Black Catholics

July 11th, 2020

“I will not tire of declaring that if we really want an effective end to violence we must remove the violence that lies at the root of all violence: structural violence, social injustice, exclusion of citizens from the management of the country, repression. All this is what constitutes the primal cause, from which the rest flows naturally.”

Saint Oscar Romero, bishop and martyr

“Let us begin. We have done little or nothing.” – St Francis of Assisi

There are Black Catholics. There aren’t that many, but they exist. Blacks make up a mere 3% of the population of the Catholic Church in the United States. Using a stubby pencil to do the math, that means that there are maybe 1.8 million of them in the entire country. I was privileged to meet a few of them yesterday.

The Archdiocese of Milwaukee sponsored the Black Catholic March for Racial Justice. It was partly a demonstration, and partly a history lesson. The Catholic Church in Milwaukee has long history with the Black community. Some of it is admirable. Some of it, not so much. In the United States the Roman Catholic Church has been a primarily a conservative white institution. It has often done more to preserve the status quo than it has to promote social justice. But not always…

The march started at St. Francis of Assisi Church on the corner of Brown Street and Vel R. Phillips Avenue (formerly 4th Street) in Milwaukee, just north of downtown. The church goes back to 1869, when the Capuchin friars started building a monastery on the site.

(Capuchins are a variety of the Franciscan order of the Catholic Church. The name “Capuchin” derives from the same source as the word “cappuccino”. They both mean “brown”. Capuchins wear brown robes. Just a little Catholic trivia).

The Franciscans at St. Francis Church have a long and close relationship with the Black community in Milwaukee. According to the pastor, Father Mike Bertram, the first Civil Rights march in Milwaukee started at St. Francis Church on July 29th, 1967. There is a strong tradition among the Capuchin friars for helping the poor and the oppressed. That commitment to justice was on display yesterday.

It was warm and humid when I showed up at the rally. I think there were probably a couple hundred people in attendance, more than I had expected. I walked up to a friar wearing a mask (everybody was wearing a mask). He was handing out t-shirts for the march. On the front of the shirt, it said, “RACISM IS A SIN”. On the back was a quote from Saint Pope Paul IV, “If you want peace, work for justice”.

The friar told me, “Go ahead and take one. All we got left are XXX large, but they shrink when you wash them…well, maybe a little.”

“Okay. do you want a donation?”

The friar shook his head, “No. just take it and wear it. You can grab a sign too, if you want.”

The friars had a wide variety of signs available. They were all laying on the grass under the linden trees. I took a small one. It was a print of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. Jesus was portrayed as a Black man. I liked the image, and I wanted to give it to Karin when I got home. Now she wants to frame it and hang it in her craft studio.

There was usual milling around that is normal prior to a protest march. I looked around to find somebody I knew. These events attract all the usual suspects, so I figured I’d meet a friend. It was hard to pick out anyone, because we were all masked. Most people were keeping a respectful social distance.

I stood near a young man and struck up a conversation. It was a bit awkward because I couldn’t read many of his facial cues. I had only his eyes to work with. The man’s name was John, and he is in charge of the education center across the street from the church. We talked a bit about the struggle to do volunteer work during the pandemic. His center has done a lot of work helping people get their GED’s. All their tutoring used to be face to face. No more. The pandemic has made it nearly impossible to help people in a personal and physical way. It has alienated us from each other.

During the conversation, I lifted my mask for a moment, and then put it back.

I told John, “I just wanted you to see my face, to see who I am.”

John briefly raised his own mask from his mouth, and smiled.

At 9:15 the show started. These things have a certain ritual to them. Mary Words, the chair of the Black Catholic Ministry Commission, spoke. There was a rendition of a gospel song. Father Mike said a prayer for us and, as we began the march, he quoted from his order’s patron, St. Francis of Assisi:

“Let us begin. We have done little or nothing.”

That cut to the heart. Because it’s true. When it comes right down to it, I ain’t done shit.

We began.

We walked several blocks to 7th and Galena. There is public housing on that corner. Many years ago, it was the site of Blessed Martin de Porres. Now there is no trace of the building. Martin de Porres served the Black community of Milwaukee from 1940 until 1962. Then the church was closed and destroyed in order to build the Hillside housing project.

I will digress for a bit.

The Black community has not been treated gently in Milwaukee. Milwaukee is still one of the most segregated cities in the country. At one time, there was thriving Black business district just to the north and west of downtown. That was all demolished in order to build the Interstate through Milwaukee. It was a classic case of systematic racism. The Black community in Milwaukee suffers inordinately from poverty and crime.

The Catholic Church in Milwaukee has not always been a champion for racial justice. It is not just that white Catholics can and have been racist. The local Church has always been tribal. There have been many hyphenated parishes in the city (Polish-Catholic, German-Catholic, Irish-Catholic, etc.). Until recent times, the Church in archdiocese has been rent with cultural divisions. It was not unusual in my childhood to hear somebody say something like: “I don’t go to such and such church. They’re all Polacks there!” In some ways, racism in the local church was and is an extension of other antagonisms.

There have been clear exceptions to the prevailing attitude among Catholics in Milwaukee. Casa Maria Catholic Worker House has always been a beacon of hope for better race relations. St. Francis and St Benedict the Moor parishes have promoted racial justice. Father James Groppi was a leader in Milwaukee for the Civil Rights movement of the ’60s. There were and there are good people. Good things can happen.

I believe that the institutional Church has not been often at the forefront of social justice work because of the Church’s laser-like focus on the abortion issue. For many Catholics abortion is the only social justice issue. This has caused some Catholics to support politicians whose only moral claim is that they oppose abortion. Being pro-life is more than just being anti-abortion. As Cardinal Bernadin and Eileen Egan said, there is a seamless garment of life. To be pro-life is to be attentive to all aspects of life. Ending racism is part of that seamless garment, and it has often been a forgotten part of it.

Back to the march…

We walked to St. Benedict the Moor Church on 9th and State. I walked along with an older black lady. Her name was Pamela. We spoke mostly about our children. Pam is a great-grandmother. She doesn’t look like it. I asked her if she was retired. Pam told me,

“No, not yet. I still have work to do.”

I asked her what she did. She’s been a busy woman. She spent years working with students who had been thrown out of the Milwaukee Public School system, so that they could continue to learn. She worked for a long time with Child Protective Services. Pam has probably helped hundreds, or maybe thousands, of troubled kids.

I listened to her and thought, “I have done little or nothing.”

Well, maybe I’ve done something, but not like this lady.

As we approached St. Benedict, Pam told about her relationship with this particular church. She talked about weddings and baptisms. It was clear from the sound of her voice that St. Benedict the Moor is her spiritual home. She loves that place.

It was hot when we arrived at St Ben’s. I have been there before. Years ago, I helped out with their meal program. St. Benedict’s was established as the first Catholic Church for Black people in the state of Wisconsin. The building has stood since 1923. It has served the poor and the marginalized ever since that time.

It is ironic that St. Benedict’s stands almost directly across from the Milwaukee Police Headquarters and the Milwaukee County Safety Building. On which side of the street do we find justice?

As I stood near the church, Greg came up to me. He’s the deacon at my church. I didn’t recognize him at first. He was wearing his mask and sunglasses. He said,

“Hey man! Good to see you! If I had known you were coming, we could have carpooled.”

“I didn’t know until yesterday that I would march.”

Greg smiled. “Look at all these people. This is great! At last!”










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