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Reaching Out With Soul

* Black Catholics seek to invigorate the church--and draw more African Americans in--with an emphasis on preaching and fervent worship.


Drums beat, the gospel choir praised God and kente cloth draped the small altar in brilliant hues of orange, yellow and burgundy.

Then, in African tradition, the speaker called on the wisdom of ancestors to nourish the congregation.

Had the speaker calling on the ancestors not been Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, it would have been difficult to tell that this gathering was a Catholic one.

The recent two-day "Big Tent" revival was part of a national effort by African American Catholic leaders to evangelize the black community. Not surprisingly, the most common reaction from those inside the tent was: "This isn't the Catholic Church I grew up in."

Church officials acknowledge that African American Catholics have long resided on the cultural margins of the church. So the local and national efforts to win their hearts are as much social and cultural endeavors as religious ones. The drums and gospel choir were meant to signal that the church is capable of relaxing a perceived rigidity that has left some black Catholics disenchanted.

"We need to look at new ways, as African American Catholics, to invite our brothers to be a part of this church," said Father Charles Andrus, director of the Catholic Church's African American Evangelization Center in Los Angeles and primary organizer of the Big Tent revival. To Andrus, that means old-fashioned pounding the pavement.

"We need to keep those who already are there feeling empowered to stay, but reach out to those who are hooked on drugs and who are lost with hopelessness, who have no sense of belonging and to welcome them in."

So with a banner on the side of his truck and a bullhorn in hand, Andrus was rolling through South-Central L.A. in the days before the revival.

"Come on and take some time out of your busy lives," he called out to passersby. "Be empowered by the word of God! This powerful message is being preached by powerful and anointed preachers, so come on out and have an anointed experience under the big tent."

From 41 parishes throughout the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, from the South Bay and Orange County, the San Fernando Valley and Riverside, hundreds of African American Catholics converged under that tent at Verbum Dei High School in Watts last month. They savored the rare intersection of their faith and their culture.

In olden times, folks across the South would walk for miles to hear good preaching, carrying tin pails of cold spoon bread and maple syrup, fried ham and biscuits for supper. With few if any churches in which to worship, newly freed slaves and their children would come together under a tent, taking a break to eat, and resuming worship into the evening.

"African American spirituality had its birth in the struggle against slavery," and those roots mean that worship is typically grounded in celebration and praise, Andrus said. The black religious experience emphasizes hope rather than sin and guilt and focuses on future redemption rather than past wrongs. As a result, African American Catholics pull double duty--evangelizing not only to the broader black community, but to their church itself.

About 2 million African Americans--7% of blacks--are estimated to be Catholic, including about 350 priests. In the Los Angeles Archdiocese there are 12 black priests and one seminarian who is finishing his studies in Washington, D.C.

Many Los Angeles-area blacks would say the Catholic Church has adapted beautifully to its ever-growing Latino population, but has never committed itself to making church more home-like for African Americans.

"I used to go to a church in the Valley where at the end of every service the priest would address 'Latino' and 'Anglo' brothers and sisters," said Sandra Smith, 57, of Reseda. "Finally I went up to him at the end of one service and said: 'Now, do I look Anglo to you? You have a very diverse congregation. It's multicultural; it's not just Anglo and Latino.' "

Hilbert Stanley, executive director of the Baltimore-based National Black Catholic Congress, offers another nuance.

"In our case, when Mass was in Latin and the priest would have his back to the people, well all that gave it a European sense, and blacks didn't feel comfortable. But since [the modernizing influence of the 1960s-era] Vatican II, there have been so many changes and we've been working to promote preaching and hospitality. We're really making strides."

The stronger emphasis on preaching, letting the sermon take precedence over ritual, is actually part of a larger trend across Christianity, some scholars say.

"What black Catholics are saying they demand is in fact what almost everybody's demanding," said Henry H. Mitchell, author of "Celebration and Experience in Preaching" and co-author of "Soul Theology."

"We've got to quit talking about what black folk require as unique to black people," he said. "Their demand may be more consciously articulated, but Western culture is entirely too" cerebral. "People are not saved by what they know. They are saved by what they believe."

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