What’s it like to be a Black Catholic in America today? In June, four Black Catholics joined me to talk about what they’ve experienced, to explain what makes them feel like they belong, and what makes them feel like they don’t, and what needs to change.
Alessandra Harris, Marcia Lane-McGee, Andrea Espinoza, and Eric Phillips began the conversation by using history and statistics to dismantle Abby Johnson’s racist argument in her video about her biracial son, and it’s well worth listening to.
But that was only half of our conversation. Today I’d like to feature the sections where they talk about their personal experiences in the Church and with the pro-life movement. White Catholics, in particular, I hope you will read it carefully and take to heart.
The full video response and transcript are here. The transcript here has been edited for length and reading clarity.
Do you think the pro-life movement has a racism problem?
Marcia: Yes, absolutely it does … I feel the pro-life movement only insists racism exist in the womb. They want to talk about Planned Parenthood’s only being in predominantly Black neighborhoods, and they’re like, “That’s awful,” but they’re not thinking about how their mindsets, and policies that they vote into place, and the way that they continue to villainize Black fathers and Black culture, affect our lives out of the womb.
…[T]here were pro-life protesters outside of a Planned Parenthood right after the George Floyd was murdered, and … their sign literally said “More George Floyds will die here today than on the Street.” … She’s like, “That’s the real problem, that’s what you should be upset about.” It’s that whataboutism we get when we want to say Black lives matter, but they go, “What about Planned Parenthood?”
They are trying to deflect, and because they don’t want to deal… They don’t want to deal with the whole person after they are born. I firmly believe once a Black child is born, that is when we need the pro-life movement even more. We need you to vote in polices that help mothers, policies that are able to abolish those laws like the “man in the house” laws, because that still exists. Right now it still makes more fiscal sense to not be married to the father of your children if you are struggling in the Black community; it makes sense. Because you’re more likely to struggle when you’re married, because your government benefits will be cut; it’s less food stamps, less everything. And that is frustrating. So pro-lifers aren’t there for that, and I absolutely believe it’s because racism exists. They already have an idea about us in the mind.
Someone said to me once, a friend of mine — she’s Black, and she said, “I don’t understand why you’re pro-life,” and I was like because “you know, everyone needs to live and everyone needs to get what they need.” She goes, “Issue is that it seems like pro-lifers only want us; they don’t want to kill us in Planned Parenthood because to want to be able to kill us in the street, whether it’s a death slowly death by starvation, or if it’s death by cops.”
[J]ust like this country, the pro-life movement was not built for me right now as I am.
America wasn’t built for Black people; it was built by Black people, let’s be real. But the pro-life movement wasn’t built for Marcia at 40 years old, right? Me in the womb, my 17-year-old mom, absolutely. But now. as I am, they don’t care about my spirit or my wellbeing. And you know what, here I am still fighting for life because I know it’s the right thing to do.
Does the Catholic church in general have a racism problem?
Andrea: It’s like the house is on fire, and there are people in the house that’s on fire, and people outside the house are trying to say, “Hey, your house is on fire,” but the people in the house are like, “No, it’s not.”
We would be kidding ourselves if we said the American sector of the Catholic Church didn’t have a racism problem, and I’ll tell you why. Because the same people that … believed that Black people were 3/5 of a person, they were the same people that built the Catholic church; they brought in those prejudices with them.
They were the same people who forced native Americans to give up their culture, change their names, attend these Indian boarding schools to rehabilitate them and make them more European. These were the same people that refused to ordain Black priests so that the Venerable Tolton had to go to Italy to seminary. These are the same people that denied Black nuns the opportunity to become novices in their orders, so they had to create their separate orders.
The thing that makes it worse is that a lot of Catholics do not know this information, because we teach the faith, but we don’t teach the history, and because we don’t teach the history, it perpetuates on and on and on. So, the same stereotypes perpetuate on and on.
I bet you a lot of Catholics in America do not know that the reason why there are so many Black parishes in certain dioceses is because, when Black families moved to the area through historical periods like the Great Migration … the neighborhood parishes said, “We don’t want any n-words in our parish.” So, they would send them to parishes in the Black part of town that were underfunded and ill prepared …There’s a reason why Malcolm X said the most segregated hour in America is 11:00 on a Sunday morning. And we still have that.
Then, nowadays, we have a specific religious movement that worships in a specific form of the Mass, which is a beautiful form of the Mass, but it is built on the idea that if you are not this, if you don’t meet this condition, this condition, this condition, you’re not Catholic enough. For a lot of us, I can’t relate to that. I grew up in the Caribbean. We didn’t have organs. Have you ever seen what happens to an organ at 95-degree weather with 100% humidity? It warps! So, we had to create our own traditions, but it doesn’t make it any less Catholic.
The key problem with the racism in the American Catholic church is that it’s predicated upon the idea of whiteness, and it will always have that problem unless we do something, because guess what? The majority of the world’s Catholics, they’re not white.
If this is your experience of the Catholic Church, what is it that keeps you coming back?
Eric: Thank you for the question. Simply put, what keeps me coming back? Primarily the Eucharist.
But let me say this first. I think a lot of African Americans, and the enslaved in the slave times, saw this same story in the Exodus and Moses; how the Hebrews 400 years being enslaved, God came to their salvation. As a Catholic it’s hard; life here in this nation’s hard; and as a Black Catholic, it’s even harder … but if you look at the story of Christ, it was not an easy life. He had 12 apostles; 11 of his apostles were martyred.
[T]he Jews living in the Roman Empire, they were looked down upon because of their culture. I find myself in the same situation today, but that doesn’t mean I have a right to turn my back on the Church that Christ founded. I have to accept this fight. I think we’re all born here for a reason, not by happenstance. God willed us into existence for times like this, to fight the good fight. And fighting the good fight means suffering, but because you suffer, you don’t abandon the fight. You stand for the Cross; you stand by the Cross of Christ. That’s how I approach it.
So, what can we say, what keeps me coming back, there’s nowhere else for me to go. This is the truth. [Amen]
Also, how do we make progress? The thing Alessandra said in her video, is prayer and fasting, that’s always worth prayer and fasting, and after that comes action.
So, before the quarantine, what I would do is go to different churches in the city, some on the Southside, because I was primarily going to churches on the Southside, and then I would go to predominantly white churches because I just wanted to see how they did things differently. I just wanted to get a feel for the community… We have to find ways to build camaraderie with one another, to the point where we start asking each other over to each other’s houses. I’m telling my people with different ethnicities and cultures: I think white parishioners should visit a Black parish, try to build some relationships, try to get involved in some of those ministries, and vice versa, to the point where you can start inviting people over to dialogue.
Because just like there’s a Theology of the Body, there’s also a theology of food, and I think that really helps break down ignorance, because a lot of people, I would call racist– not because I think they hate me, although there are people who hate me because of the color of my skin. I think some are racist because they’re just racially ignorant, and so I think eating with one another, doing things with one another, helps break down that ignorance and helps us understand one another better, so that one side does not think the other side is just trying to be the victim all the time.
Can you think of a time when you really did feel a fully seen member of the Catholic Church?
Eric: I’m with another organization called the Camino Project, long story short we send young Catholics on pilgrimages. So, the first time I was there [at St. Josephat on the north side of Chicago], I was talking to the priest. I was trying to see if they could help us out with a certain fundraiser. It fell through, but one day it came to me, you know what, that church looks very interesting; let me attend at the Mass.
So, I went to the Mass there, and the time came for the homily, and the priest there was a white priest. He started to talk about something that Andrea alluded to, how he used to work in the Black community. It was actually half Black and half white, and the priest went on to say how the Black people would go to mass but would be treated like second citizens of the mass, had to sit in certain spots, had to be the last to receive the Eucharist. Then he went on to say that one of the Black parishioners approached the head priest about it, and the priest rebuked her, said she was being selfish and things like that.
So, one day that lady just stopped going to Mass. And he went onto explain that this is what a lot of times racism does. When you treat a fellow person like that, Catholic or not, you kind of help them lose their faith. He … said we need to check ourselves as people, find out where our faults are at, repent of our faults, and do what we can to do better, because no person, especially at a Catholic at Mass, should be treated like that, regardless of color of that person’s skin.
And so, I was happy I came that day. It was just a random day and it was not Black history month; it was on his heart. It was one of his experiences. His experience was hearing this woman’s story of her experience. And eventually she started going back to Mass again and receiving the Eucharist.
I felt appreciated by it because I didn’t think the homily was said because it was expected … [During] Black history month, I expect to see people honoring Black history, but this was just totally out of the blue. And I felt appreciated because from that time on I knew that experience was in his heart and mind, and it changed him, and I know that wherever he’s at now, he’s preaching that same homily somewhere else… But I felt appreciated that day.
What should white Catholics know about the experience of being a Black Catholic?
Alessandra: [T]here’s Black Catholics spanning the continents, there’s Black Catholics all over the place, and we all worship differently and have different traditions, but we all have a relationship with Jesus Christ, and we believe in the Eucharist, and we believe in the Church.
So even though we all have different experiences and different traditions and different ways we worship and different parishes, we all want to be seen as the body of Christ, and we all want to be recognized as being made in the image and likeness of God.
But with that being said … people want to have white Catholics see their Blackness.
And as a writer, in fiction, the default is white, so unless you say “this character has brown skin,” you’re going to assume that character is white. So too, if you say, “I don’t see color,” you’re defaulting to the white experience. So, when we say we’re Black Catholics, it doesn’t take away our Catholicism at all, but it acknowledges our culture and our traditions and our skin color and everything that encompasses.
Is there anything you would like from white Catholics in particular. Is there something that you would request or that you would hope for?
Marcia: [J]ust say “welcome” when we walk into your parish. Don’t make me earn my spot there.
I sing at church, I’m a cantor at the masses here at church, and I have a very pretty singing voice. Like that’s a fact, it’s not like “oh, I’m so great.” But I know that if I want to feel welcome in a church, all I have to do is sit next to an old white lady and sing out of the hymnal, and then someone will talk with me at the sign of peace, and then if I don’t, it’s awkward. I feel that not making me earn my spot in the church is a huge way to actually welcome me in the church, because guess what? I’ve been a member of this church for 20 years. I’m here, whether you welcome me into this building or not, and I think just saying “hey welcome”—don’t tokenize me.
It’s funny how—Eric you mentioned St. Josephat. I used to live in Lincoln Park, I lived in Lincoln Park neighborhood in Chicago for about 5 years, and St Josephat was where I went to mass on Sunday nights. I really enjoyed the mass there. I enjoyed is so much there because I was welcome right away all the time. And I didn’t realize that was it was until I started going to masses other places where I would walk in, they would say “welcome,” I would get this, “Do you want to bring up the gifts?” I would say, “Absolutely,” and then one day, I don’t know if it was the usher or someone heard me sing, and he’s like, “Oh my gosh, I have been trying to figure out how to get you to come back here more times, and now you just need you to join the choir, that’s how we get you to come back here!” And I just thought it was that they were already, they like wanted me there, I always felt like I was wanted there.
Like seriously, just saying, “Welcome.” I know that sounds crazy because you’re just like, “Welcome, we’re Catholic; we welcome everyone.’ That is not true. I feel like an exhibit when I come to mass; people always kind of watch to make sure I know what to do.
I had someone in Mass tell me, “Now honey, this is where we stand,” and I’m like, “I’m a legit catechist; I’m a youth minister. I know what I’m supposed to do.” But the people with the small Catholic microaggressions, like, “Wow, you knew everything?” I’m like, “I am Catholic. I grew up in Chicago, where if you want a good education, you’re more likely to go to Catholic school. So, I knew this before I became Catholic.”
So just treat us like any other Catholic, but also acknowledging our Blackness in that moment, knowing that … our skin comes with baggage, but we’re here to share the faith with you.
[Y]ou know there’s that song “We are one body, one body in Christ,” that we do not stand alone? I feel sometimes as a Black Catholic, I know that we are one body in Christ, but often I feel that I am standing alone when I enter a predominantly white Catholic space.
I was a youth minister in a moderately sized town in Indiana for about 3 years, and the first weekend that I was in church there, I did not feel welcomed. … [T]hey were one Eucharistic minister short because I was going to introduce myself at all of the masses, and I was like “I can do it, it’s fine, just tell me where to stand. I can give them the Cup.” Where there was an older couple, and they looked at me like they were suspect, like, the man just looked at me like, “Who are you with this Cup?” Right? They didn’t have to know anyone at this mass, because it’s the Catholic church; you don’t know everyone who goes there, but they saw me and the wife went to go up to get the cup, and I was ready. And he yanked her back and just gave me this look, and then they went back to their pew.
And I was just like, “I’m so glad I’m here to minister to all the racist kids!” No … really, it turned out to be a fantastic experience, but I will never forget that day. I will never forget that Saturday night mass when, even though he didn’t know anybody else as a Eucharistic minister … I don’t know what they thought I did to the church wine.
That’s what it was, I don’t feel welcome until I earn my spot, and I shouldn’t have to earn my welcome in the Catholic church. It’s a Catholic church.