MILWAUKEE — Black Catholic men gathered in Philadelphia Oct. 6-9 said they face many of the same issues their ancestors fought for more than a century ago: They want an end to discrimination in churches and schools, acceptance of blacks at the highest levels of church leadership, recognition of their gifts by a church they feel has often dismissed their concerns and more evangelism in black communities.
“In several sessions, we dealt with racism on all levels – youth, young adult as well as older adult Catholic men in their daily encounters with the reality of Black Lives Matter concerns,” said Nathaniel Gillon, member of All Saints Parish, Milwaukee, and organizer of the Milwaukee contingent for the conference. “One of our discussions was how do we, as a church, support and empower the community who sees the issues of race and silence as a sign of insincerity when it comes to the defense of the innocent in the Black Lives Matter movement.”
Gillon joined about 300 men from across the country at the National Black Catholic Men’s Conference.
The event was organized by Bowman Francis Ministry, a group of three Society of Divine Word priests whose order has given them the charge to minister to evangelize to African American young adults and youth to recharge their interest, commitment and devotions within the church. This was the 13th national conference and organizers anticipate it will become a major conference for the empowerment of black Catholic men and youth.
“This conference was important for continuing to promote informed black spirituality in the Catholic community and to support seminarians, deacons, brothers and priests as they serve in ministry,” said Gillon. “This was also a source of encouragement, voice and understanding to black Catholic men as they tackle the challenges of mainstream America.”
Each day of the conference centered on spiritual development and sacramental enhancement. Gillon added that men supported one another as well as committed to the development of young adult leadership and mentoring the young black male.
“We had morning Mass, praise, worship, prayer and celebration of the sacraments, which included eucharistic adoration, a plenary service and a full daily agenda of workshops,” he said.
Local young adult addresses youth
Speaking to the youth at the conference was Anthony Mensah, a student at American University in Washington, D.C., and a member of St. Martin de Porres Parish, Milwaukee.
“I spoke about growing up as a young Catholic man and how we go about being ordinary people to being extraordinary young men,” said Mensah. “I talked about my own college experience and things that I saw that they need to know to start on that path. I kind of gave them the experience that I had being here and things that I have done by myself in my time and was hopefully a window in what can happen and what is next for them.”
Mensah, who also spoke at last year’s conference, believes the Black Catholic Men’s Conference is helpful for black Catholic youth in that it gives them an opportunity to look at men who have practiced their faith throughout their lives.
“Fr. Chester Smith (a member of the Society of the Divine Word and one of the conference organizers) is my godfather and he does a good job in bringing people who practice their faith, studied, taught and preached it – that was really good for me and those younger than me,” said Mensah. “Now that I am in college, I am not being told to get up and go to Mass three times a week. What I do with my faith and time is my decision and I know how we can get caught up in things around us and maybe not do what we want to do. This conference gave me the space to reflect and think about what it means to be Catholic and black and Catholic and living in the United States.”
Some Catholics wonder why there is a separate conference
dedicated to black Catholics. While Mensah knows that he and other black men would be welcome at a Catholic men’s conference, the Black Catholic Men’s Conference offers an opportunity to be with those who have experienced and are experiencing a similar walk.
“Sometimes it is important to integrate all, but it is also good to create spaces for those who are not in the vast majority, especially black Catholics,” he explained. “We don’t hear a lot about it and it is a kind of experience that needs to be paid attention to and understood in a different level, and even though the Catholic faith is universal, our world is not yet universal.”
In his college setting, Mensah said he regularly experiences racial tensions. He spoke of an incident where white college students threw bananas at black women on campus.
“It is ridiculous and I really thought we were past that type of thing,” he said. “But these things make it clear to me that we still fight for racial equality. I was blessed with a great family and positive role models and opportunities that not everyone gets. But still I have issues and deal with them, maybe not head on like others have been doing it. I do know that I am a minority living among the majority and I have to be able to adapt in this world, but there are people who don’t know what else is out there.”
Conference offered opportunity to learn from others
Participating in the conference offered Mensah and other attendees tools to bridge the gap and bring peace to their communities.
“Anytime you can sit down and learn from others, (and many have gone through more stark forms of racism and discrimination than me) it gives you a lot of perspective,” he said. “It was a great opportunity to hear adult men talk to me about their experiences and impart on me their wisdom and knowledge, and not like I was a kid, but more of a, ‘Hey, this is about to be your world and your cause.’”
Leonard Novati, All Saints parishioner and 2015 graduate from Stetson University, in central Florida, learned about the conference from Gillon.
“He thought I might be interested in attending, but I wasn’t sure because I didn’t know what it was about and wasn’t sure it would apply to me, being young and an African (Burundian) immigrant,” he explained.” I did some research on the NBCMC and from there, began asking Mr. Gillon questions and it grew my interest in attending. He told me that it would be beneficial to the Catholic Church community, especially the youths.”
Honored to join peers
Surprised about the experience, Novati felt honored to join the celebration.
“The conference taught me a lot of things I didn’t know about the church, especially the black Catholic Church community. The conference also showed me that there are so many faithful people out there who care about the church, its community and who want to keep its values,” he said. “The conference also encouraged me to participate more in this great community of God.”
The theme of this year’s conference was “Blessed is the man who is Faithful, Fearless and Fruitful.” Since coming home from the conference, Novati has been trying to apply those words in his daily life.
“My faith has shifted. I pray and read the Bible more now than I did before,” he said. “I have opened my heart to help others in need as I was before. I feel closer to God than I was before.”
Novati’s favorite part of the conference was when the group gathered to pray as one.
“I have never seen this many men praying together,” he said. “It felt so good to be part of it.”
Gillon is optimistic the conference will birth an increase of individuals to serve in positions of leadership, evangelization, catechesis and become role models for future Catholics and lapsed Catholics.
“I hope we can provide an authentic voice for issues in the Catholic community which impact black spiritual formation,” he said. “I also believe that peace will surface for all when justice for some is not a banner for a group, but a flag that all in the church may embrace. The difficulty with the quality of peace is in the ones who take it for granted. The church has always been a voice of concern and empowerment for the have nots. All benefit when true forms of justice empower a community.”