Father Manuel Williams, a Resurrectionist priest from the Diocese of Mobile, Ala., said African American Catholics are now, as much as ever, in need of a dream.
On the national day honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Father Williams offered an unfiltered view of the current challenges plaguing our nation, communities and even the Catholic Church during his homily at the 35th annual Archdiocesan Wide Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Jan. 20 at the Cathedral of the Assumption.
“We need to speak words of challenge. It doesn’t mean we need to condemn people. … but we have to speak words of truth coupled in compassion. To speak the truth in love,” said Father Williams, who is pastor of Resurrection Church in Montgomery, Ala., and the director of Resurrection Catholic Missions of the South, Inc.
Father Williams recalled the day’s Scripture reading from the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Luke: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.”
King’s 1963 “I have a dream” speech was rooted “in sound character, in deep conviction and sensible judgment and, I maintain, ultimately in appreciation for this manifesto of our Lord Jesus Christ,” Father Williams said.
In light of this “sacred text” and King’s message, he said, “we need dreams because it appears, at least from where I sit in Alabama, that we are in a nightmare.”
For believers in Jesus Christ, dreams have always been a vehicle God has used to speak to us, he noted. Joseph was told to take Mary as his wife in a dream and the Three Kings were told in a dream to not return to King Herod.
Believers today must not only dream but take concrete action, Father Williams told the congregation of about 150 people.
“We have to look at concrete ways that we can help to make the Kingdom present as Jesus proclaimed it, to make this country more just and humane as Dr. King dreamed of it,” he said.
“We are living in one of the most challenging times in our country’s history. I did not expect to see the backlash — or as some has called it the ‘blacklash’ — that has us in the grips of a political system that is as explicitly racist, misogynistic, corrupt, homophobic … as we are experiencing at this moment,” he said.
“Good people, sane people, people of faith” have to speak out, he said.
Father Williams noted that it’s easy to become disheartened and even have your faith shaken by the polarity of the nation and the church. But for those who believe in the Lord Jesus who want to see the dream become a reality, “we know now is not the time to be disconsolate but it’s the time to be determined.”
The path to believing Jesus’ words in Luke’s gospel and King’s dream will be difficult, Father Williams said. He called on believers to place their faith in God.
Catholic Christians, particularly African American Catholics, he said, have a challenge and opportunity to “challenge our country, to challenge our church and to challenge ourselves.”
He recalled the recent Christmas season and the innocence of the Holy Family seeking refuge.
“I don’t know how some of our sisters and brothers celebrating Christmas this year with beautiful creche scenes in front of their altars and the facades of their church without thinking of those children in cages on the southern border,” he said. “We can’t understand holy innocence and holy families without speaking out on the crimes against humanity.”
He noted Father Bryan Massingale’s book “Racial Justice and the Catholic Church” and noted the author calls on readers to be “agents of justice and change for our church and our country.”
“It is important for us Catholics of African descent to say to our church in order for us to be truly Catholic, we all have to truly be ourselves,” he said.
Father Williams called on all Catholics to do three things.
“We have to recognize the reality of the resurgence of racism. We have to recognize it and call it what it is,” he said.
Secondly, Catholic believers must take responsibility for initiating change.
“You might not lead a march, but you sure can vote,” he said.
“And third,” he said, “we have to be those who are willing to reconcile. True reconciliation only comes when we speak the truth, when we take the responsibility.”
To take responsibility and seek reconciliation, Catholics have to be prepared for “some trouble, for some resistance for some suffering,” he said.
Father Williams also called on Catholics to hold sacred every human life.
“At this moment in our church’s history, we have to invite our whole church, the magisterium, our sisters and brothers to truly be a pro-life church — to say that black lives matter, to say that life is sacred not only at conception but at 16, walking around the neighborhood,” he said.
“We have to say life is sacred even when they depend upon food stamps. We have to say life is sacred even when they listen to ungodly music. We have to say life is sacred when somebody is sitting on death row,” he said. “We have to say life is sacred when they are put into the criminal justice system.”
He noted the pastoral letter “Open Wide Your Hearts,” issued by the U.S. bishops in 2018. He called the document “beautifully written” and “theologically magnificent” but he said it was “too nice.”
“It doesn’t issue a lot of challenge for those who follow the prophetic manifesto of Jesus Christ, for those who are trying to make Martin’s dream a reality,” he said.
Despite the continued challenges African Americans face in 2020 in America, Father Williams said he “still believes.”
“I still believe in the manifesto in Luke chapter four. I still believe in Jesus’ Gospel. I still believe in Martin’s dream,” he added. “It is up to people just like you and me to proclaim your faith, to help make Martin’s dream a reality. And no matter the storm, because we are anchored in the Lord, in his Word, in his sacrament, we can do it.”