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'Repair the Breach!': African Americans and the Catholic Campaign for Human Development

Donna Toliver Grimes, head of the USCCB's African-American subcommittee, interviews the head of the bishops' anti-poverty initiative.

“…releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke, setting free the oppressed, breaking off every yoke... ‘Repairer of the Breach’ they shall call you.’”
(Isaiah 58:6-7; 12)

Inside the paradox of Black Catholicism co-exist joy, welcome, riveting sermons, contemplation, cultural markers, pain, rejection, unanswered questions, and generational horrors. For the Black Catholic apostolate—81% of whom worship in predominantly White or multicultural parishes—this paradox exists in the Church much as it does in American society.

Once a domestic mission mostly accompanied by religious orders, today 3 million African Americans choose to be Catholic. More identify as Catholic than affiliate with many major Protestant denominations.

However, recent studies by the Pew Research Center revealed an alarming exodus of African Americans: just 54% of African-American adults raised Catholic remain Catholic.

In some dioceses, the Black Catholic apostolate thrives. Clergy and lay leaders stretch resources, and allies collaborate to advance the mission. Still, encouragement or assistance in most U.S. dioceses is thin. Closure of diocesan offices, parishes, schools, ethnic ministries, and bans on inculturated liturgical expression indicate declining recognition and support. Moreover, Church silence in the face of atrocities in the community adds salt to old wounds.

Thus, many wonder if the Catholic Church will invest ever again in the African-American community?

One bright light is the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD).

Born in 1969 during the Civil Rights era, CCHD began listening and working alone side largely African American community groups that attracted people of other races and faiths to reduce poverty and relieve local problems. CCHD survived numerous attacks and challenges yet remains a strong Catholic response to cries for justice and reduced poverty. It distinctly positions itself by championing empowerment.

Recently, I spoke with CCHD Executive Director Ralph McCloud about CCHD and the Black community, including Catholics.

Donna Toliver Grimes: Does CCHD promote ecclesial movement towards reconciliation and healing?

Ralph McCloud: Through CCHD the Church makes a deliberate, intentional effort and engages in hard conversations. It’s about making communities whole and holy.

Grimes: How about ordinary Catholics?

McCloud: Essentially, people supporting CCHD community organizing and economic development projects ask, “Is it I Lord, am I causing the breach?” because we have to go where the pain is. Walk together. Don’t just write checks. Compassion is to share the passion. Make your “we” bigger, broader. Understand that reality is based on other perspectives. Be open to listening and share both joys and pains.

Grimes: What do you say to those who refuse the annual collection?

McCloud: They got bad information. They need to encounter [low-income, marginalized] people. And then accompany people without driving the agenda.

Grimes: Do more Black Catholics need to get involved with CCHD?

McCloud: Our commitment has to go beyond kente cloth. I hope they believe, as I do, that the plight of my people is my concern. At past National Association of Black Catholic Administrators (NABCA) meetings, we did “sweat equity” projects. NABCA and Knights of Peter Claver (KPC) members working with CCHD groups can witness to bishops about the good work of CCHD.

Grimes: Why has the CCHD collection date changed and what’s the new date?

McCloud: The national day for this collection is the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary time, same as the World Day of the Poor. This also makes a strong faith connection amidst other campaigns. In 2021, that Sunday was November 14. Like with everything else, communities of faith are welcome to take up the collection on any other Sunday if the proposed national date does not work with their calendar for whatever reason.

This article was originally published in the Fall/Winter 2021 edition of the newsletter for the USCCB Subcommittee on African-American Affairs. It is reprinted here with permission. Learn more about the Pew Study and CCHD here:

Faith and Religion Among Black Americans
Today, most Black adults say they rely on prayer to help make major decisions, and view opposing racism as essential to their religious faith.
Catholic Campaign for Human Development | USCCB
Working to break the cycle of poverty by helping low-income people participate in decisions that affect their lives, families, and communities....

Donna Toliver Grimes is the assistant director for African American Affairs in the Secretariat of Cultural Diversity in the Church at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).

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