Out of the Ashes, Justice and Peace
25 years of the National Association of Black Catholic Deacons
“Are they all Catholic?” asked my wide-eyed daughter. We’d never encountered so many black clergy and religious until visiting Atlanta in 1996 and stumbling upon an amazing black Catholic prayer service. At their reception, after conversing with someone, I turned to leave and said, “Thank you, Father.” He responded, “Oh, I’m not a priest; I’m a deacon!” I asked, “What’s a deacon?” He explained and added that he was married. I thought, “Wait, could I be like him … a deacon?”
Unfortunately, I learned that at that time the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, did not have a deacon formation program. I prayed to God: “Whatever a deacon is, if you want me to be one, please create a deacon program in this diocese.” Several years later, my then-pastor announced that our diocese had created a program, and he had submitted my name. Ask and ye shall receive!
Without that event in Atlanta, would I be a deacon? My all-white classmates looked more the part of Catholic clergy I knew, and they were closer politically and socio-economically to each other than they were to my wife and me. Still, remembering that black deacon in Atlanta sustained me through early doubts. Moreover, as we ate, studied and prayed together, we grew surprisingly close — like brothers and, for the wives, sisters. In 2011, we became the first diocesan deacons in 28 years, and I became the only African-American clergy in our diocese.
Black Servant in a White Church
I was assigned to St. Augustine — a diverse, historically black parish in South Bend — where I hoped to evangelize our struggling black community. While supportive, parishioners knew nothing about deacons. Some whites reluctantly called me “Deacon,” though they readily called our white pastor “Father.” Some blacks resented my photo on the parish clergy wall: “That wall is for clergy!” Ears unaccustomed to black expression implied that only white preaching was right preaching. My homilies were considered good, but too long, too Protestant or too black. The more my wife and I embraced our heritage, the more some resisted. I asked God, “Is it possible to be authentically black in the Catholic Church?” We prayed for guidance — and sanity!
Of course, race has been a thorny issue for our nation. Indeed, slavery is called the original sin of America. Its legacies — including white supremacy, discrimination and overt as well as institutional racism — continually wreak havoc on the American ideal to be “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Despite progress, racial concupiscence tempts us back to the same old quagmire.
That the sin of racial discrimination taints the Church should not surprise us. In Acts 4:32-34, “The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common [and] there was not a needy person among them.” By Acts 6:1, Greek Christians complained that Hebrew Christians were “neglecting their widows in the daily distribution.” Did God create deacons merely because apostles were overworked, or was it to counter discrimination as the Church encountered diversity? All seven deacons were selected from the oppressed community to safeguard its needs. Perhaps it’s why deacons often led the Church out to the neglected periphery of society — for example, Samaritan, Ethiopian, etc. What is a deacon? God’s secret weapon to combat systemic discrimination. Therefore, it may not be coincidence that the re-establishment of the diaconate vocation 50 years ago arose from the ashes of one of the 20th century’s most egregious manifestations of racial, ethnic and religious cleansing: Hitler’s concentration camps of World War II. Similarly, given November is National Black Catholic History Month, it is worth noting that the Church marks special anniversaries this year of the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus (50th) and the National Association of Black Catholic Deacons (25th).
The Origins of NBCCC and NABCD
On April 4, 1968, when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, our nation erupted with riots. Black Catholic clergy, struggling for meaning and relevance, felt the Church was neglecting their concerns, including racial discrimination in the Church — in its magisterium, its pews, its institutions and its seminaries — and the growing black abandonment of the Church.
That April, before a conference for priests, black Catholic clergy caucused and released a statement calling the U.S. Church “a white racist institution [that] has addressed itself primarily to white society.” To become relevant to the black community, the caucus challenged the Church to practice Gospel principles “in the area of institutional, attitudinal and societal change.” Of special significance, they proposed “that black men … be ordained permanent deacons to aid in this work of the Church.” Yet again, deacons (from among the oppressed) were the proposed solution to systemic discrimination in the Church.
Shortly thereafter, the U.S. Catholic Church began ordaining deacons — including African-Americans — and more black priests and bishops. The first black deacons arose in Chicago in 1972: William Barker, James Flewellen, Leroy Lilly, Anthony Lorenz and Joseph Louis. Deacons brought the Gospel into the streets, prisons, schools and relationships; and they brought such relevant life experiences into the preached word. They creatively infused liturgy with black culture. Some joined the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus (NBCCC), including its annual joint conferences with the National Black Sisters Conference and the National Association of Black Catholic Seminarians.
When the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB, now USCCB) created a Committee on the Diaconate, it had members from other groups, including the National Association of Hispanic Deacons, and encouraged black deacons to organize in order to get official representation, too. In 1991, led by Deacon Jasper Roy, African-American deacons in Chicago hosted a national conference that planted the seed for a national black Catholic deacon organization.
In 1993, Deacon Fred Mason of Chicago held a charter meeting just prior to the annual joint conference to establish the National Association of African-American Catholic Deacons (NAAACD). This caught NBCCC priests and brothers off guard. They did not want deacons to separate. Hence, while deacons did create a distinct organization, in practice they continued to serve as concurrent members of NBCCC. Meanwhile, NAAACD obtained seats on the NCCB Committee for the Diaconate for a deacon and a deacon’s wife. In 2010, NAAACD changed its name to the National Association of Black Catholic Deacons (NABCD) to reflect inclusion of U.S. members from the broader African diaspora (Jamaica, for example).
Due to NABCD’s organizing, deacons learned about and grew active in the NBCCC, too. Deacon Dunn Cumby even served as NBCCC president. Involvement in the National Association of Diaconate Directors (NADD), the National Diaconate Institute for Continuing Education (NDICE) and the bishops’ Committee on the Diaconate helped NABCD identify and support newly ordained black deacons. The USCCB recently eliminated the latter committee; nevertheless, the NABCD remains active.
NABCD Mission and Accomplishments
The mission of the NABCD is to promote unity among black Catholic deacons, to further the professional and spiritual growth of members, to proactively promote the spiritual development of black Catholic families and to develop and nurture relationships with the National Black Catholic Congress, the NBCCC and (until eliminated) the bishops’ Committee on the Diaconate.
Activities include an annual service activity, a prayer for black men and vocations (prayed throughout November during Black Catholic History Month), continuing education workshops, support for the National Black Catholic Apostolate for Life, and ministry to U.S. Catholic communities of the African diaspora. The NABCD also established the Deacon John Steward Award for Diaconal Service (1996) and the Rita McKnight Award for Courage for deacon wives (2005). Moreover, it encourages black deacon involvement in NADD, NDICE and in local diocesan activities. NABCD sponsored and provided three workshop presenters for the NADD 50th Diaconate Congress in New Orleans this summer.
Finding Belonging, Meeting Needs
Through NABCD, God answered my prayers for guidance. During a joint conference in Chicago, we visited an area where drugs and violence were destroying black families. Curious children biked alongside as we, the black clergy and religious of the Church, along with white allies, marched through the streets in song, prayer and vestments and then into a church for Mass — an ebullient explosion of black Catholic liturgy and faith that showcased everything we had been striving to do in South Bend! Inhibitions fell as priests and deacons danced and clapped their way up the aisles. Joy permeated everything!
At the conference, I learned about the NABCD’s regional coordinators. Clergy, religious and wives discussed issues and best practices relevant to the black community: youth, vocations, racism and health care. Through mutual affirmation, we fostered openness and growth. We closed with priests and nuns dancing into the night. Never had I seen clergy and religious let down their guard to just have fun! I returned home glorifying God with a renewed sense of grace, hope and belonging.
Go Forth, Deacons
God forged deacons in the crucible of discrimination. All deacons understand what it means to be neglected or marginalized. Who better to serve as ambassadors of peace and justice?
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As the eyes and ears of our bishops, let deacons go to the margins in search of lost sheep. At Mass, mindful of these experiences, deacons must call the Church to mercy, to pray for the needy, to signify peace and to go forth as missionaries of the Gospel!
DEACON MEL TARDY is an academic adviser at the University of Notre Dame and is a member of the National Association of Black Catholic Deacons, the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus and the John S. Marten Program in Homiletics & Liturgics at Notre Dame.