GREENVILLE—More than 150 Catholics from parishes across the Palmetto State gathered at Furman University to celebrate the gifts that African Americans bring to the church, and to join in pastoral planning for the evangelization of black Catholics.
The Diocese of Charleston’s Black Catholic Congress was held at Furman University’s Younts Conference Center. The event kicked off with a dialogue on the current racial divide in the United States, with an emphasis on the concerns of young African Americans about promoting peace and social justice.
“The decrease in the number of young adults in the church is of great concern,” said Kathleen Merritt, director of the Office of Ethnic Ministries who helped facilitate the discussion. “However, when it comes to the black Catholic community, this issue is critical. At the gathering, we were able to come together and discuss some of the challenges ahead of us as we began to re-assess the spiritual and social needs of young adult black Catholics.”
Merritt said the focus of the dialogue was “The Racial Divide in the United States: A Reflection for the World Day of Peace 2015”, a document by Bishop Edward K. Braxton, from the Diocese of Belleville, Ill.
The opening dialogue was followed by a Mardi Gras-themed social event.
On the opening day of the congress, Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone gave the homily and celebrated Mass, along with Father Michael Okere, vicar for black Catholics. Mass also featured a heritage choir comprised of vocalists from historically African-American parishes, under the direction of Larry McCullough. James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, was a highlight of the performance in recognition of Black History Month.
During lunch, a presentation was given by delegates who attended the National Black Catholic Congress XII held in July in Orlando on what they learned during the national event. After, there were several breakout sessions that covered topics such as marriage, evangelism and prison ministries.
Johnathan Kirkwood, who traveled from Columbia for the conference, attended a breakout session on prison ministry.
“I think that’s very important because we talked as Christians about relating with the poor and especially the marginalized, and I think that [prisoners] are the most marginalized people,” Kirkwood said. “We globally make statements about the Beatitudes, and blessing those who are marginalized, but to actually hear people that talk to prisoners a couple of times a week, I think, was an eye-opening experience.”
After the conference, Merritt said she was pleased to see the number of young people in attendance, and talked about the importance of black youth in the Church.
“We identified several ways in which we must look at new ways of doing ministry in the black community. One important evangelization tool that we have is our schools,” she said. “By a show of hands at the conference, we found that the number of African-American converts significantly outnumbered the cradle Catholics. Out of those converts, the majority of them attended Catholic schools as a child. Therefore, Catholic schools are important to the evangelization of black Catholics in our diocese.”
Kim Howard, who traveled from Aiken, is a young adult who described herself as a recent convert. Howard said she attended to learn more about African Americans in the Church.
“I wanted to see and hear what is going on as far as the pros and cons within the Church,” she said. “I go to a church that’s predominately white, and I’m not able to see or hear from other sides of my race within the Catholic Church.”
Howard said she found the Friday night discussion to be eye-opening.
“I was pretty much familiar with what’s going on in the U.S. as far as being African American and the things we encounter on a daily basis that [people of] other races might not be aware of,” she said. “We just talked about things that happened within 2016-2017 as far as Black Lives Matter, certain riots around the U.S., shootings, and how we can overcome a lot of those situations. It was very informative. There were some black [religious sisters] there who were able to share some history about black nuns and how they came to be and how many there still are in the U.S.”
Attendee Mabel Elliott-Moultrie, from Charleston, said she was glad to hear the emphasis on bringing more young blacks into the Church.
“Everyone is having problems not getting enough young people involved,” she said. “Everyone wants to have the young folks ready to take over because we’re not getting any younger, and somebody has to come in and take our place.”
Top photo, Miscellany/Joshua Padgett: Gwen Whitner and Lillie Golden, who are grandmother and granddaughter, enjoy a moment with Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone at the Black Catholic Congress held Feb. 2–4 in Greenville.