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The Suburbanite
  • Faith and Values: Black Catholics embrace heritage, history

  • Every November, the Rev. Benson Okpara celebrates a special Mass at St. Benedict/St. Mary parish to commemorate Black Catholic Month. The Nigerian-born Okpara said he celebrates the Mass to help make people aware that blacks’ roots in the faith run deep.

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  • Turnout at the Wednesday morning Mass at St. Mary’s Catholic Church is tiny. Just a handful of the faithful occupy the pews in the church at 1607 Market Avenue S.
    And often, the only person of color in attendance, is the one celebrating the Mass.
    Every November, the Rev. Benson Okpara celebrates a special Mass at St. Benedict/St. Mary parish to commemorate Black Catholic Month. The Nigerian-born Okpara said he celebrates the Mass to help make people aware that blacks’ roots in the faith run deep.
    “We commemorate Black Catholic Month to create awareness,” he said. “The (black) faithful who worship, share their traditions. What we do is help them to share their  long history in the Catholicism. There were black popes and black saints. The goal is to tell other people that people like us were on this road centuries ago.”
    Approximately 3 million — about 9 percent of black Americans — are Catholic. Among the world’s 1 billion Catholics, 20 percent, or 200 million are black. About 130 million are African.
    Even so, Catholicism’s inroads into the black community have not been as far-reaching compared to other denominations, though growth is occurring in the South, Okpara said.
    THE GREATEST STORY
    “One of the reasons may be that people go with what they know and identify with,” he said. “Blacks like gospel music, and that isn’t found in lot of Catholic churches.”
    Bishop George V. Murry, head of the Catholic Diocese of Youngstown, converted when he was a child attending parochial school in Baltimore. As one of 16 black bishops serving in the U.S., Murry originally belonged to the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Prior to his current post, Murry served in Chicago, a hub of black Catholicism, whose founder, Jean Baptiste Point duSable, was black and Catholic. “I do think when we look at the Catholic Church and the (black) Protestant denominations, sometimes we compare apples to oranges,” said Andrew Lyke, director of the Office for Black Catholics in the Archdiocese of Chicago.
    “In Protestant churches, they talk about ‘the big three’ that you need for effective worship: Hospitality, preaching and music. In the Catholic Church, while that’s great to have those things, we are a ritualistic church. There’s a drama that goes on at every Mass, at every Eucharist. We reenact the greatest story ever told.”
    Wallace and Lovie Hailey were married at St. Anthony’s parish, but have attended St. Benedict’s for nearly 50 years.
    “I converted, but my husband’s been Catholic since (childhood)” Lovie Hailey said. “I grew up Methodist, which is similar to the Catholic Church. After I married, it was while before I converted; my husband didn’t push me into it.
    KNOWING GOD
    Lovie Hailey agrees that music likely is a factor when it comes to black membership.
    Page 2 of 2 - “When we go to church in Jamaica, it’s like a Baptist church. You’d think they were holy rollers,” she said laughing. “It just depends on what community you’re in.”
    Okpara said that in Nigeria, the church embraces the local culture, which means a more-effusive style of music and worship.
    “My main (goal) is not converting people, but getting them to know God,” Okpara said. “Until you come and see what people do, you don’t know.”
    Hailey said Catholicism can be intimidating to people who aren’t familiar with it.
    “When you go to Catholic school, you get indoctrinated to the Missal,” she said. “When you don’t, you don’t know anything about it. It’s a mystery.”
    Lovie Hailey lauds Okpara for his outreach in the St. Benedict’s neighborhood, which is predominately black.
    “I’m noticing more people, especially younger kids attending Mass,” she said. “Father Benson really reaches out to the children in neighborhood. When you get the children, you get the parents.”
    THE GIFT
     Lyke said the Church has worked on being more culturally inclusive since the 1960s.
     “The immersion of black culture and spirituality into the Catholic Church is critical if African-Americans are to come into the Church,” he said. “They need to see themselves, not just depictions of human images, but in terms of culture.
    “...The truth is, that’s what our gift is to the black community and black worship. To bring the element of the Eucharist to it, that enlivens our faith. In our evangelization efforts, we still strive to integrate culture and spirituality.”
    Lyke is a second-generation Catholic.
    “I’m excited about being black and Catholic,” he said. “When you think about the passion in black spirituality and in our culture. It makes us a prophetic people. Then, you bring the drama of the Catholic liturgy, it makes for powerful worship.
    “When we can do all of that with good measure, enter into that action that (fosters) the real presence of Jesus, along with opening up the word of God, and good music that stirs us into good fellowship — wow, what a dance.”
    REPOSITORY  FILE PHOTO
    Bishop George V. Murry of the Catholic Diocese of Youngstown symbolizes the long history blacks have within the Catholic Church. Murry is one of 16 black  bishops in the United States.
    OKPARA