From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Black Catholic Theological Symposium meets in Spokane – first assembly in a Northwest city

by Mary Cronk Farrell, for the Inland Register

(From the edition of the Inland Register)

Photos:
  • From left: Bob Barlett, Director of Multicultural Education at Gonzaga University, talks with Marc Ward, Michaela Kearns, and Agatha Herzog on the GU campus recently. (IR photo by Mary Cronk Farrell)
  • Lula Washington is a long-time parishioner at St. Ann Parish, Spokane. (IR photo by Mary Cronk Farrell)
  • “I walked into (St. Martin de Porres Church, Milwaukee), and saw on the wall behind the altar this huge, eight-foot, maybe taller, cut-out of a Black Jesus, his arms out, his palms forward. I am face to face with a Black Jesus. I scanned the church, they had the Stations of the Cross in hammered bronze and all the people were Black. Every image in the church was black. I thought, I have died and gone to heaven. That was sacred ground.” – Bob Bartlett (IR photo by Sam Lucero)

    Black Catholics, a small minority in the Church of Eastern Washington, will take center stage next weekend in Spokane.

    Imagine Mass celebrated to the tune of a gospel choir, folks stepping and clapping, singing out “Amen.” A sea of Black faces in the pews, and a Black priest on the altar. That’s something Catholics have not seen in Spokane, and they are not likely to see it anytime soon.

    To be Black and Catholic in this diocese can be a cold and lonely experience. It can also be warm and spirit-filled. But there’s no doubt the small number of Blacks here create a different dynamic of church than is seen in more diverse cities.

    That’s one reason the Black Catholic Theological Symposium chose to hold its annual meeting at Gonzaga University this year. The international association of Black Catholic scholars has never before ventured to a city in the Northwest.

    “Having them come here is just real exciting. I am thrilled to death,” says Bob Bartlett, Director of Multicultural Education at GU. He’s been a member of BCTS for four years.

    The symposium highlights Black history as well as current experience, says Dr. Diana L. Hayes, Associate Professor of Theology at Georgetown University.

    It may surprise many people, whether Black or other, to learn that Africans have been part of the Catholic fold from the very first year of the church when the Ethiopian Eunuch was converted, says Hayes. She can name a litany of saints of African descent, including St. Moses the Black, a founder of monasticism; St. Felicity; St. Perpetua; St. Augustine of Hippo; St. Martin de Porres; and three popes.

    Black Catholic history in North America precedes that of English-speaking people who arrived and settled in Jamestown in the early 1600s. Blacks had arrived earlier with the Spanish and French.

    “The Symposium enables the ordinary people in the pew to learn the history that for such a long time has been in many ways invisible, has to a certain extent been suppressed and then unacknowledged,” says Hayes. “It also serves, I think, to enlighten the entire church in the U.S. about the Black Catholic presence. Why are there Black Catholics? Why do they persist despite their concerns about racism within the church and the other issues that have affected them over the years?”

    The main purpose of the BCTS is to advance and support Black Catholic scholarship. It’s a group of outstanding Black Catholic scholars, who are much sought-after speakers, according to Bartlett. At the annual meeting they present their current research about what it means to be Black and Catholic.

    Bartlett will give the keynote address at the symposium, reporting his research on the lived experience of Black Catholics on the social frontier. There is a growing body of literature about Black Catholic spirituality, theology and ministry, but most of the research concentrates on urban blacks in predominately Black parishes, neighborhoods and universities.

    “What is not there,” says Bartlett, “is information about Black Catholic experiences in predominately white places. When I say ‘frontier’ I don’t mean a geographic region, I’m talking about a social frontier – a place all but devoid of Black people, Black Catholics, whether it’s a city, a suburb or rural –there are no Black parishes and no Black Religious except visitors from Africa.

    “That makes for a unique experience,ö he said. “In a place like that, in a place like Spokane, you have decisions to make that other people never have to make. For some, it’s choosing between being among Black folks on Sunday or among Catholics. For some, what’s more important is to be in the company of Black folks, and they opt for Calvary Baptist or Bethal AME. Others parish shop until they find a place they are comfortable.”

    Lula Washington came to Spokane 31 years ago when her husband was transferred to Fairchild Air Force Base. She had converted to Catholicism when they married. Spokane had fewer black Catholics than other places she had lived.

    “It doesn’t seem to make much difference to me, though,” says Washington. “We are getting more now, in this parish. I think we have about three [families].” Washington has been attending St. Ann Parish in the southeast part of the city for nearly 20 years, and her daughter attended Catholic school there.

    Stacey Chatman also came to Spokane via the Air Force. She had grown up in a Black Catholic parish in New Orleans, and the transition has been more difficult for her.

    “If you’ve been raised in an environment, that’s what feeds you,” says Chatman. “The Mass is so different where I’m from. The music gets to your soul. You are clapping. You are swaying. The spirit is moving you. I mean I have seen the spirit moving the stiffest person, my brother, who is a tin soldier, and his hips were swaying.

    “But I have gone into churches here in Spokane where people don’t want to touch,ö she said. ôYou see people clutch their hands in front of them, or they extend their hand, but don’t really give you a firm handshake, they barely touch you.”

    Chatman says even though her children were not been raised in an African American congregation, they had experienced a lot of diversity through military life. Attending church in Spokane, they noticed a difference, a coldness.

    “Little as she was, my daughter said, ‘Mom, don’t bring me back there,’ says Chatman about one church. “That’s sad for a child to pick that up.”

    Despite the difficulty, the Chatman family has found a parish where they feel comfortable. “I choose to live in this town. Spokane is my home,” says Chatman.

    One part of the BCTS annual meeting is a listening session, when the scholars invite local Blacks to join them. It’s a chance for Black Catholics to talk about their unique experience in the church, and to be heard by others making a career of trying to understand, record and celebrate that experience.

    Bartlett is hoping for a full house at St. Ann Church in Spokane for the event Saturday evening, October 12 at 7 p.m. It’s open to any Black Catholics in the region, and some may even be traveling from Western Washington for the event. For more information call Unity House at Gonzaga University at 323-4108.

    It was at just such a BCTS listening session that Bartlett had his most profound moment as a Black Catholic. It happened at a predominately Black parish in Milwaukee, St. Martin de Porres.

    “I was not expecting it,” says Bartlett. “I walked into the church, and saw on the wall behind the altar this huge, eight-foot, maybe taller, cut-out of a Black Jesus, his arms out, his palms forward.

    “I am face to face with a Black Jesus. I scanned the church, they had the Stations of the Cross in hammered bronze and all the people were Black. Every image in the church was black.

    “I thought, I have died and gone to heaven,” says Bartlett. “That was sacred ground.”

    It’s Bartlett who convinced the BCTS to come to Spokane. He says typically there are a couple schools lobbying for the meeting each year. Gonzaga was a long shot, not only because it’s geographically isolated, but also because BCTS members know that the university has never had a full-tenure African American faculty member in the undergraduate program. This year Gonzaga Law School has hired three new faculty members who are Black.

    “You could say it is a moment of conscientization for the Church of Spokane, Wash.,” says Hayes. During their visit to Spokane, she and Dr. Shawn Copeland, a professor of systemic theology at Marquette University in Milwaukee, have been invited to speak to Gonzaga University students, faculty and staff, addressing the subject of the presence of blacks in the church.

    “I hope our presence there even for a few short days will be a time of enlightenment for all of us,” says Hayes, “not just for the Catholics of Spokane, or the students and faculty and staff of Gonzaga, but for those of us in BCTS as well. To learn about each other, to share with each other our histories our traditions, our cultures and hopefully to gain something from our interaction with each other.”

    Hayes believes African Americans have particular and unique gifts that benefit the entire church, including hospitality, music, a more community-oriented understanding of themselves as church, and a gift of spirituality.

    “African American spirituality is joyful, communal, holistic, so it gives us a different way of looking at things,” says Hayes. “Instead of an either/or, dualistic separation of the sacred and the secular, you have from the African and African American perspective a holistic, a both/and perspective.”

    But it is not an issue of what the church would gain by being more open and responsive to Blacks, says Hayes. “It’s how the church should be acting if it’s going to continue calling itself a Christian Church and Catholic Church. [It’s a matter of] living up to our name [Catholic], which means ćuniversal,Ć and living up to our identification as a church of Jesus Christ. Because skin color, heritage, ethnicity should not matter in terms of who we are as church.”

    *****

    St. Ann Parish will host BCTS listening session Oct. 12

    One part of the BCTS annual meeting is a listening session, when the scholars invite local Blacks to join them. It’s a chance for Black Catholics to talk about their unique experience in the church, and to be heard by others making a career of trying to understand, record and celebrate that experience.

    Black Catholics in this diocese have never before gathered together for worship and dialogue, according to Bartlett. He’s hoping for a full house at St. Ann Church, 2120 E. First Ave. in Spokane, for the event Saturday evening, Oct. 12 at 7 p.m.

    All Black Catholics in the region are warmly invited. Some participants will be traveling from Western Washington to take part in the session.

    For more information call Unity House at Gonzaga University: 323-4108.


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