They came from across the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to stand together, worship side by side and honor their shared history: African American Catholics, a small yet faith-filled community, sang God’s praises as one during this year’s Black History Month Mass on Feb. 18 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Downtown L.A., which has hosted the annual Mass every year since 2003.
“Black Catholics have always had a very strong faith,” said Andrew Knox, a parishioner at St. Brigid Church, who spoke to Angelus News during the February meeting of the African American Catholic Center for Evangelization (AACCFE), which serves the local African American Catholic community year-round, and helps organize parish and archdiocesan-wide events like the Black History Mass.
“We’re rooted in a strong spirituality and we are always moving forward,” added Knox, a member of the AACCFE council, which represents 25 parishes and meets monthly September through June. “Our faith never fails us … we believe that Jesus is always going to lead us in the right direction. We’re strong believers.”
And they are strong evangelizers, too, noted Anderson F. Shaw, director of the AACCFE. During the Feb. 18 Mass, participating parishes each presented one individual to be recognized as a Keeper of the Flame, which honors those who have “kept the flame of evangelization alive” in their parish communities.
“We want to evangelize and help bring all people into the fold” — including those on the periphery and fallen-away Catholics of all backgrounds, explained Doris Tims, an AACCFE member who attends St. Eugene Church. “We want to reach out and evangelize the whole community, so we can get them back into the Church.”
And those evangelization efforts are ongoing throughout the year, via parish-based ministries and the AACCFE, including regional evangelization task forces, liturgy committees, ethnic ministry groups, music ministries, prayer groups, pro-life committees, supporting deacon and priestly vocations, and much more.
According to Shaw, groups such as the AACCFE and related observances — the Black History Month Mass, Martin Luther King Jr. Prayer Breakfast, National Black Catholic Congress, Black Catholic History Month and others — are particularly essential within such a small community. Based on national demographics, about 76 percent of African American Catholics across the U.S. attend parishes where they make up a very small minority of the community.
In some parishes, there may be only four or five families, noted Shaw.
In the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the total number of African American Catholics is approximately 70,000. By contrast, an estimated 5 million total Catholics — including all races and ethnicities — make up the local archdiocese.
“Among the reasons we conduct special liturgies and events are [because] we seek to bring all African American Catholics together, so they can share in their common culture and to also demonstrate a more visible presence within the archdiocese,” explained Shaw. “Through these visible presentations, the Church of Los Angeles gets a better picture of the contributions and gifts the African American Catholic community brings to the Church, and it gives confidence to African American Catholics to share their gifts with the Church.
“And with visibility comes a greater voice,” he added.
Terry Dicks of St. Jerome Church also emphasized the importance of promoting both unity and confidence, and also stressed the need to “remember” and to educate younger generations about the realities of “our story.”
“I would say that Black History Month really is more needed now than ever — we have to encourage each other to remember our story,” said Dicks. “Black History Month is a time to not just … remember [our story] and to remember whose shoulders we’re standing on — people suffered and died, and so it’s important to keep reminding ourselves that we’ve come a long way, although there’s always room for improvement — but Black History Month to me is also an opportunity to, as a people, say, ‘This is who we are, this is where we have been.’
“I was raised in New Orleans, where there were ‘colored’ signs and ‘whites’ signs, so it’s important for me to tell my story to my kids and to my parish, so they understand why we’re singing ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing,’” she added. “A lot of times, many teenagers don’t really know our story and they need to know it.”
But, continued Dicks, it’s not enough to just celebrate black history.
“At our parish we have many cultures, so we celebrate each other,” said Dicks. “You have to go to the Filipino celebrations, to the Nigerian, to the Mexican American — you have to go to all of the celebrations. It’s not about dividing [to celebrate different races and cultures]; it’s actually unifying, because we learn to be hospitable to each other.
“What’s the point of being Catholic if it isn’t to support each other?” she asked.
Harry L. Wiley Jr., a knight of Peter Claver and parishioner at St. Raphael Church, shared similar thoughts.
“Pope Francis is a gift to this world. [He] has allowed the Church itself to say that it is with all people who are disrespected, downtrodden, impoverished,” said Wiley. “The leadership of this Church does not want to see people divided.”
Speaking of divisions, he pointed to the recent marches and demonstrations, expressing solidarity with those marching against inhumane policies and in support of safeguarding civil liberties for people of all religions, races and ethnicities.
“As Catholics we can’t stay back; we’ve got to know that Christ gave us an opportunity to see our value as humans, and to recognize that value in others, and to realize that we are no better than anyone else,” said Wiley. “Liberties can be taken away from us, just like they can be taken away from you or anyone else. … As black Catholics, as black [Americans] — from Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King — we have never supported just black issues; we have been inclusive. … Martin Luther King did not work for black rights; he worked for civil rights, for all.”
Tims agreed wholeheartedly.
“We can’t stand alone, we have to stand together, whether it’s for Black Lives Matter or for immigration, we have to come together,” she said, recounting the despair she felt upon learning about the undocumented Arizona mother of two who was recently deported despite having resided in the United States for decades.
“No one group can do it alone; we need to be unified, otherwise there’s no way we’ll be able to stop this division that’s going on,” said Tims. “We have to love one another.”