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Unearthing black Catholic history.

Edith and Allen Stevens are black, Catholic and Philadelphians.

Thirteen years ago they were set to drive south, deep south. "I was afraid," said Edith Stevens. "All I knew about the South was negative -- the Ku Klux Klan."

Their destination in 1985 was the Institute of Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University here. "The only way we could go -- because we didn't have the finances -- was to drive. I didn't want to stop for gas," Edith Stevens said. "I said, 'Oh, no. They'll get us on the side of the road.' I was afraid to do it -- but we did it."

More than that, they made the trip annually for 12 summers until the family moved south.

Initially, Edith -- a preschool teacher -- completed the three-summer Institute's Imani Master Catechist Program; Allen the Leadership in the Faith Community Program.

At the institute, said Edith Stevens, "I met the best teachers I ever had in my life. I couldn't believe anybody taught that way."

Holy Family Sr. Eva Regina Martin nodded in agreement. Martin, who earned her master's in black theology at the institute and later a doctorate at Temple University in Philadelphia, is now director of the Institute of Black Catholic Studies.

Its handbook describes the institute as "a community transformed by faith, a pedagogy of collaborative active learning" from "daily gatherings for morning praise and Eucharist through study sessions late at night, blending into meals, excursions and social moments carved out of the schedule" as "participants send down deep roots for the creation of what is, for many, a primary community." It turned into that for the Stevenses.

Edith Stevens heard about the institute through an African-American nun in Philadelphia, Sister of Charity of Nazareth Patricia Haley who "has been like a mentor to me ever since," said Stevens. Haley was the one who convinced Allen Stevens that the couple should attend the institute.

Said Edith, "I'd been asked to teach [religion classes] at church and I can't believe that at this stage of my life I knew nothing at all about black persons in the church."

"A lot of times," she said, "even people ministering in African-American Catholic communities don't know the history."

And not everyone wants to know. "I thought everyone would be dying to learn about what I'd brought back from the institute," she said. Instead she was told, "Don't you talk about no black Jesus in here. Father didn't say anything about black saints. No such thing. Prove it."

"Oh, I know what you're talking about," interposed Martin, who was a Catholic school teacher and principal until the early 1980s. "Black saints were not visible for black children -- the absent symbolism was like a split in my soul. I was criticized for doing it, too."

The following year Edith Stevens was back at the institute "not so much to get my questions answered as to be around people with like spirits, to nurture what I knew was true -- that what I had to share with the children was what they needed." Martin, director since 1996, came to the institute by a different route, by way of cemeteries and ironwork.

She speaks of her deep feelings for the role of elders and ancestors in living out the African-American story. This understanding was intensified by her doctoral research into the centuries-old Louisiana artifacts of slave and free African ironworkers.

What they produced were usually simple ironwork designs, a diamond, a circle, a half-moon, sometimes seen at the roof peak on modest homes in rural Louisiana, more frequently so in New Orleans.

The 18th and early 19th century symbols -- there are more elaborately worked examples around graves in New Orleans' main cemeteries -- are designs traceable back through Haiti to African cosmology, said Martin.

In the early 1990s, when -- deep into her dissertation -- she enthusiastically examined ancient ironwork in the cemeteries for a clearer sense of the art, the style, she was not just momentarily restoring her heritage. As she tells it, she was permanently emboldening her soul.

This was not just any old iron. "I'm now an Eva Regina who is aesthetically connected to her ancestors -- connected through the cosmology, Central African and West African, reflected in this ironwork," she said.

In new ways that have made the world of today's African-American elders real to her as teachers of traditions.

When working on her master's at the Institute for Black Catholic Studies, Martin's 94-year-old uncle Lawrence, her father's brother, died. "I was home with my father (Felix Martin), and when my nieces and nephews and my sisters came down (to Grand Coteau -- 180 miles east of New Orleans), I sort of told my father some of the things I learned in class.

"Then my father started telling me, telling us, he knew these things about ancestors, about African communal living, all along," said Martin. He had never talked about it to his children, said Martin, "but because I started asking questions, and because the children all started listening, we all took that class from him together. Put it this way," she said with a laugh, "I guess I took a class to learn what my father already knew."

The incident was a lesson in the value of the elders -- and that age alone does not make one an elder, for the ability to hand on the information and wisdom has to be nurtured. The institute takes that to heart. The handbook states: "The institute is intentionally intergenerational and accords a place of special honor and respect to the elders of our community."

How? Each summer, Valencia Shynes of Philadelphia, who is in her late 70s, is a presence and leader in the institute's summer program. She's there also to assist with counseling and prayer. There's an elder-in-training, too, Mabel Turner of Beaumont, Texas. Both are graduates of institute programs. The institute changes people's lives and locations.

Allen Stevens, a deacon ordained for Philadelphia in 1989, moved to St. Philip the Apostle parish here in November, 1997. He's also on the institute staff. Edith, now a librarian at St. Peter Claver School, joined him in New Orleans last summer. The couple has two sons, Allen Jr. and Christian. As for Martin, just as she peeled away layers of time to more clearly see the iron symbols' relevance to today's African-Americans, so, at the institute, she and the faculty peel away the layers of Catholic history the better to reveal the history of blacks within the church.

The students are those who work in black Catholic communities, so white priests, sisters and seminarians and laity are among them.

All are immersed anew in what is uniquely African, and specifically black and American and Catholic.

RELATED ARTICLE: Institute of Black Catholic Studies

The Institute of Black Catholic Studies, founded in 1980, grew out of 1978 joint aspirations of the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus and the Black Catholic Theological Symposium.

In 1981, the National Black Sisters Conference set up a new program. It supports through three-summer enrichment programs black candidates and vowed religious, seminarians and clergy "in their spiritual journey."

By 1982, Xavier's board of trustees approved the master's degree curriculum and the first candidates graduated in 1984. The Institute for Black Catholic Studies is at Xavier University, New Orleans, LA 70125, phone: (504) 483-7691, fax: (504) 485-7921.

By Arthur Jones NCR Staff New Orleans
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Title Annotation:includes related article on the Institute of Balck Catholic Studies
Author:Jones, Arthur
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Feb 12, 1999
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