St. Augustine's confessions: the small and big struggles and victories that shape the life of one prominent black Catholic parish.
There was a time when going to Mass meant a pleasant stroll of a few blocks up the slight incline where the cathedral-like church rests at 15th and V streets. Those days are no more. Her legs won't cooperate. Still, every Sunday, whether a friend picks her up or she calls a cab, Mother Jones is there to claim her piece of the pew. "Everybody knows where I sit," she says. "At 93, I have to stretch my legs out. The people around me see to that."
The people around Jones see to much more than that. Collectively, they are her children, St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church, the oldest predominantly black Catholic church in Washington, D.C.
With numerous ministries stretching far beyond the church walls, the love parishioners show to Jones and to all of their elders can't be measured. It's a wonder they find the time to shower their doyennes with such affection, given St. Augustine's full slate of activities.
The sun peeks through the morning clouds to find Jones making her way to the church side door, like a spotlight finding its star.
Don't be fooled by her cane. Mother Jones' spirit is as vibrant as the parish that's been her home away from home for nine decades.
This summer, from August 29 to September 1, Jones and several other parishioners plan to join hundreds of black Catholics in Chicago for the ninth National Black Catholic Congress. Under the theme "Black Catholic Leadership in the 21st Century: Solidarity in Action," the congress will tackle eight issues confronting black Catholic churches: spirituality, parish life, youth and young adults, Catholic education, social justice, racism, Africa, and HIV/AIDS. These issues have surfaced from the 1,100 U.S. parishes that have a predominantly black membership.
Often referred to as the "Mother Church of Black Catholics," St. Augustine's served as the site of the first National Black Catholic Congress in 1889--31 years after the founding of the school and chapel that in 1876 became St. Augustine Parish.
The struggles and victories of the parish are the stuff of books. In fact, a book was written about the parish: The Emergence of a Black Catholic Community: St. Augustine's in Washington by Morris MacGregor (Catholic University of America Press). The book's jacket is a collection of historical parish photos--from a portrait of a family whose parents were married at St. Augustine's in 1888 to a snapshot of former Washington Mayor Marion Barry leaning in to listen to the advice of a gray-haired lady. That lady is Pauline Jones.
You can come home again!
This Sunday Mother Jones has come to the 10 o'clock Mass to hear her godson, Lin Thomas, lead the prayer intentions. Slowly, she makes her way to her pew. Thomas, 50, was "raised up" at St. Augustine's. He remembers how impressed he used to be by the size of the huge church building and by the brevity of the Mass.
"You go to Baptist churches and you'll be there all day," Thomas says. "But the Catholic Church: 8 o'clock to 8:45, boom. We were in and out."
As a young adult, Thomas left the Catholic Church. After the death of both of his parents, he tried other churches like bowls of porridge until, six years ago, he found his way back to St. Augustine's. He found a church that prayed in English and sang gospel-style songs and respected different lifestyles. St. Augustine's was different; it no longer seemed large and imposing; it looked smaller, more manageable. And, he says, it was a heck of a lot more fun.
"When I came back, I couldn't tell if it was a Baptist church or a Pentecostal church or what," he says of the music ministry. The vitality of the music helped ease his first visits back. But it was more than singing from Lead Me, Guide Me, the hymnal found in most black Catholic churches and to which former St. Augustine music minister Leon Roberts was a major contributor.
"After walking through the fires of hell," Thomas says, "I was welcomed back with open arms."
Finally at her pew, Jones gets a big hug from Thomas. Jones sits in her place, next to one of the cathedral-style church's huge cream-colored front columns. She takes off her gloves.
There was a time, she remembers, when most ladies wore gloves to church. That was when black Catholics were all but invisible to Catholic leaders, and their church buildings across the country were bought and sold to the highest bidder. It was also a time before HIV/AIDS ripped through places like St. Augustine's.
The morning Mass marks a change in both areas.
Balm in Gilead
Thomas, cochair of the parish's HIV/AIDS ministry, is pleased that Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the archbishop of Washington, has agreed to celebrate the Mass. Sponsored by the parish's HIV/AIDS ministry, the Mass marks National Black Church Week for the Healing of AIDS.
The church sings, "There Is a Balm in Gilead."
"This is one of my favorite hymns," Jones says of the song about healing the wounded and making them whole.
The Balm in Gilead is also the name of a national organization that educates black churches about HIV and AIDS and assists them in HIV/AIDS ministries. The group wants to tear down the walls of fear, intolerance, and stereotypes about people living with HIV/AIDS. The stigma of its possible ties to homosexuality, promiscuity, drug use, or adultery can be too much for some black churches to move beyond.
But St. Augustine's is neither a typical black church nor a typical Catholic church. It continues to be an archetypical black Catholic church, heavy with social and personal activities, that understands that outreach in areas like HIV/AIDS ministry can break down false notions of what it means to be black and what it means to be Catholic.
At times, being both black and Catholic can be rich with the insight of being a minority within a minority group. In other situations there are clear restrictions. Before the Mass, ushers quickly confiscate an HIV/AIDS ministry handout when a parish member who works for the archdiocese discovers that it hasn't been reviewed or approved by archdiocesan officials.
The mission of St. Augustine's HIV/ AIDS ministry is to extend to the parish and broader community pastoral counseling, home and hospital visitation, referrals, and community services. The skittishness this morning appears to come from the inclusion of "HIV/AIDS prevention education" in the ministry's list of services and the concern about whether that's done in accordance with church teaching.
In his work as a clinic counselor, Thomas advises clients about all of the options available to them. But when he represents St. Augustine's, his lips are zipped on the subject of condoms. The church of his childhood has changed, but not completely.
Still, Thomas is upbeat, optimistic, and a committed Catholic. "I know the church's position," he says. "I think people should learn where we, as Catholics, stand on this issue."
Thomas recalls the ministry's first Mass. The congregation turned out to be mostly seniors. The pastor asked them, if they had a family member, friend, or coworker with HIV or AIDS, to call out that person's name. After a brief, uncomfortable silence came an avalanche of names.
"I was taken aback," Thomas says. "From these women with gray hair names just kept coming down." More than 40 of those names were added to the Names Project AIDS Quilt.
From young to old
From its beginnings 144 years ago, this parish was designed to welcome black Catholics. It was founded by emancipated black Catholics who wanted more than to just be tolerated at churches that made them feel less than fully Catholic.
A document prepared for the Black Catholic Congress on the topic of parish life states, "Black Catholics must assume greater responsibility for the welfare of the parish communities to which they belong." At the same time "the church must provide the resources and opportunities for them to contribute and develop their talents and leadership for the good of the entire church."
It later notes that, "because persons of African descent often live and worship in areas ravaged by violence and economic distress, we look to our parishes to be oases of hope in the midst of despair."
But how do you even find out about a black parish that gradually finds itself bordered by less than desirable elements? In Gloria Purvis' case, open up a copy of Essence magazine.
In 1992 Purvis, a South Carolinian, made the move north to Silver Spring, Maryland. Five years later, while reading at her hair salon, she came across an Essence article on black mega-churches that mentioned St. Augustine's. The references to the parish history and its size intrigued her.
"It made me want to see if the church had a lot of ministries and fellowshipping. I thought it would be good to get involved," she says. "Some ministries here had gone a little dormant. Others, like young adult ministry, were just starting again. Now that's really thriving."
The parish's pro-life ministry, Purvis says, needed resuscitation, linking issues of capital punishment, abortion, and bioethics. "At that time," Purvis says, "programs like the Gabriel Project just weren't here."
The Gabriel Project's public calling card is a placard in the parish yard that boldly proclaims, "The members of this church see in the birth of each baby a fresh expression of God's unfailing love." Today it supports 19 women and 22 babies.
Ministries like the Gabriel Project are important in the African American community, says Purvis, who now directs St. Augustine's social justice ministries.
"Abortion has ravaged our community," Purvis says. "We'd like to increase enrollment [at our school], but where are the black children? We'd like to have more black priests, but where are the black boys? When you stand outside of abortion clinics in this area," she says, "you see those missing brown faces going inside."
After Mass, Mother Jones heads to the church basement to join fellow members of St. Augustine's Sodality, to which she has belonged for 74 years.
"You can really see the history of this church in its sodality," says Margaret DeVane, who last year was elected its prefect. "People like Mrs. Jones make my years look minuscule," DeVane says. "Part of our mission, along with service, is to tell our story."
Members of a parish teen CCD program chose the sodality for a project to record a personal history of the church.
Falone Amoa, 14, visited the sodality. "It's easy to get involved here," she says. "All you have to do is raise your voice." She already is, participating in the young adult choir, and in the past, as lector and altar server. "The parish feels like home," Amoa says. "No matter who you are, when you come here, you feel welcomed."
The gifts of blackness
Parish life is more than having a variety of activities to offer parishioners. It's also a matter of finding the right tone to set for the mission of the parish. In many instances, that depends on who's sitting in the pews.
Early drafts of the Black Catholic Congress' parish life plank acknowledge that the people in the pews are changing. "The composition of the parishes to which black Catholics belong varies greatly. In some, we are the majority.... In others, we are part of a diverse multicultural and multiethnic faith community," the document states. "In whatever parish setting we find ourselves, black Catholics have both the privilege and the duty to take an active part in parish life."
St. Augustine's holds true to that principle of privilege and duty, even as its neighborhood and reputation as a leading church in D.C. attracts a diverse pool of prospective parishioners. On Sundays, it is not unusual to see small but growing numbers of white and Hispanic Catholics. Some are students from Georgetown University or the Catholic University of America; others are families drawn by St. Augustine's style of worship.
Privately, some black parishioners worry about a wave of younger, white members taking the parish in a less African- or African American-centered direction. Like countless other churches, there has been a struggle here few want to discuss--less about egos than about identity.
The increased gentrification around St. Augustine's is not all good, parishioners contend. Black people, they say, are being priced out of the area surrounding the historic church. An influx of newer, white faces sing and pray in spaces once occupied by parishioners lost to "black flight" to the suburbs. Purvis makes the drive from Silver Spring to St. Augustine's, but she is an exception.
At St. Augustine's, the importance of its continuing black Catholic identity is celebrated, among other places, in a stained-glass window produced 12 years ago by Akili Ron Anderson. A black mother clasps the hands of her bearded son--they are Saints Monica and Augustine.
"We are, have been, and will remain authentically Catholic and authentically black," says Father Charles C. Green, associate pastor. "The Roman liturgy is adaptable to all cultures to showcase gifts and talents. Here we showcase our gifts of blackness."
"The Catholic Church alone can break the color line. Our people should help her do it." These words were written in 1886 by author, lecturer, and activist Daniel Rudd.
In 1889 Rudd joined lay black Catholics and religious leaders for a four-day gathering to discuss ways to improve their status within the Catholic Church in America. Those who attended this historic event, called by Rudd, also met at the White House with President Grover Cleveland. This "First Colored Catholic Congress" was held at St. Augustine's.
The black Catholics assembled there identified areas that needed improvement: decent and affordable housing, vocational training, access to join unions, and the formation of Catholic schools. Calls to U.S. bishops to end discriminatory practices quickly followed in subsequent congresses.
Eight congresses and 113 years later, racism is still an issue for black Catholics. On the surface, there have been positive changes. Father Augustus Tolton, the celebrant of the Mass at the first congress and the first recognized black Catholic priest in the U.S., had to study for the priesthood in Rome because American seminaries denied him entry. Today the elected head of the body of U.S. bishops is a black Catholic, Bishop Wilton Gregory of the Diocese of Belleville, Illinois.
At St. Augustine's, it took 133 years before the parish would be led by its first black pastor, Msgr. Russell L. Dillard. In his book on the parish, MacGregor notes how the parish council communicated to the archdiocese the importance of appointing a black priest to the church.
Examples of racism in the story of black churches like St. Augustine's can't be separated from other parts of the parish's life. Racism isn't a mere section of the story, it is the story. Racism is more than a sin to be absolved. It has left, and still sometimes leaves, indelible marks on the souls of black Catholic folk.
Nkosi sikelel' iAfrika
"Free South Africa!" The push against apartheid during the 1980s that captured the imagination of many African Americans, including black Catholics, took root at St. Augustine's in ways that branched out into the Washington archdiocese.
A ministry focused on issues related to Africa and the African diaspora drew in people from other parishes, including Jacqueline Wilson, executive director of the Washington archdiocese's Office of Black Catholics.
"Way back when Mandela was imprisoned, St. Augustine's was a leader in the support of the anti-apartheid movement," she says. "They even had a sister parish in Soweto. When Mandela was released, there was a great celebration at St. Augustine's."
It certainly doesn't hurt to have a presence that's not exclusively African American. Black Catholics at the church list various Caribbean islands, as well as Africa, as their recent homes.
The ministry at St. Augustine's devoted to Africa and the diaspora breathes life into black history, fulfilling an important part of the church and parish school's mission. The contributions of African Americans during the Civil War are a part of the curriculum at the school, as are the lives of African and black popes, bishops, and religious orders.
Historically, Catholic education in black communities has meant the parish school.
Staffed by religious orders like the Josephites, the Oblate Sisters of Providence, or the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, black families, both poor and middle class, were offered places of refuge from sometimes neglectful public schools, buoyed by a promise of discipline and moral instruction.
Tuition prices were purposely kept low so schools could meet the needs of children in economically depressed areas. For religious orders and diocesan officials, the schools were an outreach worth subsidizing because black Protestant students, and sometimes their families, would convert to Catholicism through their connection to the school.
Those days are over. Today black Catholic schools, especially in the inner city, are often the subjects of obituaries.
St. Augustine school enrollment dropped from 228 students during the 1998-1999 school year to 205 for 1999-2000. Another 23 students disappeared at the start of the next school year.
"The doors almost closed here," says Shelore C. Williams, the school principal. "We met with parish committees and the parish council and placed them on notice in 1999," she says. "If any school ought to fight to be kept open, it should be the oldest black Catholic school in the district. After all, we were founded four years before it was legal to teach blacks to read."
Williams urged the parish to get aggressive. A grant writer was hired. The school brought in more than $100,000 in grants for computers, supplies, and tuition assistance. The parish community also answered the call by making donations to the school.
Williams doesn't dispute the criticism often whispered about schools as a financial drain to their home parishes.
"Schools are a burden," she says. "But they are a burden that the church should welcome. We are a reminder of the promise of education, growth, and religious outreach. When it comes down to it, not only do some Catholics believe in the mission [of Catholic schools], but also non-Catholics, or they wouldn't be in your school."
Currently, there are 196 students enrolled at St. Augustine's, 30 percent of them Catholic, reflecting a trend among inner-city schools that began three decades ago.
Instead of attending the parish school, students like Falone Amoa have crowded into CCD programs. It's all Catholic education, Williams says. "I just wish more of our CCD students were in our school."
Mother Jones makes her way from the sidewalk, up the back stairs, to the kitchen.
"She's the hostess with the mostest," Jones says of her friend and fellow church mother, Edra Derricks. Derricks' home is often a stop after church for Jones, longtime St. Augustine's parishioner Michael Matthews, and more than a dozen of Derricks' family members, friends, and other parishioners.
"Have you ever seen Soul Food?" Matthews asks. "Well, you're about to see it."
No kidding. The dining room is a celebration of glorious food. Somewhere beneath the macaroni and cheese, lamb, ham, biscuits, cranberry sauce, and fried chicken is a dining room table.
The Mass has ended, but the fellowship is in no way over. This is no ordinary meal. It's a time to talk and listen to what's happening at St. Augustine's or at other area churches, what's up in the district, or whatever's on your mind.
Today, changes in parish leadership and the use of liturgical dancers are topics of discussion. Diners mention rumors that Cardinal McCarrick doesn't like that form of spiritual expression. "But they danced this morning," Jones says. "Didn't they?
Derricks brings more food to the table. Although both her parents were Baptist, Derricks is 100 percent Catholic, educated in the Pennsylvania motherhouse of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament after her mother's death. As a student there, she once met Saint Katharine Drexel.
"I was there because my father heard that `if you want your children raised right, send them to Catholic school,'" she says.
After the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church began to find value in honoring the unique ways African Americans pray and worship--through gospel and African-influenced songs of praise, liturgical dance, or other artistic expression. The Latin-only church that Lin Thomas left be hind is no more.
At St. Augustine's, as in other black parishes, a variety of choirs attempts to bring together both those parishioners who would like to be able to close their eyes and not be able to tell the church's denomination and other more traditional groups that sing the pre-Lead Me, Guide Me hymns.
"We like to think we have something for everyone," says Jones, proud of her parish.
Music is more than a source of pride for Sharon Wilson, a "mighty, mighty alto" who has been part of St. Augustine's chorale for 20 years. For Wilson, a self-described "cradle Catholic," music has been a way to heal as she went through a painful divorce. The pain paralyzed her spirit. She stopped going to church.
"I was in hell," Wilson remembers. "I just didn't realize it. When I started coming back to church, I wanted to find a way to stay involved."
Wilson is not a fan of gospel music. She can't stand it when they start to "holler." If a gospel choir had been all St. Augustine's had to offer, Wilson would have passed. It wasn't. "We're very fortunate to have different styles of music here. We have classical stylings. We've got a young adult choir. We've got gospel. However you get to the Lord, we've got music you can feel comfortable singing."
The story of St. Augustine's is something Mother Jones would like to share with the black Catholics she'll meet in Chicago at the National Black Catholic Congress.
Initially, she planned to stay in the convent of the Oblate Sisters assigned to Holy Name of Mary School on Chicago's far South Side. But this summer the Chicago archdiocese closed the school, the first one built in Chicago by black Catholics for black Catholics--a reminder to Jones that four years ago her parish school almost closed, too. Almost.
This episode illustrates what it means to be a black Catholic parish: sacrifice, build, fight, and then struggle to preserve what so many sacrificed to build.
Now Jones' mission is to tell the story so future generations never forget. But do young people really understand the historical struggles of black Catholics?
"I hope that they do," says Jones, a living piece of St. Augustine's history. "I talk it all the time."
But no more talk right now. It's getting late. Nourished by Edra Derricks' food and delighted by afternoon conversation, Mother Jones is ready to return home.
As she walks toward the door, she is met with hugs and kisses. "See you next week," Derricks tells the 93-year-old. Next week, like today, will begin with a trip to the pew that's reserved for Mother Jones.
RELATED ARTICLE: A parish in crisis mode.
"I don't think so." That's the message coming from the 6-foot-plus, broad-shouldered parishioner in his Sunday best The closer I get the more I risk having my head knocked clean off. The big guy steps toward me, and a sharp-elbowed lady clutching her bulletin says, "Call next week." Then a bump to the shoulder, a forearm to the sternum. "Not today," the man in the suit tells me.
No, I haven't been assigned to combat duty. But there's a man down, and it's their pastor. That development has sent a few loyal soldiers of Christ at St Augustine Catholic Church into aggressive-defense mode. I understand. A pack of ravenous TV crews has assembled outside, ready to feed on a quote like scraps left on a discarded carcass. Inside, unfamiliar visitors hang around the exits, jotting down notes.
Pacing along the sidewalk a mother, who has drafted her daughter to help, hands out homemade prayer cards. "We want people to pray for him," she says. "Prayer always helps."
This isn't the story I intended to write about the charismatic priest who has led one of the nation's most prominent black Catholic churches. But this year it seems to be the only story being written about Catholic priests.
Four days before this day, which is Palm Sunday, the pastor, Msgr. Russell L. Dillard, was escorted off church grounds by Washington police. TV cameras taped the encounter for the evening news. Following accusations of sexual abuse made against Dillard by Kathryn Barrett-Gaines, 36, a professor of African history at Xavier University in New Orleans, the priest was suspended from his pastoral duties. Dillard was removed and sent to a residential treatment center to receive a "comprehensive psychological evaluation." According to Barrett-Gaines, Dillard kissed and inappropriately touched her and another girl from 1979 to 1984. At the time, Dillard was assigned to St. Anthony of Padua Parish.
The fact that the case was made public by the Washington archdiocese raised questions for some parishioners. According to the archdiocese, Dillard's suspension was announced because the priest admitted to some form of contact with the girls, now women. Privately, members of St Augustine's wonder if Dillard, the first black pastor in their 144-year history, was afforded the same protection that he would have received if he were a white pastor of an equally prominent church.
Microphones are being shoved toward parishioners including Edra Derricks, Pauline J. Jones, and the man being guarded by the broad-shouldered man in the suit and the pointy-elbowed woman: Father Charles C. Green, the associate pastor suddenly in charge. During the Mass, Green tells the parish that "they struck down our shepherd, but the sheep have not dispersed. This is, has been, and remains a black Catholic church--the mother church in D.C."
After being grilled by a group of parishioners--"Are you sure you don't work for the Washington Post?" they ask. "Are you sure?--I finally get five minutes with Green. We talk about St. Augustine's: the church's history, its present and its future, in the wake of being connected with the recent crisis in the Catholic Church involving priests and inappropriate contact with children and teenagers.
"What did he tell you? Jones asks me afterwards. I tell her: That the incident was unfortunate; that the church is praying for the former pastor; that as for St. Augustine's, the church has survived true trials in its history, some of which seriously raised questions about its survival; and that when the cameras move on to the next story, St. Augustine Catholic Church will still be standing.
"That's right" Mother Jones says. "He's right We'll survive."
MICHAEL WAMBLE is the religion reporter for the Daily Press in Newport News, Virginia.
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|Title Annotation:||St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church|
|Article Type:||Cover Story|
|Date:||Aug 1, 2002|
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