Cassandra Brown stared at the priest who was standing there, praying. She hadn’t heard him come in. She had been kneeling in one of the pews, praying the Rosary. He must be new. She had never seen him before and she had been coming to church every Sunday since she moved into the area at the end of September.
It was a pleasant shock to see a black priest. All her life she had only seen Caucasian priests. She was curious to find out what his life as a priest was like, especially as racism existed in the Catholic Churches and schools. She had experienced racism in the pews from other church members, and from priests and bishops. Many blacks were leaving the Church because although the Church had repeatedly claimed that it was aware of the deep wound of slavery and racism in the church, nothing was being done.
When she went to church, she sat among other black congregants because she didn’t feel comfortable sitting beside the white ones. She had an experience when she did that, and the woman got up and moved to another pew after giving her a nasty look. She had sat there thinking, what about when Jesus said, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” or when Paul said, “For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile — the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him.”
Was that woman one of those who loved only the people who looked like her? Probably. There were a lot of them in and out of the Church. They seemed to forget that we were all made in God’s image. She had spent the rest of the time fuming over what the woman did and had left Church feeling wretched. She couldn’t even remember what the sermon was about.
Thank God, she was no longer a member of that church. She had stopped attending weeks before she got the job here in Detroit. Instead, she had stayed home and worshipped by herself. And here she was in another church with a strong black presence. Still, she was wary around the non-black members and avoided sitting beside them, although when they spoke to her, she was pleasant. She just didn’t want to go through another experience like the one at the previous church. That church would never have a black priest.
The priest finished praying, blessed himself and turned around. He saw her standing there. He walked over to her. “Hello,” he greeted her with a smile.
“Hello, Father. You’re new.”
“Yes. I arrived here on Monday.”
“Arrived from where?”
“You seem a bit young to be a priest.”
“I get that all the time and I remind people about the prophet Jeremiah. He was a youth when God called him into ministry. We’re never too young or too old to serve Him.”
“You’re right about that. I didn’t mean to offend you.”
“How long have you been a priest?”
“Yes. I was ordained a priest when I was twenty-six.”
“You look like you’re still twenty-six.”
He smiled. “Thank you. I guess it’s in my family genes. My parents look much younger than they are.”
“How did they feel about you becoming a priest?”
“They were very supportive.”
“Are you their only child?”
“No. I have an older brother and a younger sister.”
“What is the life of a priest like?”
“Well, everyday is different. I’m always on call. I begin my day with morning prayer and Mass, and some office work. In the afternoon, I make my visits. Then, in the evening, after more prayer and supper, there is almost always some kind of parish meeting or prayer service. I’m involved in the youth ministry which means I minister side by side with the youth minister of the parish and participate in the many of the activities. At my last church, I also worked with the youth group and young adult ministry.”
“Do you have a social life?”
“Yes. Being a priest is very demanding but priests typically get one day off each week and have up to a month for annual vacation. In my free time, I go cycling, swimming, running, walking and reading. Sometimes, a group of us played baseball and softball. Every year I went on a retreat where I experienced calm and quiet of my surroundings and the Lord’s loving presence. And, I always look forward to spending the Christmas holidays with my family.”
“Sounds like a balanced life which is good. Even Jesus took a break from His busy life and spent it with His Father and friends.”
“Yes, in Mark 6:31, He encouraged His disciples to, ‘Come aside by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.’ This was because there were many coming and going, and they didn’t even have time to eat. Jesus doesn’t want us to be overworked and there are times when we need to take a break. Rest is very important. Even God rested after He created the world.”
“Yes. Well, Father…”
“Well, Father Jackson, I’m happy that you’re our new priest.”
“I must admit that I was shocked but pleasantly so when I saw you. You’re the first black priest I’ve met since I’ve been a Catholic and I’ve been one all my life.”
“Hopefully, word will get out and more African- Americans will come to church.”
“I will be sure to tell my Catholic friends and co-workers about you.”
“Thank you. Encourage them to come this Sunday. In recognition of Black Catholic History Month, I will be preaching on the life of Henriette Díaz DeLille, foundress of the Sisters of the Holy Family and the Black Catholic experience in the Treme area of New Orleans where she was raised. I will mention the documentary, Black Faith Matters which was filmed in Treme. Also, Open Wide Our Hearts Study Guides will be handed out after the end of the service.”
“I look forward to being here on Sunday and I will be bringing other people with me.”
“And I look forward to seeing you all.”
“Father Jackson, it was a real pleasure meeting you.”
“Brown. Goodbye, Father Jackson. See you on Sunday.”
“Goodbye, Ms. Brown. See you on Sunday.”
They exchanged smiles, then, she turned and walked away.
That Sunday, Father Jackson delivered a moving and powerful sermon to a packed church. Before closing, he echoed the sentiments of Sister Thea Bowman who had called for Catholics to celebrate their differences and to retain their cultures, but to reflect their joy at being one in Christ. He reminded the Church of what had attracted Sister Bowman to the Catholic faith. “She was impressed by the example Catholics who showed love and care for one another, most especially toward the poor and needy. She was particularly moved by how they put their faith into action. When we love one another and embrace each other’s of racial and cultural differences, we are demonstrating our faith in God who created all of us in His image. We are all His children. Catholic means universal. This means that we are all part of one universal family. Racism and discrimination have no place in the family of God. In heaven, there will be people of different races, nations and tongues.”
By the end of his sermon, it was clear that his message had impacted the congregants and Cassandra. She was hopeful that there would it lead to dialogue among the members and ultimately to changes in attitudes and treatment of their fellow black believers. She prayed that there would be unity and love in the Church and she thanked God for sending Father Jackson for such a time as this.
November is Black Catholic History Month. It is a time to reflect on and to celebrate the long history and proud heritage of Black Catholics. To find out more, visit this link.
Sources: MSNBC; Diocese of Little Rock; Woman’s Day; United States Conference of Catholic Bishops; Diocese of Belleville; Brooklyn Priests; Diocesan News ; The Catholic University of America; St. Mary’s College of California; Archdiocese For the Military Services, USA