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Florida's black Catholics to gather

This first conference is to draw strength and empower themselves while contributing to their church.


© St. Petersburg Times, published June 16, 2000

TAMPA -- Seeking more involvement in parish and diocesan life, Florida's black Roman Catholics will gather today in Tampa for their first statewide meeting. They form a tiny fraction of Florida's 2-million Catholics; their goal is to draw strength and empower themselves in their faith communities.

"I'm hoping for excitement, unity, awareness of our presence in the church," said the Rev. Callist Nyambo, president of the Florida Conference of Offices of Black Catholic Ministry. "People don't realize that we're that strong. Blacks are a minority in the United States, but being Catholic is a smaller minority. But when we go from here, they should feel that they have something to contribute to their church," said Nyambo, who also is pastor of St. Joseph's Catholic Church in St. Petersburg.

About 500 representatives from around the state are expected to attend the three-day conference that will conclude Sunday with a liturgy acknowledging the heritage of believers with Caribbean, African, Latin American and North American roots.

Bishop Robert N. Lynch of the Diocese of St. Petersburg and Bishop John H. Ricard of the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee are expected to attend the meeting. Ricard is the state's only black bishop.

Florida's estimated 30,000 black Catholics face many of the same concerns of Catholics everywhere. However, blacks make up a very small percentage of the faithful, about 2.3-million of the country's 62-million Catholics. The number of Hispanic Catholics, meanwhile, is multiplying.

Black Catholics continually have fought for inclusion of their culture in church rituals, encountered obstacles as they have tried to evangelize their own and bemoaned the small number of black clergy. Leaders also have called for more black involvement in parish and diocesan life and found it difficult to get an accurate count of the black Catholic community.

"If you are going to be effective in a parish serving a particular ethnic group, there ought to be a person of that ethnic group in a leadership position," said Hilbert Stanley, executive director of the National Black Catholic Congress in Baltimore.

It is not that non-black priests cannot do the job, he added.

"A large number of those pastors are very effective because they have been very deliberate in learning the history and culture of African-American people, but if you don't make that effort, there is a gap," Stanley said.

The Rev. Robert Schneider of Holy Family Catholic Church in St. Petersburg has few black parishioners but plans to attend this weekend's meeting.

"This conference is not just for black people," he said.

"Just education and being aware of different cultures is something we need to work on. Education is the key," said Schneider, who last year invited American Indian Catholics to hold their first statewide meeting at his church.

Stanley also addressed the problem of evangelizing to fellow blacks.

"There are many people who look upon the Catholic church as a white church," he said.

"When you invite non-Catholics to Mass, if all they see is sitting down and standing up, that's not what we (African Americans) are used to. So music is a form of worship that's important and preaching is a form of worship that is important. The National Black Catholic Congress wants to help people who work in ministry in African-American parishes to relate to the history, the culture and the values of black people. . . . We have a long way to go, but we've come a long way."

Black Catholicism in the United States goes back to the 1565 founding of St. Augustine, the nation's oldest city. Freed black Catholic slaves lived in a settlement on the outskirts of the city.

The group's battle for recognition dates back to 1889, when black church leaders begged to have their needs addressed.

Still, black Catholics acknowledge improvements. A black Catholic Hymnal was introduced in the 1980's. Some liturgical vestments reflect black culture.

To Yvonne L. Nellum, assistant director for the Diocese of St. Petersburg's Office for Black Catholic Ministries, the changes have been noticeable.

"I'm a cradle Catholic, raised in the South in the '40's," said Mrs. Nellum, a Louisiana native who attends St. Peter Claver Catholic Church in Tampa, the only predominantly African-American parish in the diocese.

"I have seen things change. The diocese here and the other dioceses do welcome the gifts of all cultures," she said.

Even so, black Catholics still strive to make their presence felt. The Florida gathering will offer workshops on networking, black music and how to teach the church's beliefs in an afrocentric way.

It is important that black culture be incorporated into worship, Nyambo said.

"When you come to an African American people sing a lot. I celebrate what I am. . . . I don't want to celebrate like a Norwegian any more than a Norwegian would want to celebrate like me."

Yet, Nyambo adds a word of caution.

"At the same time, black Catholics are Catholic. Liturgy is sacred. You can bring in all your culture and also realize that culture influences the way you pray, but we have these basics that are sacred."

Black Catholics, meanwhile, are jockeying for position with other minority church members. The National Association of Black Catholic Administrators is concerned about a growing trend to merge black Catholic offices with those of other minorities.

"I think when you have limited resources, there is going to be rivalry for those limited resources," said Joe Powell, president of the organization.

In the St. Petersburg Diocese, which covers Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Citrus and Hernando counties, the number of Hispanics is estimated to be about 170,000, said Deacon John Sierra of the diocese's Apostolate to the Hispanics. Black Catholics make up only about 3,000 of the 365,277 Catholics in the diocese.

Gatherings like this weekend's serve as a reinforcement for black Catholics, Powell said.

"Blacks are really in a minority in the Catholic church," he said. "You can feel isolated. By having gatherings, you can meet with others of similar minds. You can get support."

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