faith, CNN Belief Blog, and HuffPost Religion, not to mention front-page religion headlines in these media every so often.

What’s more, today’s religion stories are different. No longer does religion receive merely token treatment as little more than the identifier of parties in a dispute. To name a few recent examples, The Economist ran an impressive special report on Judaism, analyses of several shifts in global Muslim practices, and frequent Catholic commentary. Similarly, popular, mainstream blogs address religious issues on a daily basisin ways that stretch well beyond wartime coverage.

My evidence for these trends is not exhaustive, to be sure. After all, as a law school student, I can’t spare time to cast a wider net. Yet, such a range of media taking a deeper look at religion is sufficient to make my point: the national dinner table is no worse for welcoming a more robust discourse on religion. As Catholics, with an historic commitment to our nation and to our faith, we have reason to celebrate.

If we can safely talk politics and religion at the national dinner table, it’s high time we reevaluated the adage within our own homes. It makes good sense that we should wish to talk about those topics which are important to us with those people who are most important to us. Indeed, many of us do part ways with the old manners by discussing political issues with our loved ones, but can we say the same about religion? Can we talk about our Catholic faith around the dinner table at home? That may be tougher, as the late Cardinal Martini suggested. Have we let The Economist and its peers to the left and right speak for us about the topic of deepest importance to our lives, now and in the hereafter?

I am not comfortable with that, but I am sometimes complicit.

We as Catholic Christians have an opportunity to live the faith that we believe. Many of us do, but even for these Catholics, it can be difficult to talk about that faith, test and examine tough issues of faith with others, and develop a deeper faith through discussion, even among our own loved ones. Yet, at the end of the day, no amount of robust discourse about religion around the national dinner table can substitute for the faith building and sharing that we need for the health of our homes and the Church. That’s a good reason to make the discussion of religion, even faith, good manners at our own dinner table.