Amid black exodus, young Catholics push church to fight racism

(RNS) – Byron Wratee remembers the silence of White Catholic priests after the murder of Trayvon Martin. Since then, he said, he has made the conscious decision to only attend predominantly black Catholic parishes.

He remained critical of the church’s response to racism and racial justice following numerous murders of black men by police, but for Wratee, who grew up largely Pentecostal and s’ converted to Catholicism 20 years ago, leaving church is not an option.

“I have the right to be in this church,” he said.

While Wratee, 38, has chosen to remain in the church, he is part of a generation that is globally becoming less religious and less affiliated with the institutional church. A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that young black Americans are less religious than their elders. Specifically, black Millennials (49%) and Gen Z (46%) are about twice as likely as black members of the Quiet Generation (26%) to say they rarely or never attend events. religious services in a congregation.

The study, “Faith in Black AmericansReveals the particular difficulty of the Catholic Church in retaining black adults who have been brought up in Catholicism.


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An estimated 3 million black Americans are Catholics, but according to the study, almost half of those raised in the Catholic faith no longer identify as Catholics (46%, compared with 39% of all Americans raised in the Catholic religion. Catholic). About 1 in 5 black adults who were raised in Catholicism became unaffiliated (19%) and a quarter became Protestant (24%).

As the Catholic Church grapples with a range of issues – from patriarchal structures to lack of LGBTQ inclusion – Wratee, who is studying for her doctorate in systematic theology at Boston College, said that for black American youth, “the racism is the root cause ”of why they leave the church.

An overwhelming 77% of black Catholics said opposing racism is essential to their faith, according to the Pew study, which surveyed more than 8,600 black adults.

For many black Catholics, Wratee said, there is a core belief that you cannot be a Christian and a racist. And so, he said, “We have a duty to preach the gospel to our white brothers and sisters.

This is why Wratee is participating in a four-part webinar series titled “Black Catholics and the Millennial Gap”. The first episode kicked off on November 8 – to commemorate Black Catholic History Month – and focused on racism, trauma, and the Catholic Church.

The series, sponsored by the National Black Catholic Conference, will address Black freedom movements and Black Catholic worship, music and liturgy. It will peak in February during Black History Month.

LaRyssa Herrington, 26, who started the webinar series, said reviews “come from a place of love, but also from a place where you want to be seen and recognized.”

Herrington, a doctoral student in systematic theology at the University of Notre Dame, thinks it is too simplistic to say that people are not religious because of atheism or secularism. You have to take into account the experiences of sexual and racial trauma that prevail in the church, she said.

According to the Pew Report, almost all black adults, whether affiliated with a religion or not, believe in God or a higher power (97%).

“People are no less religious than they used to be,” said Herrington, who converted to Catholicism about two years ago while pursuing her theological studies. “I think people are tired of being mistreated.”


RELATED: Study: Most Black ‘No’s’ Believe in God or Higher Power, Fewer Who Pray Regularly


Although Herrington did not grow up in religion, she joined an Evangelical Protestant Baptist church in high school, but then sought more, wanting to be “connected to something that was bigger and outside of myself.” Herrington was drawn to the sacramental life of Catholicism.

“Praying the Rosary, starting to ask Mary for intercession was new to me – and seeing her almost responding in a certain way,” said Herrington, who attends St. Augustine Parish, a historically black Catholic church in South Bend. , Indiana. “Going to Eucharistic adoration has meant a lot to me. This is something that I still do now.

She hopes the webinars and online discussions can inspire young lay Catholics, especially black Catholics, to consider vocations inside and outside the church and realize that “we are empowered.”

“We lead even if we are not priests, even if we are not cardinals or bishops,” she said.

The first episode of the webinar, which explored racism and the church, kicked off just days after Archbishop of Los Angeles, Jose Gomez, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, denounced the ” new social justice movements ”during a speech for the meeting of the Congress of Catholics and Public life in Madrid. He condemned the movements as “pseudo-religions” which are “dangerous substitutes for true religion”.


RELATED: Top American Catholic Bishop Calls Social Justice Movements ‘Pseudo-Religion’


While Gomez said the murder of George Floyd was “a stark reminder that racial and economic inequalities are still deeply entrenched in our society,” he suggested that the movements that inspired the protests in 2020 are replacing “traditional Christian beliefs. “.

“No matter what we call these movements – ‘social justice’, ‘revival’, ‘identity politics’, ‘intersectionality’, ‘successor ideology’ – they claim to offer what religion offers,” Gomez said.

a online petition, sponsored by Faithful America and Faith in Public Life, called on Gomez to apologize and listen to black Catholics. The petition collected more than 12,000 signatures and was delivered to Gomez before the American Catholic bishops met for their annual fall meeting starting on November 15.

In this image from a video, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, addresses the body's virtual assembly on June 16, 2021. (Conference of Catholic Bishops from the United States via AP)

In this image from a video, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, addresses the body’s virtual assembly on June 16, 2021. (Conference of Catholic Bishops from the United States via AP)

“Catholic bishops and other religious leaders should be on the streets with the organizers of the racial justice movement – without demeaning them,” the petition says.

Gomez’s speech – and the mixed reactions to it – underscore the complicated space occupied by black Catholics, many of whom attend predominantly white or multiracial churches.

To John Barnes, who will lead an upcoming webinar episode, said, “Black people still exist in frontier spaces.” Barnes, a doctoral student in systematic theology at Fordham University, converted to Catholicism in his 30s and said he was drawn to the sacraments and rituals of religion.

“There’s nowhere you can go in America, really, where you can be fully assertive unless you’re surrounded by a majority of blacks and browns,” said Barnes, 36. The church is no different, he said.


RELATED: Play About First African American Priest In US Highlights Current Problems


But, he said, it is important to be part of the future of the church and to honor and recognize the ancestors who “opened the way for us.”

“If you believe the gospel is true and you are, in your heart, Catholic, you won’t let the whiteness kick us out,” Barnes said.

Meanwhile, for Wratee, it’s crucial to make a distinction between church and attending Mass. Black Catholics are still in the church, in that they are still faithful and praying, Wratee said. “We are the church.

“We just don’t go to mass to have to listen to racist sermons from priests,” Wratee said.


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