Black Catholics celebrate 'giant family reunion'
Local participants talk about National Black Catholic Congress XI
Participants from the diocese who recently returned from the National Black Catholic Congress XI, held in Indianapolis July 19-21, said they were at times overwhelmed with pride and joy as they joined nearly 2,500 other black Catholics from around the country at the event.
"I was overwhelmed with joy to see thousands of black Catholics from all over the country gathered together, since I generally experience being in the minority here in Pittsburgh. It brings a certain amount of pride, but more than that dedication and appreciation for the faith foundation of the Catholic Church and the universality she possesses," Jan Simmons said.
For her, it was the second congress she has attended, citing Congress X held in Buffalo, N.Y., in 2007. Simmons and her daughter were able to attend the Buffalo gathering. "We were able to share our experience from each of our perspectives."
Carol Johnson, who attended the event with her husband, Conrad, said the event was a strongly spiritual one for her.
"Congress XI was a wonderful, exhilarating, affirming, spiritual experience. This event renewed me spiritually and reconnected me with the strength and vitality of the national black Catholic community," she said.
Carol Johnson said she was particularly moved by speaker Immaculee Ilibagiza's powerful story.
Ilibagiza survived the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and wrote a book about the tragedy. She spoke July 20 on the topics of faith, hope and forgiveness.
"Hearing about her experiences and journey toward forgiveness has given me a whole new perspective about what it means to have faith," Johnson said.
The national gathering also affirmed something she already knew -- that black Catholics are deeply committed to the faith.
Johnson noted the importance of the Congress XI Pastoral Plan of Action, particularly its urgent focus on youth and the next generation.
"As a community, we have to do a better job of embracing and teaching our youth. As they reminded us, they are not just our future, but our present as well," she said.
For Alysia Tucker, a recent Gannon University graduate, who now works in Erie, described the gathering as a giant family reunion. She said it was that sense of extended family that inspired her the most.
"I was most impressed with the camaraderie of those who attended congress. It did not seem like any other 'conference,' more like a huge family reunion. We may all come from different places, and have different backgrounds, but we all share something very special, and that is our Catholic faith," Tucker said.
"I truly was inspired by all of the homilies and the general session speakers, as well as the workshops," she said. "If I had to choose one instance that really made an impression on me, it would be the closing-day homily. The theme of the homily was about being 'engaged' in our faith and our communities."
Tucker noted that one of the major issues pertaining to the national black Catholic community was how to get more African-Americans into religious life.
Gwen Young said what impressed her most about Congress XI was its youth.
"It was wonderful to see and hear the young people embrace the teaching of the church, be vocal about practicing their faith and excited to share their faith with others," she said.
Young, a longtime educator with Sister Thea Bowman Catholic Academy in Wilkinsburg, said she took note of efforts to lead and develop a youth component in the pastoral plan.
"Every aspect of Congress XI was impressive. However, accessibility to a Catholic education for every child is very important to me. Therefore, the session on the NBCC Catholic Education Foundation, LLC Plan of Action was most informative and uplifting." ¬†
She said one of the major issues concerned the closing of so many Catholic schools in African-American communities.
Father David Taylor cited, along with Young, the issue of survival of parishes and Catholic schools in the nation's inner cities. He said there was even discussion of ways to raise "very much-needed funds so that our ministries can survive."
Black Catholics must be at the forefront of spreading the importance of life from womb to tomb, he said.
"We also talked about the importance of racial and social justice and of sustaining the rights of the poor, and the right that people have to a decent way of life in health care," said the only African-American priest in the diocese, who is pastor of St. Charles Lwanga in Pittsburgh's East End.
Father Taylor, who has attended all congress gatherings since 1987, said he came away from the event feeling "spiritually charged" and committed to his local ministry.
"My overall impression of the congress is that it was a real test in terms of bringing many people, many Catholics throughout the country together around common issues that we are all concerned about. We tried to be of one mind and one heart, and that meant a whole lot to me," he said.
Dominican Father Reginald Whitt, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., gave the opening address.
Father Whitt said that some in the black community wonder why black Catholics remain in the Catholic Church. He had a quick and forceful answer to such a question.
"We are the mystical body of Christ," he shouted. "Why stay Catholic? Why in the world would we want to be anything else?"
In speaking about contemporary issues in society that affect black Catholics, Father Whitt said that laws passed some 50 years ago to protect their civil rights "are never secure" and need vigilance to protect them.
He also said that black Catholics "rejoiced" when President Barack Obama signed into law a comprehensive health care reform bill in 2010.
"Nevertheless," he said, "we must express shock and, frankly, offense that, in recognizing one right, the government tries to deny us the right to freely practice our religion in accord with its moral teachings."
Father Whitt also encouraged congress participants to work to strengthen and restore Catholic schools for black Catholic children.
Sean Gallagher of Catholic News Service contributed to this report.