SAN DIEGO — November is special for African American Catholics.
It’s been designated as Black Catholic History Month, when the contributions of Black saints and martyrs are recognized, and stories are shared about the Black men and women on the road to sainthood.
In the San Diego region, the Diocesan Commission for African American Catholics is planning a month of special homilies to highlight the story of Black Catholics in the U.S., and the role they are playing in today’s Church.
“Many people don’t know this history,” said Richard Stewart, “including African Americans.”
Stewart is the new chair of the commission, founded in the mid-1970s, one of the oldest cultural Catholic organizations in the diocese. African Americans represent about 3 percent of the Catholics in the diocese, according to 2014 data from CARA, a national Catholic research center.
A San Diego native, he is a graduate of St. Jude Catholic School (now closed) and St. Augustine High School. He’s long attended Christ the King Parish, where he’s a member of the gospel choir.
Cultural commissions serve an important role in a multicultural diocese like San Diego.
Each commission serves to highlight the diversity of the Church and the gift of being a diverse, multi-ethnic community. The diocese, meanwhile, works with each commission to support its community and share its faith traditions and celebrations with the larger Catholic community.
The 15 African American commission members have used the beginning of Stewart’s term to review the group’s goals and to chart their events for the next year.
One of them is expanding their efforts to share Black Catholic spirituality with the broader Church, he said.
The commission’s advisor, Deacon Marvin Threatt, explained that this spirituality is borne of enslaved Africans and their descendants, who yearned for deliverance from slavery. They developed their own ways to worship God, expressing their faith through joyful prayer, songs and other rich cultural traditions.
Stewart said that in the current debate about racism in many spheres of life, commission members can share “the sensitivity of who we are as African American Catholics” with the diocese. They can provide advice, particularly in matters of liturgy and social justice, that supports and celebrates African American spirituality.
The Black Catholic presence has traditionally been strongest at three parishes in the diocese — St. Rita, Christ the King, and Holy Spirit — though their ranks have diminished over the years.
Another commission goal is to grow the African American presence at Christ the King Parish, which currently offers one Mass in English and two in Spanish. In the 1970s and 1980s, the parish was home to a vibrant Black community, said Deacon Threatt, whose first assignment after being ordained was at the parish. At the time, four Masses in English and one in Spanish were celebrated there.
“You had to get there early to get a seat,” Deacon Threatt recalled.
He retired from Holy Spirit Parish in June and has returned to Christ the King Church, working with its longtime pastor, Father Tommie Jennings, to re-invigorate the Black Catholic presence there.
The Black population in San Diego County decreased in the last decade by about 1,000 people, according to 2020 Census data, which showed around 145,000 lived here. Their ranks have declined even further in the last 18 months, Deacon Threatt said, which will make it more challenging to attract Black faithful.
“The African American community has been devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.
Stewart said commission members plan to visit Catholic schools to invite young people to attend a parish that celebrates African American faith culture.
Beyond that, they are planning major events through next summer, including the annual Mass to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Call to Service” in January and the Juneteenth Mass.
He stressed that the invitation to experience Black faith traditions is open to everyone, not just African Americans.
He said all the commission’s activities have a single focus.
“Our mission is to evangelize,” Stewart said. “We’re about sharing our gifts that God has given us. Once you have a chance to experience Black Catholic spirituality, perhaps it will touch your heart and it will lead to a deeper understanding.”
More information about the Diocesan Commission for African American Catholics is available at sdcatholic.org/culturaldiversity.
Black Catholic History
Christ the King Parish, 29 32nd St., San Diego 92102, will highlight Black Catholic History in the homilies to be proclaimed in November at its 8:30 a.m. Sunday Mass. The homilists:
Nov. 7: Deacon Robert Booth
Nov. 14: Deacon Marvin Threatt
Nov. 21: Father Tommie “TJ” Jennings (Feast of Christ the King)
Nov. 28: Father Tommie “TJ” Jennings