On Being Black, Catholic and Philadelphian

Thernell Oakman
Our Lady of Hope Catholic Church

Black Catholic History Month has emerged at a time in Philadelphia’s history that appears to challenge our sensibilities. Black Catholics have migrated to Philadelphia from the American South, the Caribbean, and Africa to create a kettle of cultures. Many of these cultures bring with them a Black perspective on Catholicism that firstly, embodies their rich traditions and merges with an existing rich African American culture, already rooted in Philadelphia’s traditions. Out of the 270 million black Catholics worldwide, 3 million reside in the United States. Some of the 21,000 Black Catholics in the Philadelphia region make up many of the 16 predominately Black parishes. It is in these parishes that we often hear French spoken from the islands or at the same time, we can pause to hear Spanish dialects from South America, and many other languages, all spoken in the same room.

Historically, Philadelphia has been built on a framework of religious freedoms that were passed down from its’ Quaker founder, William Penn. Penn and other Quaker leaders believed that everyone had to seek God in his or her own way. Pope Francis in his 2015 speech at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall proclaimed, “The Quakers who founded Philadelphia were inspired by a profound evangelical sense of the dignity of each individual and the ideal of a community united by brotherly love. This conviction led them to found a colony which would be a haven of religious freedom and tolerance.” This religious tolerance opened the door or Richard Allen in 1794 when he started the Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first A.M.E. Church in America. This religious tolerance paved the way for former slaves, Jamaicans, West Indians, Portuguese, among others, to open St. Peter Claver Parish, as a church and school for Black Catholics in Philadelphia.

Black Catholics in Philadelphia are from the threads of diverse Black cultures sown into the “cross stitch” of African American life — in our pews, at our Masses, in our parishes. We can hear the call of our forefathers through the words etched on the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore./ Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:/ I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” These words echo in the hearts and minds of each Black emigre, as they are absorbed into the African-American milieu, another thread in the fabric of the Black Catholic embroidery.

Lastly, it is the teachings of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, that provides the bedrock that anchors our beliefs as Black Catholics to a rich tradition of worship steeped in our Philadelphian ancestry. His presence is the only constant in an ever-changing political and cultural environment. His Word allows us to be Black Catholics in this American Catholic framework today; first as a mecca for religious freedom then as a destination for those pursuing a better life.