“Growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, Catholicism was all around me,” recalled Anderson Shaw on a recent early November morning. The director of the African American Catholic Center for Evangelization was sitting behind a desk in his small office in St. Eugene’s rectory in South Los Angeles. “Although my mother was a devout Southern Baptist — she read the Bible every day from front to back ’til the day she died — she sent me to Catholic school to get a better education.”
After a moment, he added: “So I saw these kids, and I liked what I saw. But there was no way I was going to convert with my mother.”
When Shaw, now 78, was 18, he and a friend came to Southern California — not to be movie stars, but to further their higher education. After a while, he started going to Holy Name of Jesus Church on West 31st St., where he met Father Jerry Smith.
“And I did what I planned to do for a long time,” he recalled with a chuckle. “I was baptized at Holy Name when I was 23, 24. That was in the early ’60s.”
Soon he became the urban parish’s youth minister and volunteered for other church ministries.
“It fitted my belief. My concept of what I think God wanted us to do,” he explained. “The Catholic Church had been around for over 1,000 years, while Southern Baptists were here for only decades. So this has to be where you need to be.”
But after he got married and started having kids, Shaw kind of wandered away from the Church. Still, he and his wife, Audrey, put their children in Catholic school. And he found himself going regularly to Mass again. Then when his wife became president of the parent support group at St. Bernadette School, all of a sudden he was back doing church-related things, like lecturing. He even earned two certificates in liturgy at then-Loyola Marymount College.
Shaw had a 30-year career at TRW, the aerospace company, where he rose from accountant to assistant controller. He took early retirement at 55, planning to play a lot of golf. But he got bored and about the same time, in 2004, his wife volunteered him to help out with the African American Center for Evangelization. And in 2004, he became its director.
‘Invisible’ black Catholics
At last year’s Los Angeles Religious Education Congress, Father Bryan Massingale — professor of theology and social ethics at Fordham University — addressed the elephant-in-the-room question: Is it possible to be black and Catholic in the U.S. today?
And the author of “Racial Justice and the Catholic Church” didn’t mince words. He observed, “Black culture [still] aroused a fear of hostility or suspicion” in white Catholic leaders.
The provocative query, of course, isn’t new. Many African-Americans with Southern Baptist backgrounds believe you can’t be both. Some go so far as saying Catholicism isn’t even Christian.
Shaw believes the more pertinent issue is what Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta has recently written about the “invisible” black Catholic Church. “One of the things that we at the center have taken on since the very beginning, and next year will be our 20th anniversary, we’ve dealt with the three Vs: visibility, voice and vitality,” he reported.
“The concept being black Catholics have to be more visible within the Church for the Church to be able to experience what we have to offer. And then once if we’re visible, then we will have voice. And once we have voice, then we can demonstrate the vitality within the spirituality in our community.
“So visibility is an issue for us in the nation,” he said. “And I think in the Catholic Church it’s even more so. The reason for that I believe is the Catholic Church is still struggling with its past, when most of the [racial or ethnic] churches were ‘national’ churches like the Polish Church here in Los Angeles that still draws Poles from all over the archdiocese. And so I think that still exists in the minds of some people about us black Catholics.”
After a pause, he went on: “I think that there are other churches where African-Americans, or even Native Americans, will be accepted in the pews as part of the congregation. But they won’t be accepted in the heart of those churches. I think that’s why we become less visible.”
Shaw thinks another factor in the visibility of black Catholics is that candidates, politicians, athletes and other public figures are often invited to speak at local black AME (African Methodist Episcopal) churches that stand out in the community. But that doesn’t happen at Catholic churches even with large numbers of African-American parishioners. So the AME churches get all the attention from the media.
“So the issue of being visible is a challenge for black Catholics,” he said. “It’s a challenge. And it becomes very critical when there are issues that are facing the Church, and there’s input from white and Latino communities. But they don’t have the input of the African-American community. Because there’s very few of us at the table.”
There’s one other thing Shaw brings up that’s startling. Right now there’s not a single American-born African-American priest serving in the whole Archdiocese of Los Angeles. The last was Father Allan Roberts, who died on April 11, 2016. And there are currently no local black candidates studying for the priesthood at St. John’s Seminary.
“That makes it sort of difficult communicating with the larger Church when you don’t have a spiritual leader,” Shaw maintained. “We do the best we can, the deacons and myself.”
After pausing to gather his thoughts, he said, “And sometimes people ask the question, ‘Is there a reason to be visible?’ ” with a chuckle. “The main reason is it gives us an opportunity to evangelize. It gives us the opportunity to take the Gospel to them from a black perspective. And that’s why visibility is really most important. Our title even has ‘evangelization’ in it.
“So this is not a civil rights thing for us. We need to continue to believe in the Holy Spirit, to believe in the Lord who gave us life. And with that basis, then we’re able to go within and throughout the Church to spread the Gospel with an African-American perspective.”
“So what are the gifts black Catholics bring to the Church today?” Shaw was asked.
He says it’s a way of worship and spirituality based on African music that comes from the history of black Americans. Some people call it “Gospel.” But it’s definitely upbeat.
There’s also the need to preach. African-American Catholics not only want to hear a good homily, but it has to relate to their daily lives.
“I mean, there’s a struggle going on. When a black person wakes up in the morning and steps out their door, they’re always aware that they’re black,” pointed out Shaw. “Constantly. It’s an awareness, whether they want to think it or not. Some point in that day, they’ll be confronted with that reality.
“So when you hear a homily that does not address that struggle that you go through, it leaves you kind of empty,” he said. “And so getting the spiritual uplift of the music, having the homily address from the Scripture what you’re going through is vital. And it’s going to get you through that next week and get you back in church next Sunday.”
The third gift to the Church is fellowship. Shaw says at predominantly black parishes the sign of peace at a Sunday Mass may go on for 10 minutes. Congregants just walk around hugging and shaking hands to greet one another. And then after Mass, folks may stay for an hour or so having donuts and coffee in the parish hall, just catching up.
He studied liturgy for two years. Why? Because he wanted to know what worshippers can do within the structure of Catholic liturgy? Too often, he’s heard white parishioners insisting: “This is all wrong what they’re doing!”
‘Never had a problem’
Since Shaw converted in his early 20s, he’s never had a problem being both African-American and a Catholic.
“I didn’t really care for what I grew up with,” he said. “But I saw early on a faith that I thought would fit better for me and how I wanted to worship God. And so that’s how I became a Catholic.
“I can only say that coming to the Catholic Church late and studying, it just makes more sense to me. I went to Israel last year, and it was in many ways life-changing,” Shaw confided. “It sort of solidified everything I felt. And I just felt right at home.”