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Black Lives Matter: Caribbean Theological Perspectives – The US Catholic Church

The Caribbean Theology Conference Today (CTCT) virtual forum Black Lives Matter: Caribbean Theological Perspectives provided the space to interrogate topics related to the theme.

Held Thursday, July 16, the forum attracted a regional and international audience and stimulated lively discussion after the presentations. They were: ‘Reflections of a Catholic Caribbean immigrant in the US South’, Dr Alison Mc Letchie, assistant professor Department of Social Sciences at South Carolina State University; ‘The Anglican Church in Barbados and institutionalised racism’, Rev Dr Sonia Hinds, rector of St Leonard’s Anglican Church, Barbados; and ‘50 years on from Black Power, Do Black Lives Still Matter?’, Fr Stephan Alexander priest in the Archdiocese of Port of Spain. Host was Secretary General of the Antilles Episcopal Conference Fr Donald Chambers of the CTCT Secretariat and co-host Angelo Kurbanali.

Division and Separation

Mc Letchie, a teacher of anthropology and sociology said, “The Church in South Carolina is still deeply segregated or at least, not integrated”. As an undergraduate arriving in the US in 1997, she enquired where the Catholic Church in the area was and the official in charge of international students informed that she did not think there was a Black one. Mc Letchie said, “For the record, there was one but there isn’t any more and that is by design.”

Many dioceses in the south still have “ethnic churches” and the bishop has an office for ethnic ministries responsible for programmes and activities targeting non-white Catholics i.e. African Americans, Native Americans, Asian and Pacific islanders. A separate ministry targets Hispanics. “The idea of division and separation is troubling. My Social Science training can explain it given the history of the United States but as a Catholic, capital and lower-case c it is hard to reconcile.”

Non-whites have been members of the South Carolina church from the earliest settlements. She pointed to the Spanish settlers who baptised Native Americans and Stono slave rebellion 1739 led by Cato, “reputed to have been Catholic”. Mc Letchie mentioned the St James the Greater Church whose Catholics remained faithful in the absence of a priest for 40 years; the bishop was a confederate supporter. She added, “Thousands of African Americans, many non-Catholic, attended Catholic schools especially in the south because their parents wanted them to receive a quality education during the time when schools were still legally segregated.”

As an immigrant Catholic, post Vatican II, she continues to struggle with the Eurocentric, and specifically the “Irish nature of the South Carolina Church”.  In her parish, the South Carolina diocese, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr may be quoted in a sermon but the national holiday dedicated to him has never been acknowledged or celebrated. Black spirituals are hardly sung although they are included in the hymnals.

When she questioned the status quo with American Catholics, the response was many Black Catholics preferred traditional services.  Mc Letchie said, “This in my opinion is an attempt to neutralise issues of race and ethnicity because I have witnessed white and black parishioners get their spirit moving on the rare occasion a spiritual is included”.  Mc Letchie recognised that her parish and US Catholic Church in general were a reflection of the US society. She referenced George Beckford’s Plantation Society model, stating the society was and continues to preserve traditional features of stratification of colour and race, and a “certain degree of integration”. Mc Letchie observed that European culture remains at the centre of the US Church and society and ethnic and racial expressions “are pigeon-holed marginalised or stereotyped”.

White bishops and high profile lay persons verbally attacked the BLM protestors and a Black bishop in a manner Mc Letchie said was too ugly to repeat. She however, noted Church leaders did not publicly “push back”.  It seemed the US Catholic Church had decided “not to engage in any serious way the issues of racism and inequality within its walls and certainly not the wider society”.  With little effort made to engage with the BLM, she commented that African Americans and other minority groups are still seen as part of the Church’s mission work in the society. Mc Letchie said, “Always to be surveilled by white eyes and never to be permitted to share or fully express their cultural practices”.

Read part two of this piece for Caribbean Theological Perspectives on this issue here.

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