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After the National Black Catholic Congress, attendees turn to action

In the wake of the latest National Black Catholic Congress, practitioners are making moves to keep the fire burning—and bring it back home.

A prompt for a national Black Catholic survey is displayed on-screen during the 2023 National Black Catholic Congress in National Harbor, Maryland, this July. Responses will help the National Black Catholic Congress leadership form a Pastoral Plan of Action, expected for release later this year. (Nate Tinner-Williams)

Two months out from the 2023 National Black Catholic Congress, ministers of various stripes and vocations have stepped forward with new ideas for the rejuvenation of U.S. Black Catholicism—and that’s before the release of the latest Pastoral Plan of Action from the NBCC brass.

The forthcoming document, which will help guide Black Catholic ministry around the country, is being formulated with input from attendees at the latest Congress gathering, held in July in Maryland with roughly 3,000 attendees. Former gatherings, which began in 1987 as a spiritual successor to Daniel Rudd’s Colored Catholic Congress movement at the turn of the 19th century, featured delegates who would formulate the Plan during the restricted-attendance national meetup.

This year, with a more open registration process, attendees were tasked with completing a survey toward the end of the four-day event, expressing their top concerns for the Black Catholic Church in the postmodern age. Their responses, which will guide the Plan of Action, revealed a number of interesting data points.

Fr Stephen Thorne of Philadelphia, an NBCC consultant who is spearheading the survey analysis, says more than half of attendees at the 2023 Congress were first-timers, a notable observation given the 36-year history of the event. It is especially curious when considering the widespread notion that, in its present form, the event serves as a kind of national “Black Catholic reunion,” reuniting familiar faces. This year, many of those faces were new to the event or even new to the Catholic Church.

Many of them were present for a post-Congress webinar hosted by Thorne on August 27, where he shared a preliminary report on the survey responses. He says that the attendance for the event exceeded expectations, evincing a strong positive response to the Congress gathering.

“It’s living in people’s hearts in a way I’ve never seen before,” he told BCM.

Fr Stephen Thorne at St. Joseph Seminary in Washington, D.C. in 2022. (Catholic News Service/Chaz Muth)

New or old to the flagship event of the NBCC, the vast majority of attendees were Black Catholics of a certain age, reflecting the Church’s struggle to retain African-American youth in the age of the “nones”—the spiritually indifferent, at least as it concerns organized religion. (At the Congress in Maryland, the youth track ran separately from the adults, which further skewed the visual representation of the Church at much of the event.)

It’s no surprise then, that young adults were some of the first to take up a personal response to the 2023 NBCC, meeting virtually amongst themselves to share encouragement as well as shortcomings from an event (and organization) largely devoid of younger voices.

“There constantly seemed to be this tug of war within each young adult… While we were happy to all be gathered together, there was an expectation unfulfilled,” said Christian Bentley, a young professional who helped organize the virtual event from Alexandria, Virginia—not far from where the Congress itself was held.

“I said to myself, why don't we take action? Why don't we get together? Why don't we represent ourselves in a way that's meaningful rather than just talking behind closed doors.”

The gathering featured roughly two dozen young people and older mentors who shared frustrations and suggestions for progress, which were compiled into a letter that will be sent to NBCC leaders with the help of Ashley Morris, the director of the Black Catholic ministry office in the Archdiocese of Atlanta. 

Morris and Bentley were among the Black Catholics present at last year’s “Journeying Together” event in Chicago, organized for young adults from various cultural backgrounds by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. That camaraderie helped shape their motivation to speak out after the latest Congress.

“When we realized we were feeling and thinking some of the same things, the need for a larger conversation just organically materialized,” Morris told BCM.

“The energy and enthusiasm of the young adults who participated in that call was overwhelming and humbling because, in my opinion, it bears witness to a faith among young adults that’s vibrant and thriving, which sends a completely different message than what data and statistics about our communities offer us.”

Another voice present on the video call was Adrienne Curry, who directs the Office of Black Catholics in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Though not a young adult, Curry has for years been an integral part of Black Catholic conversations and national ministry developments. 

Her own post-Congress initiative comes from a model she formerly implemented in Chicago, where she worked in the archdiocese’s Office for Peace and Justice. Immediately following the NBCC event, at the annual gathering of the National Association of Black Catholic Administrators, Curry brought forward the idea of a regional mini-Congress for Maryland, Washington, Arlington, Richmond, and Delaware. (She also says a similar event is in the works for Texas.)

“I read through all of the [NBCC] surveys because I told Father Thorne I would volunteer to help,” Curry said, noting that the responses will help shape the Mid-Atlantic regional gathering this November at St. Mary's Seminary & University in Baltimore.

“I gleaned the themes from the surveys: one was youth, young adults in the future of the Church; one was vocations, parish life, and evangelization; and the last one was social justice and racism.”

Members of NABCA during their 2023 meeting in Washington, D.C. (NABCA)

Many of those same themes are also guiding virtual Black Catholic gatherings out of Northern California, possessing a national focus not tethered to any one age group or demographic. Daryl Grigsby, an author and retired city official, heard concerns from many NBCC attendees that the five-year gap between gatherings necessitated a more frequent convening in the interim. 

A first-time attendee himself, he got to work, having been greatly inspired by the in-person fervor of the 2023 Congress.

“My high expectations were greatly exceeded,” he said.

“That is why I wanted to provide an opportunity for a monthly ongoing online gathering. I am among the 75% of Black Catholics who worship outside a majority-Black parish, so some form of continued Black Catholic fellowship is a great gift and source of continuing inspiration.”

As for the 2023 NBCC Plan of Action, plans for a release are not yet solidified, though Fr Thorne has hopes for a draft by the end of November. A request for comment from BCM to the NBCC office did not receive a response, but the organization has announced a second post-Congress webinar with Thorne, scheduled for Sunday, September 24, at 7pm ET.

Those interested in this fall’s regional Black Catholic gathering in Baltimore, scheduled for Saturday, November 18, can contact the Baltimore Office of Black Catholics for registration information as it becomes available. Those interested in the monthly virtual gatherings for Black Catholics and allies can contact Grigsby for meeting details.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger.

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