Great is Our Faithfulness: Why Celebrate Black History Month

Deacon Al Turner, MTS

Deacon Al Turner, MTS

Why do we celebrate Black History month? What does it mean to us as black Catholics?

Black people have experienced the faith in the context of enslavement, civil war, Jim Crow, separate and un-equal, the civil rights movement, and the post civil rights movement era. All the while, we for the most part have stayed true to our Catholic faith and to the stated beliefs of the United States of America. Our leaders, well known or not, have held on to the belief in the notion of the American experiment in equality of persons.

St. Pope John Paul II while addressing 1,800 African American Catholics in New Orleans on Sept. 12, 1987, encouraged African American Catholics to contribute the gift of who they are to the wider Church. That is good citizenship in the tradition of Catholic social teaching.

From the first, we hoped that there was a place for us here as members of the Church and society. We had to invent and re-invent ourselves many times over the years and we did. We believed what we read or had read to us from sacred Scripture, that Jesus came to save ALL God’s children. We kept that notion always as an anchor of our lives. Even in the dark days of enslavement, we had the kind of sustaining faith that allowed us to survive even the racism inside the Church and within the hearts of our white brothers and sisters in Christ, some of whom owned us as property. Even in these worst of conditions, black people “knew” that community is the foundation of the soul of all people especially for us. We have always worked to make things better for ourselves and our children. There are no areas of endeavor that have not benefited from our participation.

There are examples of brave black people who distinguished themselves in the secular society, like Benjamin O. Davis Sr., the first African American to reach the rank of General Officer in the United States Military; Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to the U.S. Congress; and Sidney Poitier, the first African American to win the Academy Award for Best actor. These are some who help us to celebrate our achievements as good and productive citizens of this country.

We, black Catholics, can also be proud of others who lived up to not only the social creed of this nation but also to the spiritual creed as well. This includes people such as Daniel Rudd, a black Catholic layman, activist, journalist, and publisher of the American Catholic Tribune “the only Catholic journal owned and published by colored men.” He also founded the Lay Catholic Congress movement. We recall Fr. Augustus Tolton, the first identified African American man to be ordained a priest for service in the United States. He had to go to Rome for his formation because no U.S. seminary would admit him. He persevered and braved discrimination inside as well as outside the church. He believed in and lived a life that considered all people as creations of God and are, therefore, good. He is an inspiration for all.  We also recall Mother Mary Lange, OSP who founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first religious community for women of African descent.  She also founded a school that educated immigrant and enslaved children in Baltimore, Maryland when it was still illegal to educate black children. That school became St. Frances Academy, which is still in operation today as a co-ed High School.

These are just a few of the reasons we black Catholics should celebrate this month.

We are part of the heritage of this country. Our faithfulness in the belief that all men are created equal is a testament to our faithful citizenship. And, that is something to celebrate.

Deacon Al Turner, MTS, is the former Director of the Office of Black Catholics for the Archdiocese of Washington and is currently assigned to St. Joseph Catholic Church in Largo, MD.  

Faith-based Groups Leading Efforts for Racial Equity

Rich WoodPope Francis, on his recent visit to the United States and in his customary hopeful tone, remembered “the great struggles which led to the abolition of slavery, the extension of voting rights, the growth of the labor movement, and the gradual effort to eliminate every kind of racism and prejudice directed at successive waves of new Americans.  This shows that, when a country is determined to remain true to its founding principles, based on respect for human dignity, it is strengthened and renewed” (Sept 26, 2015).

Many Americans—Catholic and non-Catholic alike—remain inspired by Pope Francis’ visit. Yet America also struggles to live up to his hopeful vision of eliminating racism and prejudice. Racial controversies roil our universities, incidents of racialized policing lead to deaths, and mass incarceration curtails the life chances of too many young black and brown men. We have failed to build racial equity into the fabric of our society. That task remains urgent three decades after the U.S. bishops diagnosed it thus: “Racism is not merely one sin among many; it is a radical evil that divides the human family and denies the new creation of a redeemed world. To struggle against it means an equally radical transformation, in our own minds and hearts as well as in the structure of our society” (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Brothers and Sisters to Us, 1979).

The bishops and Catholics in the United States have been putting money into that struggle for decades through the annual collection for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), which takes place in many parishes throughout the United States in November. CCHD’s systematic investment in faith-based community organizing in dioceses and archdioceses around the country represents perhaps the Church’s best investment in fighting racism and working for racial equity in America. These groups fight poverty by empowering people in poor and working class communities to work for social policies in line with Catholic social teaching—often collaborating across racial and ethnic lines.

Many CCHD-funded groups have come to focus on explicitly working for racial equity. One such group is Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower & Rebuild (POWER).  POWER brings together Philadelphians across lines of race, income level, faith tradition, culture, and neighborhood. More than 40 congregations from every section of the city have actively participated in the building of POWER, which works to address racism and promote policy changes to improve communities in Philadelphia, such as fair funding for education, economic dignity through fair wages, and access to affordable housing.

The work of POWER in Philadelphia is but one example of how CCHD-supported groups are realizing the hopes Pope Francis expressed during his visit to the United States. There are hundreds of groups carrying out this work throughout the United States. These kinds of local faith-based organizing efforts offer Catholics a chance to be part of answering those questions.

Answer Pope Francis’ call. Learn more about what CCHD-supported groups are doing in your area and get involved!

Richard L. Wood serves as a consultant to the CCHD Subcommittee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. He is the author of the just-published A Shared Future: Faith-Based Organizing for Racial Equity and Ethical Democracy, and works as a professor of sociology at the University of New Mexico


Learn more about the Catholic Campaign for Human Development and the state of poverty in the United States at PovertyUSA.org.

During the month of January, don’t forget to celebrate Poverty Awareness Month using this printable calendar (en Español), longer daily reflections (en Español), and our daily emails.  These resources provide food for prayer and action to address poverty in the United States. 

Archbishop Kurtz on Charleston

Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), responded to the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, with “grief and deep sadness,” June 19. He said the Catholic community “stands with all people who struggle for an end to racism and violence, in our families, in our places of worship, in our communities and in our world.” He made this statement:

It is with grief and deep sadness that we learned of the tragic murder of Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney and eight members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. There have been far too many heartbreaking losses in the African-American community this year alone. Our prayers are with all those suffering from this heinous crime.

We join our voices with civic and religious leaders in pledging to work for healing and reconciliation. Our efforts must address racism and the violence so visible today. As the U.S. Catholic Bishops said in our pastoral letter on racism, “Racism is not merely one sin among many; it is a radical evil that divides the human family and denies the new creation of a redeemed world. To struggle against it demands an equally radical transformation, in our own minds and hearts as well as in the structure of our society.”

The Catholic community stands with all people who struggle for an end to racism and violence, in our families, in our places of worship, in our communities and in our world. We must continue to build bridges and we must confront racism and violence with a commitment to life, a vision of hope, and a call to action.

Racism, Inequality and the Right to Vote

Adkins-Jason-head-shot-605x818

Jason Adkins

As we mark the 50th anniversary of the enactment of the Voting Rights Act, which is one of the most important and effective pieces of civil rights legislation enacted in this country’s history, more work needs to be done to ensure that racism and other inequities do not inhibit anyone from fully participating in community life.

For example, racial inequities in our nation’s criminal justice system impact voter participation.   Many states disenfranchise persons with a felony conviction who have completed their time of incarceration but have not completed their full sentence, including periods of supervised release.  In other words, even those who have left jail or prison and are living and working in the community and paying taxes cannot vote if they have not finished their period of probation or parole.

Disenfranchising felony offenders disproportionately impacts minorities.  In Minnesota, for example, approximately 7.4 percent of African-American and 5.9 percent of American- Indian Minnesotans are disenfranchised due to a felony conviction, as opposed to only 1.1 percent of white Minnesotans.

Catholic social teaching encourages greater attention to disparities that impact voting participation.  The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church states that “participation in community life is not only one of the greatest aspirations of the citizen, called to exercise freely and responsibly his civic role with and for others, but is also one of the pillars of all democratic orders and one of the major guarantees of the permanence of democratic life.” (no. 190.)

Our justice system has changed

Historically, a felony conviction resulted in what is called “civil death”—a concept dating back to ancient Roman jurisprudence.  By committing a crime, one had offended the peace of the community and, therefore, rightfully lost the privileges of participating in civil society.  Yet, when these rules barring the restoration of civil rights until the full sentence is completed were instituted, the criminal justice system looked a lot different than it does today.

In 1858, when Minnesota became a state, there were 75 felony crimes enumerated in statute.  Today, there are 368 (and the list continues to grow).  Only 30 people were in prison in 1858, and there was no probation system.  Today, there are approximately 16,000 people incarcerated in Minnesota, and 75 percent of felony convictions result in probation.  47,000 Minnesotans are on some form of supervised release and unable to vote.

Yet, there is no evidence that losing the right to vote deters crime.  It is merely punishment for punishment’s sake.  Fortunately, a rethinking of the punitive criminal justice policies of the past is occurring across the ideological spectrum.  In Minnesota, legislation that would restore the vote to those on supervised release has obtained broad bi-partisan support and hopefully will be signed into law soon.

Responsibility, rehabilitation, and restoration

Solidarity, a foundational principle of Catholic Social Teaching, is defined as “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all” (Solicitudo rei Socialis, no. 38).  In their document, “Restoration, Rehabilitation, and Responsibility” (2000), the U.S. Catholic bishops declared that in matters of criminal justice, “solidarity calls us to insist on responsibility and seek alternatives that do not simply punish, but rehabilitate, heal, and restore.”

The bishops encouraged lawmakers to redirect the vast amount of public resources away from building more prisons and toward better and more effective programs aimed at crime prevention, rehabilitation, and reintegration.

In fact, the premise of supervised release programs is that an offender and society are better off by re-integrating people back into our communities.  If offenders continue to be reminded, however, by the collateral consequences of a conviction that they are not like everyone else, how can we, as a society, have expectations that they will act as responsibly as everyone else?

Restoring the vote to those who are out of prison and living and working in our communities under supervised release can promote successful reintegration into the community, as voting can be a powerful, concrete, and symbolic way to contribute to one’s community and to feel invested and empowered to play a positive role. In other words, it serves the common good. Fuller integration of people into their community and involvement in civic life logically results in stronger ties and feelings of empowerment, which can help to lessen feelings of disconnection and frustration that can contribute to future crime.

The Church should continue to be at the forefront of providing a policy framework that cuts through the false “either/or” rhetoric of criminal justice debates.  It should emphasize the need to integrate the policy goals of restoration, rehabilitation, and responsibility—not just retribution—and highlight the themes of justice and mercy for the disenfranchised and others on the margins of society.

Jason Adkins is executive director and general counsel of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.

It Ain’t the First and It Ain’t the Last

“It ain’t the first and it ain’t the last!” That was the response of Avery, an elderly man who is always at my barbershop (though he never seems to get a haircut) when he was asked about the current unrest in Baltimore.

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Ralph McCloud, CCHD

Indeed, many of us said after the Ferguson turmoil, polarity, and finger-pointing that it could happen anywhere. We acknowledged that issues in many of America’s inner cities were at a boiling point. Twenty-three years since Rodney King and twenty three days since Freddie Gray.  From the west coast to the east coast and countless cities in between, lives have been lost and reduced because of racism, classism, unjust laws, oppressive systems, and benign neglect. From coast to coast we have seen a rapid rise in hatred, racism, anti-immigrant sentiment, inattention, and abandonment. Impressions of our sisters and brothers have been reduced to what is reported by the ever so selective evening news, or discriminatory twitter or latest Facebook feed.

Yes, another straw has broken another camel’s back and another spark has been fanned into flame as the ever so elusive peace continues to avoid our cities. It is important to note that there are always many straws and many sparks long before the camel’s back is broken or the fire erupts.

Exclusion and marginalization continues to plague communities and manifests itself in often violent protest. In the words of Pope Francis in The Joy of the Gospel: “The poor and the poorer peoples are accused of violence, yet without equal opportunities the different forms of aggression and conflict will find a fertile terrain for growth and eventually explode. When a society – whether local, national or global – is willing to leave a part of itself on the fringes, no political programs or resources spent on law enforcement or surveillance systems can indefinitely guarantee tranquility” (no. 59).

It is important to note that the overwhelming majority of people who struggle with poverty or marginalization do not show their disgust in violence. Rather they participate in peaceful prayer services, marches, and demonstrations. A far greater number do nothing at all but find themselves paralyzed trying to figure out what might do the most good.

It would be unwise to assume that the problems are only one dimensional, that it is only racism, or only classism, or only family structure, or only urban, rural or suburban. The issues are complex and require a complex and diverse response. No response only fuels more smoldering embers.

Avery continues to lament with grief, “it ain’t the first and it ain’t the last!” Have we given up on Baltimore? Ferguson? New York? Etc.? And what of the ones who would be husbands or fathers? Scholars? Role models? Stewards and caretakers of inner cities?  Is it totally impossible to dream that Baltimore could be “the last”? Is it possible that enough courageous faithful people could rise and say, “Enough!” Could it be that folk will call racism the sin that it is and commit to doing whatever needs to be done to eradicate and dismantle it? Can decent affordable housing shelter people in all neighborhoods? Why can’t we ensure education that provides a path to college and then a path to employment? How can we reform the criminal justice system so that it doesn’t target and oppress people of color?

Numerous questions, and frankly, I don’t have a good answer for any of them, but I am certain apathy and indifference doesn’t maintain the status quo; it only makes matters worse.

“God is love, and all who abide in love abide in God and God in them.”   (1 John 4:16)

Ralph McCloud serves as the director of the USCCB Catholic Campaign for Human Development. Learn more about the work of CCHD and follow on Twitter @EndPovertyUSA.

Straddling History and Hope in Selma

Ralph McCloud on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama during celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery Marches.

Ralph McCloud on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama during celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery Marches.

Like tens of thousands of others, I went to Selma to recall a historic struggle. A struggle that continues today for those who refuse to bow down to bigotry and hatred.

Thousands came to re-enact an act of public defiance to laws and impediments that denied them full citizenship.

I went at the invitation of colleagues and friends, but I must admit I felt a profound curiosity. I had learned about the civil rights struggle; I had seen the movies, heard the songs. But I felt called to go, for two reasons. First, I wanted to honor the historic value of the Selma March; what it has meant over the last 50 years. Second, and most importantly, I went because of what it can mean for our future.

Ambling across the historic Edmund Pettus Bridge, I played a mental game of “Ping-Pong”. “Pinging,” my thoughts honored with gratitude the six hundred brave souls who courageously walked the same journey 50 years prior. They had no way of knowing what awaited them some 54 miles and 50 years later. I sensed a growing appreciation for that time in our history when a door was opened to change, not just in the United States but worldwide. Then my mind “ponged” back to the present, to the recent Department of Justice report on police misconduct in Ferguson, MO. I remembered the high rate of child poverty in our country—1 in 3 children live in poverty—and even worse for communities of color. I recalled the lingering abject poverty I had just seen that very morning during a tour of modern day Selma. 40% of Selma residents live in poverty. I thought of the high incarceration rate of black and brown people, subjected to unjust sentencing guidelines, living without hope. Then I “pinged” again as I recalled “Neek,” a man I met who had journeyed on the Selma March 50 years ago when he was just 13. He and his best friend were given permission by their parents to march in a demonstration that was both unsafe and uncertain. Their parents wanted to go, but feared losing their jobs if they were identified as being part of the “movement”. I “ponged” again, amazed that those parents still organized, planned and sacrificed, knowing they could be fired anyway if it was discovered that their children had participated.

Bloody SundayI was inspired as I heard Thomas Rodi, Archbishop of Mobile, preach at a Mass concelebrated by three African American bishops; Bishop John Ricard SSJ, Bishop Sheldon Fabre and Bishop Martin Holly. Archbishop Rodi spoke of the Catholic Church’s outsized historic role in the Civil Rights Movement. He spoke of Catholics participating in the Selma to Montgomery March, not just as walkers, but in healing and housing.

Catholics healed the beaten, bitten and bruised at Good Samaritan Hospital (appropriately named), the only hospital that would see African American patients. Catholics housed, giving folk respite and lodging at the City of St. Jude organization (also appropriately named), which welcomed sojourners arriving in Montgomery.

I looked around at the enormous crowd, young and beautifully diverse. We would take a few steps and stop, a few more steps and stop. I thought of what it must have been like… to be battered by clubs, bitten by dogs, disrespected by police officers and onlookers. I could not help but wonder if I would have had the mettle and courage to do this 50 years ago. I came to no conclusions, but I was convinced that my parents and ancestors would have definitely walked, despite the danger, fear and uncertainty. Then the march stopped suddenly; the end of the bridge was still a long ways off. We all began to wonder what was going on. The folk at the head of the march realized that it would be impossible to continue because of the huge number of people gathered. They passed word back, which spread quickly among us along with no small disappointment. But there was a symbolism to it… the march is not yet finished. The march toward justice continues.

We who seek justice must not be content with merely making it to the other side of the bridge, or even getting all the way to Montgomery. We must not stop our stride toward freedom until justice surges like waters, and righteousness like an unfailing stream.

McCloud headshotRalph McCloud is director of the USCCB Catholic Campaign for Human Development.

What a Week!

Ralph McCloud, USCCB

Ralph McCloud, USCCB

What a powerful week to be Catholic.

On Monday, Pope Francis wrapped up his apostolic visit to the Philippines. We participated in the nation’s remembrance of the powerful preacher and civil rights activist, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We also marched for life, and prayed for that day when the rejection of innocent life will be no more.

If there is a thread uniting this week’s powerful events, no doubt it can only be the power of people to rise from poverty.

Pope Francis in the Philippines. A pastor by nature, Francis goes out of his way to be close with people, caressing them, touching them, and speaking plainly with them. His visit to the Philippines was no different.

But what was different on this trip was the transparent impact the people of the Philippines had on Pope Francis. The awesomeness of a vibrant, young and engaged church risen up from the pain of poverty and disaster visibly moved Francis. On multiple occasions he simply set aside his prepared text, overwhelmed by the sturdy faith and perseverance of a people knocked down by colonization, poverty, typhoons and hurricanes. Celebrating Mass with the people of Tacloban, devastated by Typhoon Haiyan, he asked forgiveness for having nothing to say in the midst of their pain: “I can only be silent; I accompany you silently, with my heart…”

For Pope Francis, poverty is where faith is tried and refreshed by the Cross. The poverty of words in the face of death and disaster, the poverty of a people beset with tragedy, are not without meaning. As the pope told young people before his last Mass in Manila, “Certain realities of life are seen only with eyes that are cleansed by tears.” Indeed, faith in Jesus Christ completely transforms these experiences. As Francis said, “Jesus goes before us always; when we experience any kind of cross, he was already there before us.”

Poverty is also the key to evangelization. Speaking to the Filipino clergy, the pope said: “Only by becoming poor ourselves, by becoming poor ourselves, by stripping away our complacency, will we be able to identify with the least of our brothers and sisters. We will see things in a new light and thus respond with honesty and integrity to the challenge of proclaiming the radicalism of the Gospel in a society which has grown comfortable with social exclusion, polarization and scandalous inequality.”

Finally, poverty is the key to our own evangelization. Rounding out his speech young people in Manila, he asked a challenging question: “Do you let yourself be evangelized by the poor?”

#ReclaimMLK. Many remember, and rightly so, Dr. King for his activism in the struggle for civil rights for the descendants of that archetypical American tragedy, slavery. Often forgotten today is the challenging trajectory of Dr. King’s activism towards the end of his life and his preaching against systemic injustice and poverty.

You may not have seen it on the news, but on Monday, community organizations across the country, including many groups supported by CCHD, took to the streets to reclaim Dr. King’s prophetic legacy. In the twilight of his life, with the US Government losing its stomach for the War on Poverty, King saw the horrors of Vietnam and racism as inextricably bound up with the plague of poverty. Though marginalized even by many in the movement for civil rights for taking his Christian convictions of peace and non-violence to their conclusions by opposing structures that perpetuate poverty, Dr. King dedicated the last months before his assassination to developing a Poor People’s Campaign.

That often forgotten legacy is the one CCHD groups marched on Monday to reclaim. We should all pray for their success.

March for Life. Finally, on Wednesday Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley gave a powerful homily during the Vigil for Life. Recalling Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement, he related the struggle for rights then to the struggle for the rights for the unborn and the struggle against poverty today. Connecting abortion to what Pope Francis has called a “throw away culture”, Cardinal O’Malley said “today we also have to say ‘thou shall not kill’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have a throw away culture that is now spreading.”

The antidote to the individualism and alienation that lead to abortion, he emphasized, will be solidarity and community.

Ralph McCloud is the director of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the official anti-poverty program of the USCCB.

USCCB President Archbishop Kurtz on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

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Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, USCCB

As our nation celebrates the life and legacy of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. today, I am reminded of the timeless plea found in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail that we move “from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.” I am grateful for Dr. King’s words and actions and those of so many who worked for justice and helped to advance our country’s recognition of the dignity and equality of each person.

Continuing tensions and violence in our communities remind us that although significant progress has been made in erasing the stain of racism and the cycle of related violence, we still have much work to do. As we consider the gains of the past and the challenges before us, I urge each of us to pray for healing and peace as we work for ever greater communion. Every human life has profound dignity, rooted in our creation in the image of God. We are one family. Our communities will only reflect this dignity if we first turn to prayer to guide our actions toward ending years of isolation, disregard and conflict between neighbors. That which seems impossible can only be brought about through God and his powerful intervention in our hearts.

Dr. King reminded us of the power of prayer and action. I invite everyone, this day and every day, to implore God to make us his instruments in creating a more just society.

Most Rev. Joseph Kurtz is the archbishop of Louisville and president of the USCCB.

Go Deeper:
Check out the Letter from Birmingham Jail Study Guide from Christian Churches Together.