By Limeteze Pierre-Gilles SSND
I began to pray from the moment I knew I was going to attend the National Black Catholic Congress. I came up with a list of the typical prayer intentions. I prayed for the organizers, the presenters, the attendees, young and not so young; I prayed for healing from the wounds of racism and an end to racism; I prayed that the Congress would be a transformative spiritual experience of love for everyone. Somehow my prayer list didn’t seem to be enough. It seemed to be lacking. Then one morning, I decided I would simply pray for love. I prayed that we, all of us, would become aware that we are love, not Black or White, gay or straight, rich or poor, just love. I prayed that we would know, deep in our hearts, that we are all created with love, for love and to love. So, with only one prayer intention in my heart, I walked into the Gaylord Resort and Convention Center in Maryland on July 20, 2023 to attend my first National Black Catholic Congress.
As people began to arrive and were heading to the registration desk, I immediately knew I was in a Black space, a space where Black Catholics moved gracefully and were happy to see and be with each other, a space where no interpretation was needed, a space where many common denominators are shared by each Black person present, most notably, suffering endured just by the nature of being Black. It was a space filled with hopes and dreams and prayers for a world free of racism and a better future for our youth. This Black space was marked by a striking portrait of the Black Madonna and Child placed in several locations that greeted each one of us who moved around the convention center. Each time that I saw the portrait of the Black Madonna and Child, I was invited to pause, reflect, and pray for all of us to be aware that we were made for love.
I prayed that the prayers of 3,000 Black Catholics representing over 80 dioceses in the United States would become a single prayer for love. With all of us present, including many Black Religious Women representing the National Black Sisters Conference, I participated in the daily celebration of the Eucharist, gave praise to God with an amazing gospel choir, listened from the heart, and continued to pray for love.
A prominent space at the Congress was a blue curtain behind the main stage that held 6 large banners, depicting the 6 Black women and men in the process of being recognized as Saints: Henriette DeLille, Augustus Tolton, Mother Mary Lange, Pierre Toussaint, Sister Thea Bowman, and Mother Julie Greeley. They and countless Black ancestors were visionaries who answered the prophetic call to thrive even as they bore witness with an unshakable faith and spirituality to all Black people who suffered and continue to suffer from the evil of racism. I could imagine them envisioning a world where, one day, hate would no longer be the norm and love would be the way we live with each other.
At first glance, the theme of Congress XIII, “Write the Vision: A Prophetic Call to Thrive”, didn't seem to have anything to do with racism, and yet the topic of racism was present in all the talks, the keynote addresses, the homilies, the breakout sessions, and was even expressed in our very presence together in one space. The 6 Black Catholics soon to be canonized are examples of how we, Black people, can still thrive despite constantly being entangled by the dehumanizing, evil, and murderous rope of racism. Our young Black people too are thriving. A great number of them attended and participated in the activities of Congress XIII. I pray for a kinder and gentler society that will support their dreams and visions to continue to thrive in love.
Congress XIII offered many breakout sessions with a variety of topics for both adults and youth. I attended several and heard from other participants that the sessions they attended were meaningful opportunities that offered them tools to continue to thrive both personally and in their ministries. I am still thinking and praying about one session in particular: “Synodality, Black Catholic Spirituality, and the Racial Divide” facilitated by Daryl Grigsby. Grisby explained that White Protestant Evangelicals are the most likely to accept or interpret current police misconduct against Black and Brown people as non-racial, followed statistically by white mainline Protestants. White Catholics were not far behind. White religiously unaffiliated persons are much less racist in these regards than either Protestants or Catholics. This reality didn't offer me much consolation. I don’t think I will ever understand how we can be both religious and racist at the same time. I keep praying that someday our worshiping of the same God, confessing the same faith, and consuming the same Body of Christ at the same Eucharistic Table will translate into Love, Love that the world cannot give.
This was my prayer before attending Congress XIII, and continues to be my prayer. My invitation to each of us is to continue to pray for a world free of racism, hate and violence and to work for policies that honor the dignity of the whole person no matter color, ethnicity, nationality, social status, education, or sexual orientation. Let us continue to pray and work for love, love that embraces all, love that gives everything.