A compelling irony that drives my energies as the Director of the Office for Black Catholics is that in Chicago, a city founded by a Black Catholic (Jean Baptiste Point du Sable), a city with a vibrant Black community, a city where the Black church has much muscle, and a city that’s so very Catholic, to be Black and Catholic today is predominantly an impoverished experience. When people talk about about the awesomeness of the Catholic Church they don’t mean us. Nor do they mean us when referring to the power base of the Black church in America. Black Catholics in Chicago and throughout the United States are marginal on both counts.
The Archdiocese’s burgeoning Black Catholic community in the 1940s through the 1970s had much to do with Catholic schools. The upward mobility of Black people depended on quality education, and many families opted for a Catholic education for their children. Meeting that practical need in the community, the Catholic parishes in Black neighborhoods attracted many to their pews.
In the 1970s and through the 1980s, what I consider the heyday of the Black Catholic Movement, the several predominantly Black parishes were concentrated on the West and South sides of Chicago. Among the parishioners was a strong and cohesive identity as Black Catholics, one that transcended parish identity. For Black Catholics there was a sense of belonging in any of those parishes. The awakened life force that flowed out of the Civil Rights Movement and in the shadow of Vatican II resonated throughout the community and generated a sense of greatness in being Black and Catholic.
Sadly that greatness seems to have dissipated. Many of those parishes and schools that drew so many into the faith have closed. When a parish or school closes something dies in the community it served. The number of Black Catholics is no longer rising but shrinking. And most of the parishes serving in those South and West side communities today are struggling.
How do we harness the historical significance of Du Sable, the vibrancy of the Black community, the muscle of the Black church, and the ubiquity of the Catholic Church for a new and fresh evangelization in the Archdiocese of Chicago? What practical needs in the Black community today can be met through the resources of the Catholic Church? Essentially, how can the Catholic Church be really Good News in the Black community today? Perhaps we haven’t told well our story. Perhaps the current cause for canonization for Fr. Augustus Tolton, the first Black priest to serve in the United States, and who served his last years of ministry here in Chicago at the turn of the 20th Century, can generate new enthusiasm in the Black Catholic community and the broader Catholic community of the Archdiocese. Your input is greatly appreciated.