29 April, 2008

A white seminarian visiting a black churches

Senator Obama's pastor is making headlines again, so I'll mention a few seminary memories regarding African-American churches. There shouldn't be anything controversial here, but I will touch on a few issues regarding what Pastor Wright has been trying to pass off as genetically African.

My first real experience with African-American worship occurred when I volunteered in July 1996 for the Society of Most Holy Trinity (SST) and served in Christ the King parish in Jersey City, New Jersey. If I recall correctly (and maybe I don't) one can see the Statue of Liberty from the second floor on the back of the parish rectory.

At the time, Jersey City had a reputation as one of the most dangerous parts of the country, but I never saw any violence, just a lot of blight. I once walked home (two blocks from the parish) a 10 year-old who was afraid that some other kids would beat him up. I walked back alone. I think the pastor would have been unhappy about that, but nothing befell me.

Aside from that, I didn't get out of the parish unless I was in a car with other people. I worked in the Vacation Bible School, attended Mass, met another (white) volunteer with the Society, and met two seminarians whose notions of theology drove me away from the SST. One of them in particular told me that many theologians now believe in a fourth member of the Trinity called Sofia. I am not making this up; it alarmed me so much that I privately spoke with the pastor about it. The guy was probably yanking my leg, but if so he was extraordinarily good at keeping a straight face.

As a seminarian, I visited several African-American parishes. As an assignment for a class in pastoral practice, I took in a Sunday Mass at St. Sabina's parish in Chicago, where Fr. Pfleger preaches. When I arrived I harbored admiration for Fr. Pfleger. He was known for fighting to get billboards advertising beer and cigarettes out of inner cities, to get his parishioners to stop listening to violent-themed music, as well as a lot of other crusades regarding personal morality. If you look at his webpage you will see that he is immensely creative in his pastoral practices, and I still admire him deeply for this.

I am no Fr. Pfleger, however. When I left St. Sabina's four hours later, however, I was on my way out of seminary. I'll leave that story for another day (if ever), but "four hours" is no exaggeration. Fr. Pfleger's Mass was a long, drawn-out extravaganza with two hours of preaching. Even he couldn't sit through all of it, and left before communion was distributed. He had to catch a plane, so I and my fellow seminarians ended up staying at Mass longer than the priest celebrant!

I also spent a "pastoral weekend" visiting two black churches in other parts of Chicago. This included walking through inner-city Chicago after watching the original Rush Hour in a theater filled with African-Americans. The film was a lot of fun, made more so by the enthusiastic audience.

The walk home was somewhat disconcerting. We received a lot of strange look. At one point, one man started to follow us and sing, "We are the world..." for reasons that I still don't understand, apart from the fact that we were a bunch of white guys following a white priest at night through a reputedly dangerous black neighborhood.

One of the seminarians who fancied himself black on the inside stopped to talk with this man. (This is no smear; he really did fancy himself black on the inside, and harbored no qualms about labeling other seminarians as racists, for no better reason than that they disagreed with him.) The priest ran back from the front of our group and ordered this seminarian to join the rest of us. Later, the same priest told us that someone had been shot there recently. This outraged two of the seminarians who came from farm country. They left seminary at the end of the quarter.

I also visited a majority black parish in Norfolk, Virginia, but I don't have many memories of it, except for its gentlemanly black pastor (see below).

Three things were common among all these African-American parishes. First, they all had a copy of Lead Me Guide Me, the "Black Catholic Hymnal". Second, I never once saw any insanity preached. Fr. Pfleger came close, but I would have remembered it if he had said something as extreme as what Jeremiah Wright has said, e.g. the government created AIDS. Third, white pastors of black churches, such as Fr. Pfleger, go out of their way to act like stereotypical "black" pastors, even when their own parishioners are completely uninterested in that.

I want to emphasize that one line: Even when their own parishioners were uninterested in that.

I'll concede that the parishioners at St. Sabina's noon mass seemed to get a charge out of Fr. Pfleger's approach. At every other parish, however, Masses dominated by older black parishioners were usually relatively calm, except for the white guy in the white robe acting like an idiot. I asked one white priest about this afterwards, in more polite words, of course. He confirmed my impression in words that I never forgot: A lot of the older black Catholics converted to Catholicism because they wanted to get away from that "nonsense" in the black church.

All the African-American priests I have ever seen, by contrast, are very staid and laid-back. They seem to have come from those families that wanted to get away from the noisy black churches.

One of my favorite pastors ever was a retired black priest at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Raleigh, Monsignor Hadden. In a steady, dispassionate voice he routinely gave some of the most spiritual, thoughtful homilies I ever heard. (This, even when I disagreed strongly with what he said, which happened once. I don't recall the topic, but I think it was political.) The current Rector, Msgr. Sherba, is the opposite: a passionate, guitar-playing, five-minute homily priest. Msgr. Sherba is white (and a very good pastor, in my opinion).

Another black pastor I had was at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Health problems moved him away eventually, but he believed strongly in traditional liturgy. He might have said something about America inviting disaster because of abortion, but if so he did it without the theatrics of Jeremiah Wright. I learned later that he also got up and preached, week after week, with knees so bad that he sometimes wept from the pain when no one was watching.

The point of all this is that African-Americans are by no means a monolithic group. There are different cultures within the group, and I suspect that many of them disagree with the ravings of Jeremiah Wright.

I want to add something a comment that I made on Brandon's site a while back. Jeremiah Wright and his defenders may fancy him a prophet for speaking inconvenient truths to power, but he never seems to have done so. Even if he were speaking the truth when he says that the United States perpetrates terrorism on its own citizens, or that the government created AIDS and hands out drugs in order to destroy black people, he has until recently never said them outside the comfort of his own congregation or other like-minded people. They apparently liked what he said, found nothing outrageous in the remarks, and paid him handsomely for it. For all the bad things one can say about the American government—and the Tuskegee Experiments are among the worst of them, although it was not nearly on as grand a scale as, say, the Trail of Tears—it does say something that a man like Jeremiah Wright can say such things about America and not fear for his life. Try doing that in other countries. And none of this takes away from all the good works he may have done. Fr. Pfleger apparently thinks highly of Pastor Wright's works, and that estimation certainly impresses me.

On the other hand, I have known many priests who had no qualms about telling their parishioners things that they did not want to hear, not getting paid highly for it, and receiving as a consequence at least a cold shoulder, and usually something worse. There are many clergy for whom religion is not a business, but a genuine sacrifice. African-Americans are among these. I am quite sure that such clergy exist outside the one, true Catholic faith (I'd say I've know at least one or two Protestant clergymen like this).

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