Spirituality, young people, marriage discussed at black Catholic gathering

By Michelle Martin
Sunday, October 2, 2016

Dozens of black Catholics from the Archdiocese of Chicago gathered Sept. 24 to reflect on the progress their community has made and the work left to do as they prepare for the National Black Catholic Congress meeting in Orlando in July 2017.

The day included presentations about spiritual growth, social issues, human dignity and marriage and family life.

Valerie Jennings, parish vitality coordinator for Vicariate VI, welcomed participants from dozens of parishes and black Catholic organizations by asking them to look back to the last session of the National Black Catholic Congress in 2012, which called on members to evangelize in the African- American community and engage young people in their faith.

“Are you bringing others to Christ?” she asked. “That’s evangelization. Are you deepening your relationship with Christ? If God had an 11th commandment, it would likely sound like this: Thou shalt not be a bystander.”

C. Vanessa White used song, storytelling and prayer to focus on black spirituality, reaching back to the black Catholic bishops’ 1984 document “What We Have Seen and Heard.” That document said American black Catholic spirituality is holistic, joyful and contemplative.

White, an assistant professor of spirituality and ministry and director of the Augustus Tolton Pastoral Ministry Program at Catholic Theological Union in Hyde Park, said it also focuses on hope and on freedom.

“We have to be about liberation of our people,” White said. “As we move closer to God, it’s about being free, removing the shackles. It’s about freedom not just for yourself, but for others. Justice is about transforming the systems that oppress. If you are moving in black spirituality, it will be about transformation.”

Black spirituality also has always been filled with hope, White said.

“We know trouble won’t last always,” she said. “The concern I have today is, where’s the hope?”

Daniel Nelson, director of aftercare, supportive counseling and community partnership for the Mercy Home for Boys and Girls, focused his presentation on social issues on the challenges faced by the young people he works with.

Many of them lack hope because they have never seen anything to hope for, he said. They live in an environment where they are always under threat, traumatized by the violence and losses they experience, with little experience of loving and caring relationship. That makes learning more difficult, especially in a state where school funding is tied to property tax values, he said.

“There’s no support system, there’s no one who listened to them, no one who asked, ‘What do you want for yourself?’” Nelsen said of young people who get caught up in gang violence. “They are left to their own devices to make meaning out of the things they’ve experienced.”

Nelsen started his talk with a moment of silence for Terence Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott, black men killed by police in September. He said young people aren’t the only ones affected by the violence on the streets.

“Imagine if your profession is to be in the streets, in the line of fire, every day. Nobody is unaffected by this,” Nelsen said, adding that he wasn’t trying to excuse police, but to understand them.

Deacon John Cook said his parish, St. Felicitas, will host a restorative justice circle in October. The idea is to show concern and care to build connections.

Cook also called on his fellow deacons to get involved with the young people in their communities.

“In many parishes, it’s the deacon who lives in the community,” Cooks said.

LaShawn Ford, a member of the Illinois House of Representatives and member of St. Martin de Porres Parish, reminded participants that human dignity belongs to everyone.

“Our faith demands that we protect the dignity of every human life: black lives, female lives, young lives, lives in harmony and lives with disease and lives lived in sin,” Ford said. “When an unarmed black child is shot, we must be concerned with all that led to that situation? What church did the one who fired the shot belong to? Why didn’t he belong to a church? … Who had all the food, clothing and shelter that each of us need to survive? Did we work to ensure the mental health of all?”

That is the job of the church and of its members, Ford said.

“As people who are black and Catholics, we cannot pray the rosary and the Our Father and not be concerned with the men, women and children whose dignity is under assault each day. Our job is to share the good news with the rich and the poor because each has the same dignity granted by God.”

Andrew and Terri Lyke, founders of the Arusi Network and longtime leaders in the arena of marriage and family ministry, spoke about the perceived lack of focus on black marriages and families in the church.

Black families face many challenges, Terri Lyke said.

“We marry least compared to all measured ethnic groups, and when we marry, we divorce at the highest rate,” she said.

That’s bad for the church, because marriage is necessary, she said.

“Marriage is a link between the natural life and the spiritual life,” she said. “Marriage is intrinsic to the church’s ministry.”

But the church does not talk enough, in the right ways, about marriage in the black community, Andrew Lyke said.

“Black families are holy,” Andrew Lyke said. “It’s a rhetorical statement akin to ‘black lives matter.’ The lack of engagement by the Catholic Church on black families means it has to be said. Black families without any initiative on our part are holy. Even when they are a mess, black families are a holy mess. Black families are holy because God is with them.”


  • race
  • marriage
  • st. felicitas
  • pastoral care
  • st. martin de porres
  • family life

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