“If not you, then who?”
That’s what Fr. Joseph A. Brown, S.J., said to Mary Words when the two first met in the mid-1990s. Words, at the time a parishioner of the soon-to-be-shuttered St. Elizabeth Parish, was telling Fr. Brown about the closure of so many inner-city churches within the Archdiocese of Milwaukee at the time. She was lamenting to him what she and many others felt was the lack of willing and passionate leaders within the parish communities to take action in the face of the closures.
“I was mad about everything. I told him, ‘I don’t know that I want to step up, either,’” recalled Words.
He turned the statement back on her: “If not you, then who? If you are able, you are obligated.”
Words recalled the exchange in her opening remarks on Saturday, Oct. 21, as she introduced Fr. Brown to an eager audience gathered at All Saints parish hall on North 25th Street. It was the final installment of an almost year-long series of monthly workshops focused on the themes of the 1984 pastoral letter on evangelization from the Black Bishops of the United States entitled “What We Have Seen and Heard.”
Brown, a professor in the African Studies Department at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, has served as the liturgist for two National Black Catholic Congresses and authored several books on the liturgy within the Black Catholic tradition.
Words’ anecdote was an appropriate framework for the ensuing address by Fr. Brown, which focused on Black Catholic worship and its relation to the African diaspora. In terms of knowing and promoting the truth of their cultural and religious history, in terms of challenging the stereotypes facing Black Catholic worship traditions and in terms of taking charge of their own faith culture, Fr. Brown gave his audience — and the Black Catholic community as a whole — a frank charge: if not you, then who?
“Here’s the problem in dealing with Black Catholic liturgy — we’ve never been taught who our people were,” he said.
“There are many varieties of blackness,” he said. “But they’re not going to be authentic unless they have the memory of the bottom of that ship somewhere in their prayer.”
The presentation led by Fr. Brown — which included a morning and afternoon session, followed by Mass of anticipation in the afternoon — concluded the monthly workshops, which began in January and have been sponsored by All Saints Church and the Black Catholic Ministry Commission of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.
Though “What We Have Seen and Heard” was written in 1984, the present day provides a “prime moment” to discuss the issues identified by the bishops 33 years ago, said members of the workshops’ planning committee.
The idea of the workshops was introduced by Cecilia Smith-Robertson, director of faith formation at All Saints. In her archives, she found a copy of a study guide for issues addressed by the bishops’ letter, and felt it would be valuable for the community to reflect on.
The workshops began with a visit from Most Reverend Joseph N. Perry, auxiliary bishop of Chicago, who presented on the entire document of “What We Have Seen and Heard.” Ensuing workshops focused on a variety of different themes found within the letter, including Black spirituality, culture and scripture, the family and the role of Black men and women, vocations to religious life and Catholic education.
Speakers included clinical psychologist Dr. Juliette Martin-Thomas, Ph.D., Fr. David Jones of the Archdiocese of Chicago, professor of theological ethics Dr. Shawnee Daniels-Sykes, and adjunct instructor of English Tanya Keenan, both of Mount Mary University.
Each session had its own inspiring moments, but a few stood out for planning committee members Smith-Robertson, Words, Janat Davis, Sandra Melcher, Shanedra Johnson and Celia Jackson.
For Words and Melcher, Fr. Jones’ presentation in March, entitled “Historical Perspectives of Black Catholics: Initiatives, Encouragement and Authorization,” was particularly stirring.
“He really gave us the history, and I heard some things I never knew. I just felt overjoyed hearing a lot of the things that he shared,” said Words. “It added to the little I knew about Black Catholic history in the Church, and also helped me to feel that, though there were problems and issues, how strong we are spiritually — no matter what we’re faced with, we just keep on keeping on.”
Melcher said that another high point was the opening prayer service, organized and led by Davis. “She got us positioned spiritually to listen with an open heart, open mind,” she said.
Ultimately, the committee said they were pleased to see that the purpose of the workshop had been achieved — creating awareness and dialogue.
“So often, we don’t hear about this history, and when we see Catholic information provided in the general public, we don’t see us,” Smith-Robertson said. “But the history is strong.”
The committee said that they are interested in coordinating similar programming next year, possibly exploring other writings by Black theologians that are little-known outside of pastoral circles.
“This is not an ending, but a continuation,” said Smith-Robertson at the final workshop.
After all — if not you, then who?