Scripture Study examines journey of African-American Catholics

Wed, Apr 15th 2015 09:00 am
Girl Scouts lead the Stations of the Cross at St. Martin de Porres Church on March 13 as part of the African-American Lenten Scripture Study.
(Patrick McPartland/Staff Photographer)
Girl Scouts lead the Stations of the Cross at St. Martin de Porres Church on March 13 as part of the African-American Lenten Scripture Study. (Patrick McPartland/Staff Photographer)

During this past Lenten season members of the diocesan African-American Commission studied the history of the African-American population in the Diocese of Buffalo. Their reflections composed an African-American Scripture Study based on local history.

Entitled "We've Come this Far by Faith," the document is centered on the six Sundays of Lent in Cycle B of Scripture readings (this year), with reflections taken from "A Gathering at the River" by Father Roderick M. Brown, OP, and "The Report of the Negro Apostolate in Lackawanna, NY" by Father Thomas Galvin, CSsR, edited by Paul Lubienecki.

After attending the Black Catholic Congress XI in 2012, the African-American Commission, a division of the Office of Cultural Diversity, developed a pastoral plan, which parallels the concerns of the National Black Catholic Congress. One of 10 action items dealt with holiness of life, and asked African-Americans to commit themselves to a lifelong journey of faith, hope and seeking to serve the Lord.

"When we gather at these congresses you see brothers and sisters, you see young seminarians - black, and we see most of the priests are African-American. I think that motivates us more," said Margie Lewis, commission member. "We don't get to see a whole lot of black Catholics because we are a minority in the Buffalo area. We don't get to see what's out there. When we gather there, it is the spirituality that they bring and all of us who come together. That's what comes out of it. It is uplifting. It makes you want to do a little bit more than what you are doing. That's what it brings."

Father Brown's and Father Galvin's books were chosen as they both chronicled the African-American struggle in Buffalo dating back to 1860.

"It was to find some kind of way to associate themes from the Gospel to things that happened in the history of the Catholic African-Americans here in Buffalo," said Elise Wilson, another commission member.

One little known, but important, fact is that Venerable Nelson H. Baker, known for his care of orphans and the poor, personally taught black children, taking them into the poorly lit and poorly heated basement of Our Lady of Victory Basilica, away from the disapproving white parishioners. Father Galvin compared the act of the then 90-year-old Father Baker to the evangelization of the first Christians who were taught in the catacombs of Rome.

"It was quite interesting to learn this because I was born and raised Catholic here in Buffalo and I didn't really know much about the history here, especially about Father Baker," said Joyce Dixon, another commission member. "I worked at Our Lady of Victory Hospital all my nursing career and I love Father Baker and I really didn't know he was that active with black Catholics in Buffalo. The role that he played was major."

Testimonies from elders tell of their personal struggles for acceptance in parishes. One woman spoke on missionaries welcoming her into the Church, while another woman reflected on being denied admission into a religious order because of her race. Deacon Ronald Walker spoke on being the first African-American to join the Buffalo diaconate.

"One of the things that hit me was the missed vocations," Dixon said. "When we looked at Elaine Clyburn, she was trying to enter the different religious communities and she was rejected.

Unfortunately that still goes on today. We had a nun who came to St. Martin de Porres. She spoke on vocations and told how she could not get into the different religious communities. That still hurts. That still stings. The thing that I'm really impressed with is that despite the wrongs encountered in the past and still today, we as black Catholic continue to hold onto our faith. We recognize that we belong to God not to man. That's what keeps us going."

The 32-page booklets are available from the Office of Cultural Diversity and can be used in a group setting or invidually. The community of St. Martin de Porres used it on Fridays, with Stations of the Cross.

"I'm hoping that it will be well read," said Dixon. "I know it probably won't be read in every Catholic community in the diocese, but there's a lot of history and a lot that people should know about our contribution to the diocese and the Catholic Church as a whole."

Progress has been made in acceptance and evangelization of African-Americans. In the last 25 years, offices like the Office of Cultural Diversity, which reaches out to minority groups, have grown.

"Always progress to be made in terms of intragroup relations," said Althea Porter, another commission member. "That's something American society has found very difficult to address. One of America's darkest secrets is racial prejudice. That has probably been a theme throughout the lives of many African-Americans regardless of whether they're Catholic or of other faith communities. That binds us together. I do think African-American voices have been heard by the Catholic Church, especially in the United States."

Originally planned as a one-time study, the committee felt it was too much information for a one time study and now hopes to continue the study in the future by following up with future studies for cycles A and C.

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