By RUBY THOMAS
Special to The Record
INDIANAPOLIS — The city of Indianapolis hosted 2,500 African American Catholics, including 78 from the Louisville archdiocese, during the National Black Catholic Congress XI July 19 to 21.
Under the theme of “Faith Engaged:
Empower, Equip, Evangelize,” participants witnessed testimonies, worshipped and took part in dozens of workshops — all with the goal of updating a pastoral plan addressing issues affecting their church communities.
The event, which celebrated 25 years since the congress began meeting again in 1987, opened with an exuberant roll call in which each participating diocese made its presence known.
In the opening remarks of a keynote address, Father Reginald Whitt of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, told participants that they have inherited a legacy.
“The very fact that you are assembled at the eleventh national congress of Black Catholics in the U.S. indicates that we are heirs to a legacy,” he said. “Daniel Rudd
was a firm believer that the Catholic Church was the single great hope for African Americans.”
Rudd, a Bardstown, Ky., native born a slave in 1854, was the founder of the National Black Catholic Congress. In 1888, he proposed that black Catholics hold a general congress so they might get to know each other and “take up the cause of the race.”
In 1889, he convened the first congress in Washington, D.C. Rudd was concerned with sentiments that being black and Catholic was somehow strange. “He argued that a large number of black Catholics gathered at congress with the blessing of the church will show black Protestants that being Catholic and black was not an anomaly,” explained Father Whitt.
Father Whitt urged participants to stand proud in their Catholic faith reminding them that “our church is the one church built by Jesus Christ on the apostles.”
And participants of the congress, which now meets every five years, said pride was evident as hundreds gathered to worship on its first day.
A parade of more than 120 bishops and clergymen, some dancing down the aisle to a heartfelt rendition of “Come, Let’s Worship the King,” set the tone for the three-day event. Thirteen-year-old Michael Wright, of St. Monica parish in Bardstown, was moved.
“I felt like God was taking over this whole place and that God was in everybody’s soul,” he said. “We didn’t have anything to worry about because he was here with us. The words we’ve heard and the roll call was very uplifting and it’s all for him.”
Another participant from Archdiocese of Louisville, Charita Weathers, said that “although our numbers may be small, it is natural for blacks to be Catholic because this church is the rock.”
“Hearing Father Whitt say that was very reaffirming,” said Weathers, a member of Christ the King Church. “Our gifts are important in terms of enriching and diversifying the church.”
For 82-year-old John Churchill, Congress XI was a validation of Catholics’ work to evangelize.
“It’s really an opening of mind, heart and soul,” he said. “It proves that the religion is not dead and that Catholicism is doing what it’s supposed to do.”.
Bishop Edward Braxton of the Diocese of Belleville, Ill., spoke to participants during his homily giving them even more reasons to take pride and rejoice in their Catholic roots.
“We gather here to become what we hear — Christ; and to become what we consume — Christ. We assemble here to become Christ,” he said.
Bishop Braxton referenced the 1984 landmark pastoral letter from the black bishops entitled “What We Have Seen and Heard.”
“The document reminded people of the riches of the black Catholic experience that must be shared with the entire people of God. And it stressed the unique contributions African Americans were making to the church and to the world,” Bishop Braxton stated.
To reward those who have answered the call to share their gifts, The National Black Catholic Congress Inc. created the Servant of Christ Award. Fifty-eight people were honored during the closing of
Congress XI, including M. Annette Mandley-Turner, executive director of the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Office of Multicultural Ministry.
“We honor sisters and brothers from all across the United States, from all walks of life, from all positions in the church who are serving as Jesus did,” said Bishop J. Terry Steib, who presented the awards.
“They are ordinary people, who have done ordinary things extraordinarily well,” he said.
Mandley-Turner said receiving the award “was a very emotional and humbling experience for me.”
“There are so many people whose shoulders I stand on and whom perhaps should be receiving it,” she added. “My true reward was having those 78 people from Louisville entrust their journey in my hands. I do my work not because of the recognition, but because I serve the living God.”
The congress concluded with a lively celebration of the eucharistic liturgy. Father Christopher Rhodes, who was recently ordained a priest of the Louisville archdiocese, delivered the homily during which he elicited laughter and applause from those present.
“Let’s be concerned with doing the will of God,” he said. “Jesus was engaged and so should we. Take all that you have seen and heard and get engaged and be dedicated. Let us commit ourselves to always praising God not only in words, but in deeds.”