Can Black Catholics Thrive, Again?
The National Black Catholic Congress (NBCC) XIII theme, Write the Vision: A Prophetic Call to Thrive, continues to percolate in my spirit. Stirred spiritually through introspection like Jeremiah, I felt like the Lord duped me. Remember, Jeremiah sensed that God had tricked him. When the prophet reflected on God's omnipresence, he declared, "I say I will not mention him, I will no longer speak in his name. But then it is as if fire is burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding back..." (Jer. 20:9).
After completing my reflection on the theme for the NBCC, Write the Vision: A Prophetic Call to Thrive, the Holy Spirit inspired me to examine this theme from a different visionary's eyes. Recall the focal passage from Habakkuk's book, "Write down the vision; Make it plain upon tablets, so that the one who reads it may run" (Hab. 2:2). What brought me to this additional reflection is Habakkuk's contemporary, Ezekiel. This seer's heartbeat pressed against my spirit and asked this penetrating question, Can Black Catholics thrive again?
Some current verbiage challenges the vision that Black Catholics can and will thrive in bringing life into the Roman Catholic Church. Many offices of Black Catholics now no longer exist. Numerous Archdioceses have reorganized, creating offices to meet the needs of all cultures, which is a formidable task. Sometimes, one office is responsible for meeting four or five different cultural needs. Conversely, the dominant White culture continues to look for people of color to assimilate into their traditional worship style: do not clap your hands in the church or give spontaneous praise to God during the liturgy.
The number of active Black Bishops is problematic; we currently have eight active Black Catholic Bishops and six retired (USCCB). Historically, we have never had more than fifteen active Black Catholic Bishops simultaneously. And we still maintain low numbers in the seminary and women in religious life.
To make matters more threatening, US Catholic Faith and Real Life printed an article titled, Black Catholics are Leaving the Church: Why? Instead of reporting the presence of Black Catholics and their current contributions, the report leaves its audiences with no hope of thriving because of the notion of a Black Exodus. The question surfaces, Can Black Catholics thrive again?
In chapter 37 of the Book of Ezekiel, his message discredits the negative foolishness that tried to defer a dream, which caused an explosion. God and Ezekiel exhibited a close relationship as shown in verse one in chapter thirty-seven, "The hand of the LORD came upon me, and he led me out in the spirit of the LORD and set me in the center of the broad valley. It was filled with bones" (Ez. 37:1). From one's perspective, having the Lord take you by the hand, lead you, and place you in a valley of dry bones can be disheartening. Contrasting the dry bones to the current conditions of Black Catholics, we, too, must put our hands in the hands of our Way Maker. Our God, the Heart Regulator, asks us to "Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God" (Phil. 4:6).
Ezekiel then said that God directed him to "… walk among [dry bones] in every direction..." (Ez. 37:2). Ezekiel's journey should lead us to further contemplation. Silently we inwardly reflect on our Christian duties. Some may liken Ezekiel's experience to the ancient Labyrinth practice used by many faiths for spiritual guidance. Sauntering while asking those daunting spiritual questions leads to deep prayer. Back and forth, to the left and right, we ponder with Ezekiel why dry bones lay before our feet. Black Catholics find themselves in worship practices that sometimes resemble a valley full of dry bones. Some attend church weekly hoping they can hear an inspiring sermon or song. They try desperately to avoid the temptation to participate in another denomination. Interiorly they believe they can thrive when receiving the eucharist and celebrating God's word in their cultural tradition.
Verse three leads us further into dialogue with God. God asks, "Son of man, can these bones come back to life?" Interestingly, this question speaks to what you believe, what you envision is possible, and whether you care if the bones return to life. Ezekiel's response is, in some ways, laughable. Ezekiel, perhaps raising his hand thinking that this is a ridiculous question, responded, "Lord GOD" ... "you alone know that." Ezekiel's life experience taught him that God is omniscient, all-knowing. Ezekiel knew not to get into a debate about whether the dry bones could live again. He saw in chapter one, the foreshadowing of Jesus in the Wheel in the middle of the Wheel. Ezekiel ate the scroll in chapter three and said it was sweet as honey. And in chapter thirty-six, Ezekiel remembered God's promise of a new heart and a new spirit.
Therefore, today Black Catholics must ask themselves this question, Can Black Catholics thrive again? Can we prophesy like Ezekiel in verse four and say, "Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD!" Talk about faith! Ezekiel did as God instructed him, then testified as he spoke in verse seven, "A sound started up, as I was prophesying, rattling like thunder. The bones came together, bone joining to bone" (Ez. 37:7). Ezekiel saw people coming together through the Word. This scroll is sweet as honey.
I, too, see people coming together in July 2023, attending the NBCC XIII. I hear sounds of people prophesying with the Word of the Lord. Some say, "stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands. For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control" (2 Tim. 1:6-7). Others say, "You belong to God, ... for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world" (1 Jn. 4:4). And you may say, God "is able to accomplish far more than all we ask or imagine, by the power at work within us" (Eph. 3:20).
Although we have the Word, don't be foolish. We still need God's spirit. Ezekiel verifies this reality in verse nine: "Thus says the Lord GOD: From the four winds come, O breath, and breathe into these slain that they may come to life." Here you may ask, "how can I breathe into Black Catholics to make them come to life?" Tell them Jesus is the answer. He said He came so that we may have life (Jn. 10:10). Prophesying is about giving people hope. Sr. Jamie Phelps once stated:
An African American interpretation of the doctrines of incarnation, the interpretation of the message and meaning of Jesus, the story of Christ's miracles, and the post-resurrection revelation that Jesus was indeed God in human history can ground a new hope for African Americans. (God Bless Them ... Who Have Their Own p. 24)
Therefore, since we are a Word church, who eat the scroll daily and hide the Word of God in our hearts so that we may not sin (Ps. 119:11), let us write a vision full of hope. Let us pray that the Lord will give us a well-trained tongue, that [we] might know how to answer the weary, a word that will [awaken] them (Is. 50:4). That word is hope.