Fr John McKenzie is one of the nation's roughly 250 African-American Catholic priests and serves in the Archdiocese of Detroit—one of the Blackest dioceses in America. However, despite a relative abundance of Black parishes, most of the region's Black Catholic schools have closed.
Fr McKenzie, who pastors Christ the King Catholic Church in northwest Detroit, is responsible for one of the schools still going strong. He recently sat down with Nate Tinner Williams to discuss his ministry as a young Black Catholic priest, the need for a fuller understanding of Catholic education, and why the American Church has struggled to minister effectively to the "melting pot" we claim to be.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Nate Tinner-Williams: You're one of the youngest Black Catholic priests in the country. I wonder: What’s it like being in ordained ministry at your age?
Fr John McKenzie: It's strange how 40s is the new 20s in a way, because I'm 42 years old. So I don't really consider myself young. But when you look at the grand scheme of things, I guess I'm sort of young still.
It's great to be a Black Catholic priest and to serve in the Black Catholic community, because of the support. Outside, there isn't as much support, like in terms of our brother priests. When you're the only Black priest, it's hard to make other natural connections that are made with people who are your same ethnicity. But overall, I wouldn't say that's a big hindrance either, because I do have a great support group here in the Archdiocese of Detroit, whether it be late people or my classmates. We're a very, very tight group of brothers.
NTW: So I met you at the National Black Catholic Congress in Maryland a couple of months ago, where you were on a panel with other priests of your generation. I believe you guys call yourself “Black Excellence,” is that right?
FJM: I don't know how that name got out there. I think—what was that Jay-Z song, [“Legacy”]? So I don't think we're really called anything. We really kind of started off being the “Tolton group.” It was Fr Robert Boxie and Fr Claude [Williams] who felt a need for some Black Catholic priests to get together.
FJM: Honestly, I really needed that group. I was dealing with the post-George Floyd stuff; I had been called the n-word right outside of the parish that I was serving at. So for me, it was a really tough time. So Fr Boxie was like, “Hey, you need to meet Fr Michael Trail, who’s originally from Detroit. You need to meet Fr Dwayne from Brooklyn and Fr Claude in California, and we need to get together.” So we did and initially, it was more of a retreat, a Tolton-themed group. But yeah, we've used the term “Black excellence.” It's more of a term of endurance than a negative term, because of the perception of Black culture in general. So we say Black excellence in the sense that we can also do things that are excellent.
NTW: Yeah, I certainly took it to be a very positive thing.
So, in your priesthood so far, I understand you’ve worked in a number of parishes already. And now, you're part of a group that pastors five parishes, yeah?
FJM: Yeah, that’s right. So in the Archdiocese of Detroit, we went with this “In Solidum” model, which is a newer concept in the Code of Canon Law. But basically, yes, it makes it so I'm not pastor of one parish; I'm technically pastoring, with a group of priests, five parishes. We call it the family of parishes. In my family, we have five churches and four priests. So we each are able to take on a parish.
So I'm at Christ the King Catholic Church and then we also have a school. Fr Marko, the moderator, is at St. Moses the Black and then the other priests have their churches. But we do get together once a month and have other meetings about The pastoral ministry of all the churches in our family.
NTW: And I understand that at Christ the King, the school attached is one of the last Black Catholic schools in the archdiocese.
FJM: Right. Yes, it is. It's a miracle that it has survived. We've had a group of laity, some folks out there that have said, “We're not gonna allow this school to close.” They have stepped up and have worked and some of them are not even getting paid; it's just volunteer work, on the ground. The previous pastor here, Fr Vic Clore, who was here for 42 years, he never wanted to see something close. So I think that's what has gotten us to this point. But we're at a restart for our school.
NTW: Is that just a post-pandemic thing?
FJM: I think so. After the pandemic, obviously with enrollment and people leaving—it's a private Catholic school. How do you make a private Catholic school work in the middle of Detroit? That's difficult. So fundraising and things like that, it's all new stuff we have to do now.
NTW: How is the rebuilding process going?
FJM: It's going great. We just got a new principal and she's phenomenal. She worked on the South Side of Chicago for a number of years. For a while, she and her husband had wanted to move back home to teach and be near a family. She worked [in Chicago at] some parochial schools, but she also worked at a school system that started as a K-8 and then it was so successful that it added a high school.
This principal, Brittany Culkowski, her heart is definitely in Catholic schools in Black and brown communities. She's been a real blessing to me and to our community.
NTW: So on the topic of Black Catholic education, I know that in other situations around the country, there's a problem with being under-resourced to the point that these schools often close. What would you say the situation is like right now in Detroit?
FJM: Well, I would say it's very similar. You know, we are a Church that is about spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the world, right? That's our number-one mission. Clearly, it has happened for the Church throughout the world, and I think that mostly has happened via Catholic education.
Catholic education started under Saint Basil the Great, a Church Father who lived in Cappadocia. In order to bring the Catholic faith to the local people, they started these schools that were attached to monasteries so that people could come to understand the true faith. That was the reason behind the initial Catholic schools. And we see that throughout Europe and then the Benedictine monasteries have these schools and Christians are being formed.
There really isn't another way of real evangelization without Catholic education. I mean, unless you're talking about the early early Church, when they were being martyred. Even in the second century, you had Cyril of Alexandria, who had the Catechetical School. So, you know, Catholic education is at the heart, the very foundation, I would say, of the Church.
What I find to be very strange is that in Black and brown communities, the access to that is slim pickings. As you mentioned, a lot of these churches' schools have closed and [the community] becomes a desert. So I think we need to reignite these schools somehow, some way. If we really want to bring the gospel. To Black and brown communities, I think it happens specifically via Catholic education.
NTW: Right on.
FJM: But even apart from bringing the Gospel to communities like my own, what about the human formation that goes along with that? The dignity of humanity. We help form people to understand their dignity and the freedom that they enjoy in Jesus Christ. That’s also part of Catholic education.
Another point is that the Church should never underserve an underserved community. Our mission is to over-serve underserved communities, right? So if everybody pulls away, the Church needs to be 100% present. In the community that I serve, we've had two kids who have had siblings shot due to gang violence. So when I look at and meditate on what and who the Church is, especially if I look at the example of Pope Francis, it's all about reaching out to those in most need. That's where we need to be.
Now, the issue is where the resources are going to come from. I think, again, it's the Church's mission to make sure the resources are present where they most need to be present. That's the mission of the Church. If we don't have that, then we’re really just an organization that caters to those who have the means and then that's it. In Detroit, it's unfortunate that we don't see many Catholic schools left in the city as well as in other urban settings. It's a really sad case.
NTW: Yeah. I mean, there was a time when the Church really was pushing into the Black community, inner cities, urban contexts, mostly with that explicit goal of evangelization. They felt like these were places where people needed to be exposed to the Catholic Church, and it led to thousands of conversions. Much of the Black Catholic population in the United States today is a result of that movement that came about in large part because of Black Catholic education.
So I wonder what your perspective is about why that fervor, that drive to be in the Black community has faded in the Church. Why do you think that is?
FJM: Honestly, Nate, I wish I knew the full answer. I think the church in general has just grown tired, in a way. Just tired. When you're tired, all you want to do is stay inside, right? But I think we need to reawaken the Church and that's the job of all of us. I also think we have looked toward the bishop to do this and the bishop to do that, but I think there is also a point where we need to create spaces for the Black Catholic community in a special way via catholic education. When we were out today talking to people, we had six encounters where someone went to our school, either a son or daughter, or they themselves went to our school. To me, it just showed me that all we need to do is let people know that this is what we want to do.
So if the Church, in an official way, just wanted to say, “Hey, we want to support this school,” I think we can grab a ton of community folks to say, “We're going to make this happen.” You know, recently the councilman for our district, his name is James Tate, reached out to Brittany and myself about a month ago and said, “Hey, I heard you guys are in need of help. Whatever you guys need, let me know.” And I said we need a new sidewalk. Don’t you know that the same week, a new sidewalk was put in place. He's an alumnus of our school. He ended up going to Catholic schools throughout his whole academic career and unfortunately, all of those schools besides Christ the King have closed.
So I think we need to just corral our own community up again, but we also need to wake up our bishops to say this is important, I always tell people that anything a Catholic does is necessarily universal, so we have to also let [the bishops] know this is important to the mission of the church to the salvation of souls.
NTW: Absolutely. And have communications like that been made with Archbishop Vigneron?
FJM: Yes. We’re thankful that we have had some conversations. There's some support that definitely is present. I think. In general, we need full-on 100%. This is where we're moving.
NTW: So, what do you think the prospects are for Black Catholic education in Detroit over the next five to ten years? What do you think can be accomplished?
FJM: Well, if we don't do something, make a drastic change in the right direction, I can see the three schools left potentially not making it. I can see our school potentially not making it. Thanks be to God, we are making those changes here at Christ the King, but we have got to see it as a whole—as a church, as the Archdiocese of Detroit, but also in the nation. These are all things that Pope Francis has been talking about his whole pontificate, right? Reaching out to the peripheries, going to those most in need.
I remember when I was living in Rome and I would go to St. Peter’s Basilica often. I remember when Pope Francis had the showers installed there so that the homeless people could have a place to shower. Now, initially, it shocked me because I was like, “Oh my god, people can shower at St. Peter’s.” But that’s a good thing, like, people can shower at St. Peter’s. This is what the Church is about. The church isn't about appeasing people with means. The catechism talks about the preferential option for the poor.
FJM: These are real things. Real theological things that don't exist up in the atmosphere for us to just say, “Oh, those are nice.” No, we actually have to put those into practice. And that's the commandment of Christ! That's how we actually have unity with one another, that's how we create bridges with one another, and that's how we bring people together.
So, the failure of a Catholic school in any archdiocese is also a failure for the archdiocese, a failure for the mission of the Church present in that particular place.
I was so blessed this past year because we had a family that was like the leaders of our school. Great, great family that became Catholic this year. A Black family. The husband came to daily Mass one day and he just had this experience. Then we went through RCIA and it was beautiful. So with all these concepts I’m throwing out, it was like God put the seal of approval on it with this family that was baptized, confirmed, and received their first Holy Eucharist together.
FJM: I felt like that was God saying, “Keep doing this. This is what we're commanding the Church to do. This is where the Holy Spirit is moving the Church.” Um, But we have to have everybody geared toward this mission, which is the preaching of the Gospel to all people—but especially to those in most need. And that has happened primarily via Catholic education.
Unfortunately, we don't have the religious sisters that we used to have. Now, you have to [hire laypeople] and that makes it difficult. But I think we as a Church have to recognize that by all means, the best way to evangelize is via Catholic education. So we need to put all of our efforts toward this one common mission. And we see the fruits of that.
NTW: I totally agree.
NTW: I know you and a young group of Black Catholic priests met with Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington, the world's first African-American cardinal, around the time of the National Black Catholic Congress. I'm wondering if you discussed anything about the future of the Black Catholic community or Black Catholic schools, and if you could share anything about that?
FJM: You know, that was my second time meeting with His Eminence, and he's always been very gracious. I don't speak on behalf of the cardinal, but what I picked up is that he's definitely a sign of unity for the Catholic community in general and in a particular way for the Black Catholic community. I find him to be a sign of unity for me in a special way.
He just brings within his person all the experiences of the Black Catholic community and he brings that out in his pastoral ministry. So I can't say anything in particular, but it just seems like he gets it. He understands and he brings that throughout his pastoral ministry, which is something that I hope I’m doing in my own little world that I live in. Being able to bring the concerns to the people who need to hear these things.
Cardinal Gregory is in a position where he can actually act on them, and from what I’ve seen, he's always supported initiatives of the Black Catholic community. I think of him sending other Fr Robert Boxie to chaplain Howard University, and the various other initiatives in DC toward the Black Catholic community. I find that to be showing where he ultimately stands.
NTW: And he himself is a product of a Black Catholic education. Also a convert.
FJM: Yeah. And just to be clear, my bishop has made it clear that he wants Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Detroit to survive and to thrive. That's something that we are constantly in dialogue about and working with our school office to ensure.
NTW: I'm glad to hear it. I don't think every diocese can say that.
FJM: That’s true.
Also, let me say this: We have to get away from this idea that in Black communities, because they are predominantly not Catholic, if [Catholic education] is around, it's around and if it's not, it's not. We have to get to the point where we see schools as a mission for evangelization. We say this in Detroit a lot: moving from maintenance to mission. If a Catholic school is predominantly Catholic students, that’s golden. That's great. But that's not the reason why a school is there. We educate because we're Catholic and we're trying to make disciples.
If we're not teaching them, they're never going to know what we teach and so they're never going to want to become Catholic. I think that's where we need to step outside. I think we fear encounter, but that's ultimately where we need to be.
NTW: I agree. I think you might be onto something.
So, this is my last question for you: what's up with this new podcast? “Father and Father”?
FJM: Yeah, so Jason Smith and I—you know, I had been wanting to start a podcast for a long time, but I wanted to do it with my own twist, you know. I'm a little bit of a creative, so I like to have things a certain way. It took me literally years and we're still kind of putting it together. Jason is a great dude. He's a father. I'm a spiritual father, of course. We just wanted to show another aspect of the Black Catholic community, which is Black men. What it’s like to be a Black man, a Black Catholic man.
I’ve had friends that have listened to it, and they're like, “Oh, I don't know if that podcast is for me because it sounds like it's more targeted to a particular group.” But if you listen to it, you start to gain insights into what this group of men have had to deal with. Jason and I have shared some very intimate aspects of our lives in this first season. We're going to do more of that. It's also a help for those who are trying to understand this specific group within the Black Catholic community.
But also, it's a podcast of unity. I'm all about honesty and unity. It’s not just being all “Kumbaya,” but it’s also not about being divisive. It's for bringing us all together. That's kind of what we're trying to do. Just create a place and space where we can be us and also bring people in to understand what Black men in America have gone through. And let me be honest, in a way, some of the things we discuss are beneficial to men in general. So hopefully it can be a good help.
NTW: Hey, we love to see it. Representation matters.
FJM: It completely matters. That’s something we need to really look at as a Church. Having had the experience of the church in Italy, I know that the church there is drastically different from the church in America. It has had the experience of church for the past, you know, 2,000 years. The Church takes on a different approach here in America, a more Anglo-Saxon society. We can't be a Church that only moves within an Anglo-Saxon culture because America is full of different types of people. We need to have a variety of ways to engage people
It reminds me of the apostles when they appointed the first deacons. If you notice, the names of the deacons were Greek. They were not Hebrew. So if you look at what was going on, the Hebrew Christians were getting a greater distribution of the food and the Greek-speaking Christians were getting less of the distribution. So the apostles said, “We need to right this wrong,” so they actually ordained the first deacons—who were all Greek-speaking, to make an equal distribution of the good.
So, you know, we’ve got to do something drastic to make sure we are more variety-driven here. That doesn't mean it's like a supermarket grab, but that it really embraces the diversity that's in America. So everything we do as a Church should represent that. It should just be automatic and natural. Unfortunately, certain groups have to struggle for this and struggle for that, you know, and raise their voices. Diversity should just be a natural way of being Church and doing church. But that's just not the case here. So we have to do what we have to do.
NTW: You know, that's actually really deep. I've never thought about that passage that way, but I think that's right. I wouldn't say it's a stretch.
Well, I very much appreciate you speaking with me today, Father. I hope your insights will help lead to a revival of sorts in Detroit.
FJM: You’re welcome. Please pray for me.
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger.