The rhythmic pounding of drums and the strains of gospel singing echoed through the Baltimore Convention Center yesterday as African-American Catholics from across the country began arriving for a weekend celebration of their faith and culture.
The eighth meeting of the National Black Catholic Congress, an event held every five years, is convening in Baltimore through Sunday. The NBCC represents the 2 million African-American Roman Catholics in the United States.
"We want to spread the good news of Jesus Christ and let people know that the Catholic Church can be home for people of African descent," said Hilbert D. Stanley, executive director of the Baltimore-based organization.
"We're black, and we can maintain our identity as blacks while remaining Catholic," he said.
The first Black Catholic Congress was held in January 1889 in Washington, where the 200 delegates met with President Grover Cleveland. Other congresses followed about every one or two years until 1894, when a meeting held in Baltimore was the last for 93 years.
The congress was reconvened in Washington in 1987 under the leadership of former Baltimore Bishop John H. Ricard, now bishop of the Pensacola-Tallahassee diocese, who remains the NBCC president. Five years later, the congress met in New Orleans and passed a series of public policy and pastoral statements focusing on issues ranging from welfare policy to promoting African-American family life.
This year, the congress returns to Baltimore. "The last congress in the 19th century was in Baltimore," Stanley said. "We came back here because this is the last congress in the 20th century, and we want to make a statement that we're here to stay."
Unlike past congresses, this meeting will focus on celebration. A highlight will be tomorrow'sdedication of the Our Mother of Africa Chapel at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington.
The chapel, located in the crypt below the main sanctuary, was built through an endowment fund sponsored by the NBCC and the nation's African-American bishops that raised more than $2.4 million.
This morning, Cardinal Francis Arinze, who was born in Nigeria and serves as president of the Vatican's Pontifical Council on Interreligious Dialogue, will deliver a keynote address. Arinze has been a key figure in the ecumenical dialogue between Roman Catholics and Muslims.
In recent years, African-American Catholics have tried to incorporate cultural expressions into their liturgies, including singing gospel hymns, using brightly colored Kente cloth for clergy vestments and using a preaching style more common in black Protestant churches.
People arriving for the congress yesterday said it was that common heritage that they look forward to sharing this weekend.
"I want to rub elbows with other black Catholics in the country," said Troy Major, who described himself as "an overworked parish member" from Milwaukee.
Three women from Louisville, Ky., were sporting green T-shirts proclaiming, "I love my African-American roots" on one side and "Catholic and Proud" on the back.
One of the women, Sister Dorothy Jackson, S.C.N., said being black and Catholic is no innovation. In the early days of the church, she noted, one of its most important centers was in North Africa. "We've been here since the very beginning," she said.
Pub Date: 8/29/97